1956; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; adapted by Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail; 105 mins
Based on a true story. Musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is mistakenly accused of a series of armed robberies he did not commit. He is identified, arrested, tried and sent to jail overnight. This takes up most of the first hour of the film and is endemic of what makes the movie so great and ever so slightly different to other Hitchcock films I’ve seen thus far. What differentiates this from the pack is that there is a duality to the scenes of Fonda’s unexpected downfall in that the tone is both tense and… not tragic but sad. The tension is there through our desperation for things to work out for Manny and the sadness comes from a certain sense of inevitability and pointlessness playing out mostly on the confused and terrified face of Fonda (more of whom later). These two tones however could spiral off in different directions giving a very uneven feel but Hitchcock ties them both up with this overarching feeling of drowning and helplessness; the sense of wanting to grasp at whatever is within reach so as to resist the gravitational pull of fate. All that makes it sound fairly melodramatic but that is exactly what it isn’t. The downward arc of the story is very procedural and concerned with process. The extended scenes of Manny having to walk to the back of various stores so that he can be identified as the perp by the owners and the bureaucratic minutiae of the interrogation scenes – clarifying, repeating and instructing Manny through the questioning. However, this is all to nothing without a great movie star like Henry Fonda. Fonda does a remarkable job here by not doing an awful lot. That he goes from quiet family man to frightened, confused victim is not only a subtle masterpiece of performance in and of itself but also that it is so counter-intuitive for a 50s movie star. He doesn’t punch out the bad guys or have big railing speeches against the system (even today’s actors can’t not do that). His one outburst here is early on, not about defending American rights but about wanting to speak to his wife thus tired and frustrated rather than righteous. Also, watch his eyes in this scene and see a grown man on the verge of tears throughout. Interestingly, the film does a u-turn in it’s third act, going from police procedural to fraught family drama as Manny and his wife, Rose (Vera Miles) go about finding witnesses who can place them at elsewhere at the time of the robberies. Rose’s mental state starts to collapse as she blames herself for Manny’s arrest (her dental work required him to go to the insurance office where he is identified) and unerring misfortune comes their way in the form of coincidentally dead witnesses. Here, Hitchcock goes slightly melodramatic in a bedroom when Rose attacks Manny but it is otherwise brilliantly handled. That moment of melodrama does slightly ring false just because the rest of the film is so subdued. There isn’t that much score – or at least, if the there was, it isn’t overbearing. There are many moments of quiet fear such as when Manny, home from prison, gets to his front door and looks behind him, expecting to see a police car waiting. Otherwise, it’s a quieter, more subdued Hitchcock film with a climax that is dignified in the right way and without sentiment. p.s. The coda right at the end may seem like a studio sop to audiences but if you put rational hat on, it’s for the benefit of the real family.