Suspense mechanics and psychological horror don’t meld quite as seamlessly here as they do in the best Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, but The Wrong Man has more than its share of masterful moments. And there is no doubt that it’s effective: after a doting husband and father of two is falsely accused of armed robbery and ramrodded through a callous legal system, even the straightest of citizens will be looking over their shoulder.
Consider the way Hitchcock immediately subverts the long arm of the law in the opening sequence. As Manny (Henry Fonda) leaves his late-night musician gig and heads home, two street cops happen to trail him, their dark silhouettes nearly overwhelming the screen. A few days later, after Manny has been ambushed and arrested on his front stoop, he is forced to walk into the stores he’s accused of robbing so that the proprietors can identify him. Nervous and confused, he adopts a shifty manner that screams one thing: guilty.
Hitchcock is also careful to call attention to the little, realistic details that remind Manny (and us) that this isn’t just a bad dream: the lock on his jail cell, for instance, or the click of handcuffs on his wrists. That’s not to say Hitchcock holds back on his penchant for flourishes. At one point, as Manny falls back against the wall of his cell in distress, the camera performs a dizzying vertical circle. Add Bernard Hermann’s screaming score and you feel trapped yourself.
Nervous and confused, Manny adopts a shifty manner that screams one thing: guilty.
The Wrong Man features an even bigger flourish: a subplot in which Manny’s wife Rose (Vera Miles) cracks under the pressure of her husband’s predicament and is institutionalized. Miles makes an impressive transition in terms of performance, but tonally these scenes take the picture off track. It’s as if Hitchcock tired of the falsely accused man narrative and began reaching for the sort of female-focused psychological horror he would go on to explore in The Birds and Marnie.
There are other quibbles. A dazzling dissolve — in which Manny’s face, while praying, gives way to that of the actual robber — is undercut by the facile implication that it this prayer that brings about Manny’s salvation. Religion has hardly come into play up until now, so the moment feels like a literal Hail Mary. Similarly, a postscript happy ending is nothing short of a cop out. We’ve simply seen too much paranoia, suspicion, darkness — too much Hitchcock — to believe it.