Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film of his, which he says is stranger than fiction. It’s based on the real life story of Manny Ballestrero who is a musician and family man who is wrongly accused of armed robbery. He is identified as an armed robber by the woman who works in the insurance office he visits. The police parade him before robbery victims, and they are all fairly certain that Fonda who plays Manny Ballestrero is the culprit. He is taken to the station, his writing is compared with the robber’s, he is identified in the parade as the criminal. We see him subject to the Kafka-like alienation of the prison procedures, we see his world cave in, and his 1950’s ‘American dream’ wife go to pieces and be admitted into psychiatric care. The real robber is found, Fonda’s wife recovers her mental health, and the woman who did for him looks ashamed.
This is a black and white 1956 film, and along side Twelve Angry Men we see Fonda playing the martyr to weakness and stupidity. Interestingly, we only know of Fonda’s innocence because Hitchcock tells us so at the beginning. His point is not to make a thriller whose outcome leaves us in suspense, but to show us the effects of wrongful accusation. The effects, of course, are usually psychologically,socially, economically and morally devastating.
This was made during the paranoid 50’s, what with its ‘un-American activities’ conjured up by McCarthy and the threat of nuclear war, but there is an ironic inversion here: instead of Fonda being a threat to citizens, they are a threat to him. Their well intentional stupidity is destructive and alarming, as was the paranoia of the anti-communist hysteria. I’d like to think Hitchcock was attacking such mean minded politics, but maybe not. Interestingly his leading lady, Vera Miles, is ‘Mrs American dream’ at the start of the film, then she goes insane, unable to take the ostracism her husband suffers. Whatever Hitchcock’s real intentions, he was exposing the fragility of the American dream. It was okay as long as people behaved themselves; the paradise of the new washing machines could be easily upset. This was the era of the Douglas Sirk film.
We see the slow pressure working on Fonda’s own sanity and self respect: the suspicion surrounding him, the writing tests that seem to confirm his guilt, the identity parades all turning the screw on his self doubt. Hitchcock is much better at showing ‘ordinary’ people trying to hold on to their sanity than he is at cod psychology in films such as Psycho and Marnie.
Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer defending Fonda, and you can see that he doubts Fonda but tries to battle his doubt. This accentuates the loneliness of the accused person, if there’s so much accusation, surely there is something in it? This is the nearest that Hitchcock gets to the genius of The Trial by Kafka. Only Fonda, and we the onlookers, know that he is innocent, the implacable righteousness of his accusers is as terrifying as the intractable enigma of The Trial and its agents. They are well intentioned people who think they are doing good but their very conscientiousness is appalling in its sense of right. This fascinates Hitchcock, the process over which we have no control and how it manipulates us: it can be a psychotic’s mind, a flock of birds gone mad, people caught up in Cold War spy games. Remember the mistaken identity of James Stewart in North by North West and his helplessness in the face of sinister manipulation. None of this is as bad as a real life case of mistaken identity. Hitchcock traces the disintegration of this victims’ life with almost sadistic respect for detail, made worse by the fact that we don’t know the exact ending. Mistaken identity or the search for an authentic identity are big factors in Hitchcock films like in Vertigo and there is no consoling redemption through love. The Fonda victim is vindicated by accident, he could have easily gone to jail battling the indifference and suspicion of his lawyer and family.
This is Hitchcock at his best and yet amazingly is one of his least known films. Note how the camera lingers accusingly on Fonda’s face like it did through the window of the hotel room at the start of Psycho or in Rear Window. We know Fonda is innocent but the camera wants to catch at any weakening of resolve, or at any doubt of self in the face of consensual slander abetted by the sort of bureaucratic processes which ensure the guilt of the accused. An uneasy film, and scarier than the fictions of his other works of this period. Hitchcock’s gaze is full on in this movie.