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François Truffaut (1957) - The Wrong Man



The Wrong Man

Two and a half years ago, my friend Claude Chabrol and I met Alfred Hitchcock when we both fell into an icy pond at the Studio Saint-Maurice under the gaze, at first mocking and then compassionate, of the master of anguish. Because we were soaked, it was several hours before we were able to seek him out again with a new tape recorder. The first one had literally drowned; it was ruined.

It was an extremely concise interview. We wanted to persuade Hitchcock that his recent American films were much better than his earlier English ones. It wasn't very hard: "In London, certain journalists want me to say that everything that comes from America is bad. They are very anti-American in London; I don't know why, but it's a fact." Hitchcock spoke to us about an ideal film one would make for one's own pleasure that could be projected on one's living- room wall the same way one might hang a beautiful painting. We "worked" on this film together.

"Would this ideal film be closer to I Confess or to The Lady Vanishes?

"Oh, to I Confess!"

"I Confess?"

"Yes, by all means. For example, right now I'm thinking over an idea for a film that attracts me very much. Two years ago, a musician from the Stork Club in New York, returning home after work at about two in the morning, was accosted by two men at his door who dragged him to a number of different places, including several bars. In each place they asked, 'Is this the man? Is this the man?' He was then arrested for several robberies. Although he was completely innocent, he had to go through a trial, and by its end his wife had lost her mind. She had to be institutionalized and is to this day. During the trial, one of the jurors, who was convinced of the defendant's guilt, interrupted the defense lawyer as he was questioning one of the prosecution witnesses; the juror raised his hand and asked the judge, Tour honor, do we have to listen to all this?' It was a small infringement of the ritual, but it caused a mistrial. As preparations were being made for a new trial, the real culprit was arrested and he confessed. I think this would make an interesting movie, if we showed everything from the point of view of the innocent man, what he has to go through, how his head is on the block for another man's crimes. All the while, everybody is being very friendly, very gentle with him. He insists, Tm innocent,' and everybody answers, 'Of course you are, sure you are.' Completely horrible. I think I'd like to make a film from this news item. It would be very interesting. You see, in this movie, the innocent man would be in prison all the time, and a reporter or a detective would work to get him out. They never make films from the point of view of the accused man. I would like to do that."

A year ago, we learned from the American newspapers that Hitchcock was in the process of making a film called The Wrong Man. One didn't have to be a mind reader to figure out that it was based on the event we'd discussed.

Hitchcock has never been more himself than in this film, which nevertheless runs the risk of disappointing lovers of suspense and of English humor. There is very little suspense in it and almost no humor, English or otherwise. The Wrong Man is Hitchcock's most stripped-down film since Lifeboat; it is the roast without the gravy, the news event served up raw and, as Bresson would say, "without adornment." Hitchcock is no fool. If The Wrong Man, his first black-and-white film since I Confess, is shot inexpensively in the street, subway, the places where the action really occurred, it's because he knew he was making a difficult and relatively less commercial film than he usually does. When it was finished, Hitchcock was undoubtedly worried, for he renounced his usual cameo in the course of the film, and instead showed us his silhouette before the title appeared to warn us that what he was offering this time was something different, a drama based on fact.

There cannot fail to be comparisons made between The Wrong Man and Robert Bresson's Un Condamné a Mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped). It would be foolish to assume that this would work to the detriment of Hitchcock's film, which is sufficiently impressive right from the start not to have to beg for pride of place. The comparison is no less fascinating when pushed to its utmost, to where the divergences between the two movies cast a mutual light on each other.

The point of departure is identical: the scrupulous reconstruction of an actual event, its faithful rendering limited solely to the facts. For Bresson's film is as far from the account of Commandant Devigny as Hitchcock's is from the event reported in Life magazine. The reality, for both Hitchcock and for Bresson, was simply a pretext, a springboard for a second reality that is the only thing that interests them.

Since we are discussing the elements they have in common, we should point out that, faced with an identical problem, although they were seeking different solutions, Bresson and Hitchcock coincided on more than one point. For example, the acting. Just like Leterrier in Bresson's film, Henry Fonda is impassive, expressionless, almost immobile. Fonda is only a look. If his attitude is more crushed and more humble than Bresson's man who is condemned to death, it is because he is not a political prisoner who knows he has won to his cause half the world who thinks as he does, but an ordinary prisoner in criminal court, with all appearances against him and, as the film goes on, less and less chance of proving his innocence. Never was Fonda so fine, so grand and noble as in this film where he has only to present his honest man's face, just barely lit with a sad, an almost transparent, expression.

Another point in common — indeed the most striking — is that Hitchcock has almost made it impossible for the spectator to identify with the drama's hero; we are limited to the role of witnesses. We are at Fonda's side throughout, in his cell, in his home, in the car, on the street, but we are never in his place. That is an innovation in Hitchcock's work, since the suspense of his earlier films was based precisely on identification.

Hitchcock, the director who is most concerned about innovation, this time wants the public to experience a different kind of emotional shock, something clearly rarer than the famous shiver. One final common point: Hitchcock and Bresson have both built their films on one of those coincidences that make scrupulous screenwriters scream. Lieutenant Fontaine escapes miraculously; the stupid intervention of a hostile juror saves Henry Fonda. To this authentic miracle Hitchcock added another of his own making, and it will doubtless shock my colleagues. Fonda (in the film, he is of Italian descent and is named Balestrero) is lost. Waiting for his second trial, he cannot find any proof of his innocence. His wife is in a mental institution and his mother tells him, "You should pray."

So Fonda kneels before a statue of Jesus Christ and prays — "My God, only a miracle can save me." There is a closeup of Christ, a dissolve, and then a shot in the street that shows a man who somewhat resembles Fonda walking toward the camera until the frame catches him in a closeup with his face and Fonda's superimposed. This is certainly the most beautiful shot in Hitchcock's work and it summarizes all of it. It is the transfer of culpability, the theme of the double, already present in his first English movies, and still present in all his later ones, improved, enriched, and deepened from film to film. With this affirmation of belief in Providence — in Hitchcock's work, too, the wind blows where it will — the similarities culminate and cease.

With Bresson there is a dialogue between the soul and objects, the relationship of the one to others. Hitchcock is more human, obsessed as always by innocence and guilt, and truly agonized by judicial error. As a motto to The Wrong Man he could have used this pensee of Pascal's: 'Truth and justice are two such subtle points that our instruments are too dull to reach them exactly. If they do reach them, they conceal the point and bear down all around, more on what is false than on what is true."

Hitchcock offers a film about the role of the accused man, an accused man and the fragility of human testimony and justice. It has nothing in common with documentaries except its appearance; in its pessimism and skepticism, I believe it is closer to Nuit et Brouillard than to Andre Cayatte's films. In any case, it is probably his best film, the one that goes farthest in the direction he chose so long ago.

-- 1957