Director Alfred Hitchcock lets us know from the outset that The Wrong Man is a painfully true story and not one of his customary fabricated suspense yarns, through the simple expedient of walking before the camera and telling us as much (this introductory appearance replaced his planned cameo role as a nightclub patron). The real-life protagonist, musican Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, is played by Henry Fonda. Happily married and gainfully employed at the Stork Club, Balestrero's life takes a disastrous turn when he goes to an insurance office, hoping to borrow on his wife's (Vera Miles) life insurance policy in order to pay her dental bills. One of the girls in the office spots Balestrero, identifying him as the man who robbed the office a day or so earlier. This, and a few scattered bits of circumstantial evidence, lead to Balestrero's arrest. Though he's absolutely innocent, he can offer no proof of his whereabouts the day of the crime. Lawyer Frank O'Connor (Anthony Quayle) does his best to help his client, but he's up against an indifferent judicial system that isn't set up to benefit the "little man". Meanwhile, Balestrero's wife becomes emotionally unhinged, leading to a complete nervous breakdown. As Balestrero prays in his cell, his image is juxtaposed onto the face of the actual criminal-who looks nothing like the accused man! Utilizing one of his favorite themes-the helplessness of the innocent individual when confronted by the faceless bureaucracy of the Law-Hitchcock weaves a nightmarish tale, all the more frightening because it really happened (the film's best moment: Fonda looking around the nearly empty courtroom during his arraignment, realizing that the rest of the world cares precisely nothing about his inner torment). Hitch enhances the film's versimilitude by shooting in the actual locations where the real story occured. His only concession to Hollywood formula was the half-hearted coda, assuring us that Mrs. Balestrero eventually recovered from her mental collapse (she sure doesn't look any too healthy the last time we see her!) Watch for uncredited appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, Bonnie Franklin, Tuesday Weld and Charles Aidman.
by Hal Erickson synopsis