Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man

In mid-1955 while in production on the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much for Paramount Pictures, Alfred Hitchcock began planning a film that would be a dramatic departure from the up-beat Technicolor productions he made since leaving Warner Brothers two years earlier. Although Hitchcock had fulfilled his obligation under the terms of his original four-picture contract with Warner Bros., in February 1952 he agreed to produce and direct an additional film for the studio at no additional salary. (It is often stated that Hitchcock was to receive no salary for the additional film, but it should be noted that he was to share in the film’s profits.) 

Hitchcock left Warners after completing Dial M for Murder, yet it wasn’t long before the studio reminded Hitchcock of his informal promise of an additional, or fifth picture. The studio managed to do this just a few months before the original contract would expire. Knowing that Hitchcock was about to embark on a large scale production for Paramount, Warner Bros. requested an extension of the original agreement so that they could still get their “free” Hitchcock picture, and so on April 13, 1955, Hitchcock entered into an agreement to produce and direct The Wrong Man for Warner Bros.

Briefly, the story was based on the actual events surrounding the wrongful arrest of Christopher Emmanuel (Manny) Balestrero, a musician in New York’s Stork Club. Subsequent to his arrest for armed robbery and during the course of preparing his defense for trial, Manny’s wife, Rose, suffers a mental breakdown and is placed in a sanitarium. Later, Manny is cleared when his “double” is apprehended, but the damage to Rose’s psyche has already been done. 

This was a departure from the recent upbeat enertainments that Hitchcock had turned out in his collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Hayes told Hitchcock as much, which added to the growing friction between writer and director. Another reason Hayes expressed reluctance to write the project was that the story had recently been done on television as "The Idendified Man" for Robert Montgomery Presents

Robert Ellenstein, who would later play Licht in North by Northwest, played the role of Manny in the TV production "The Identified Man" aka "A Case of Identity" in 1954.

The real Manny Balestrero reenacts the walk to his front door for Life.
Hitchcock's depiction of Manny's walk to his front door with Henry Fonda as Balestrero.
Of course, Hitchcock did not merely want to redo what had already been done on television, and despite his promoting the film as a factual case, his intention was not to make a docu-drama. Hitchcock's focus would be on the mental breakdown of Rose Balestrero. With the exception of North by Northwest (which was actually initiated with Hayes), Hitchcock's post-Hayes films—The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie—would each focus on the psychological trauma a character endures. In the case of The Wrong Man, although Manny is ultimately cleared of the crimes for whch he is accused, the real nightmare of Rose's remained.
Manny (Robert Ellenstein) tells Rose (Florence Anglin) that he has been cleared of the robberies.

In Hitchcock's depiction of the same sequence, the focus is on Rose (Vera Miles).
Not wanting to end the film on the bleak note of Manny leaving Rose in the institution, the final shot of The Wrong Man shows the Balestreros and their two boys strolling beneath the palm trees of sunny Florida, with the an epilogue stating, “Two years later, Rose walked out of the sanitarium — completely cured. Today she lives happily in Florida with Manny and the two boys ..and what happened seems like a nightmare to them — but it did happen...”

It has long been contended that Warner Bros. insisted on tacking on the final shot of the Balestrero family along with a "happy" epilogue over Hitchcock's "loud objections." Fortunately, the interesting circumstances under which the script of The Wrong Man was written resulted in a trail of correspondence between the director and his writers, playwright Maxwell Anderson and Hitchcock’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator Angus MacPhail, which reveals that the director had both the final shot, and the reassuring epilogue in mind even before the screenplay was completed. 

MacPhail and Hitchcock worked in New York, researching factual details, interviewing persons like Judge Groat, (Rose's doctor) Dr. Banay, (Manny's attorney) O'Connor and (Prosecuting Attorney) Mr. Crisoda, and laying out the story and the visuals more or less in treatment form. As they completed each section of the story, they sent pages to Maxwell Anderson, at his home in Connecticut. Anderson then set about adding the dialogue, which MacPhail would edit and incorporate into the final script as approved by the director.
Correspondence between Hitchcock, MacPhail and Anderson reveals that Hitchcock fully intended both the final shot of the Balestrero family in Florida, as well as the epilogue. As early as March 20, 1956, while the script was in preparation, Hitchcock indicated in a letter to Anderson, "if you would have a 'go' at the words that are to be printed on the screen at the end, I would be very grateful. Not only does this give us a note of relief, but more than that, they [the audience] have been seeing a factual case and I think this is very important." 

Although Hitchcock had asked Anderson, it was MacPhail who had the first "go" at the epilogue, which he turned in on April 4, 1956. MacPhail’s epilogue went as follows: "Two years after these events Rose Balestrero walked out of the sanitarium completely cured. Today she lives happily in Florida with the two boys. Now they can hardly believe that this nightmare experience was reality. But it did happen to Manny Balestrero, and but for the grace of God, it might happen to you." 

MacPhail sent his "temporary" epilogue to Anderson, who replied in a letter dated April 5, "I think it's essentially good, but I don't personally think the deity intrudes in these matters, so I just left him out." Anderson simply cut MacPhail's "and but for the grace of God". In a letter to Anderson dated April 10, MacPhail indicated, "[Hitchcock] would like the Epilogue to end up on a note of warm reassurance and not on a chilling reminder," adding, "I accept your reproof about the deity." 

Anderson replied on April 11, "As for the Epilogue, it seems to me Hitch's objection should simply be remedied by excising the two final sentences. We don't need them ... The warm reassurance is there in the Florida sky and in the family group." And regarding the reference to God, Anderson wrote, "I didn't mean to reprove anybody about the deity, but my father was a Baptist minister and I'm allergic." 

As far as Hitchcock was concerned though, the reference to the Almighty might well have been left in, for as he expressed to a reporter from the Los Angeles Examiner, "The [film's] suspense is due to the thought that will strike everyone, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.'"

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