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Journal of Film and Video (2010) - Hitchcock and Race: Is the Wrong Man a White Man?




An essay is presented on the racial portrayal of Italian Americans by motion picture director Alfred Hitchcock on his film, "The Wrong Man." The author says that early films with Italian American portrayals were deemed as un-American and related Italian ethnicity to criminality and later portrayed as American success stories, but their association with crime never disappeared. The author also cites other films that show Italian American portrayals like "Scarface," "Marty," and "The Rose Tattoo."


SO MUCH SCHOLARSHIP HAS APPEARED ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK that Thomas Leitch has written that "it makes sense to speak of Hitchcock studies as a field of study" ("Hitchcock and Company" 1). Yet the representation of race and ethnicity in Hitchcock's work has been neglected. Only two essays, James Morrison's "Hitchcock's Ireland: The Performance of Irish Identity in Juno and the Paycock and Under Capricorn" and Richard Allen's "Sir John and the Half-Caste: Identity and Representation in Hitchcock's Murder!" purport to treat this important topic in any kind of detail. Morrison treats Irish identity not as a cultural phenomenon but rather as a political one. That is, identities are framed in relation to the political borders within which the characters operate (Ireland and Australia, respectively) and their relationships to British colonial power. Methods of communication, stereotypes, food, kinship patterns, cultural roles, and other folkways are largely ignored. Allen's essay investigates Hitchcock's cinematic adaptation of Clemence Dane's Enter Sir John. In Dane's novel, the murderous villain's (Handel Fane) racial identity as a "half-caste" assures his guilt and thereby plays a more significant narrative role than in Hitchcock's Murder! (1930). Allen argues that Hitchcock's decision to emphasize Fane's sexual identity while reducing his racial background to a MacGuffin represents "the achievement of the work" while simultaneously pointing "to the limits of that achievement." Hitchcock uses the racial/racist theme of the novel to complicate the idea of an overly simplistic notion of sexual identities, but in so doing, he leaves the "casual racism of the 'half-caste' moniker unresolved" (123).

Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) employs a similar strategy by tempering Manny Balestrero's (Henry Fonda) Italian background even as it preserves his ethnic name, the "ethnicness" of his Italian relatives, and his Catholic beliefs. Whereas Murder! retreated from a more radical statement about ethnic/racial inequality in favor of an interest in the sexual, The Wrong Man "Anglicizes" Manny to moderate the film's challenge toward the stereotypical association (especially in Hollywood films) between Italian ethnicity and criminality. In so doing, Hitchcock's film, which levels a strong critique at 1950s American conformity, ultimately conforms itself by refusing to offer a protagonist who is both innocent and blatantly ethnic. Unfortunately, the ethnic and racial aspects of this and other Hitchcock films has been largely ignored by Hitchcock scholars, who have tended to marginalize these issues in favor of an interest in the representation of gender norms, the psychoanalytic aspects of his work, and the formal mastery of his films. The Wrong Man is one of many Hitchcock films that deals significantly with issues of race and ethnicity, and the investigation of these topics should be a primary concern of Hitchcock studies.

The Wrong Man is a downbeat film about a middle-class Italian American wrongly accused of robbery. After being falsely charged, Balestrero passively accepts the injustices that befall him because he feels he does not have the means or the right to protest. Rather than encouraging audiences to sympathize with his plight, the film castigates the oppressive conform...

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  1. For detailed analyses of the 1950s, see both Halberstam and Henriksen.
  2. William H. Whyte's The Organization Man (1957) and David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny's The Lonely Crowd (1965) were well-read critiques of the conformity and isolation that dominated the era for many.
  3. Some have contended that The Wrong Man is strongly influenced by the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s, and certainly, an influence exists. Many of the film's scenes were shot on location in and around New York City. Cinematographer Robert Burks, who was becoming a color specialist at the time, agreed to shoot The Wrong Man in black and white. Some of the individuals portrayed in the film played themselves, and scriptwriters Maxwell Anderson and Angus MacPhail were asked to rewrite dialogue and action to conform to the memories of the Balestrero family. However, Spoto has shown that most of the shots in The Wrong Man are taken from either high or low angles (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock 284-85). Further, the film's most memorable shots tend to be complicated, expressive camera movements. The swirling camera movement around Balestrero when he is placed in his holding cell, for instance, is hardly the kind of image André Bazin had in mind when he praised Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) or Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1947). Thus, The Wrong Man, though offering interesting variations on the visual style of previous Hitchcock films, is still thematically and stylistically a Hitchcock picture. For a discussion of the neorealist elements in The Wrong Man, see Kapsis 48 and McGilligan 531-38. McGilligan writes, "Hitchcock's love for Italy was genuine; and he kept up with the postwar cinema there, paying special attention to Roberto Rossellini's films -- in part because Rossellini's latest featured Mrs. Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman" (533). See Deutelbaum 214 and Foster 85.
  4. Anthony Tamburri has advocated the use of a slash to separate the words "Italian" and "American" when together they are used as an adjectival phrase. Tamburri argues that the hyphen "represented older Americans' hesitation to accept the newcomer" (39).
  5. See Cavallero.
  6. Naremore continues, "... [Manny] is in fact an idealized and curiously passive paterfamilias who has exceedingly regular habits" ("Margins of Noir" 268).
  7. Manny's ethnic background is so muted, at least on a visual level, that even an experienced film viewer such as François Truffaut forgets that the character is Italian (Truffaut with Scott 317).
  8. I borrow the term "Hollywood Italian" from Peter Bondanella who has written an extensive history of Italian/American characters in Hollywood films. Unfortunately, Bondanella does not mention The Wrong Man in his study.
  9. McGilligan notes that it was thought that Fonda "might be expected to bring echoes of Tom Joad to his portrayal of Manny" (535).
  10. In The Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto discusses Fonda's preparation (378). Leitch describes Fonda's performance as "remarkable" (The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock 377).
  11. At several points throughout the film, Manny clutches a rosary. This emphasizes his Catholicism and, by implication, his Italian ethnicity.
  12. This characteristic is best represented when Mama Balestrero tells her son to pray to God for strength.
  13. Olga Balestrero represented Lola D'Annunzio's only cinematic role. Before The Wrong Man was released, she was killed in a car accident. Her character, Olga, is present in several scenes throughout the film, but on three occasions, she serves a significant narrative function. First, she comforts her mother when the family learns that Manny has been arrested. Second, along with Gene, she raises Manny's bail money, and lastly, during one of the courtroom scenes, Manny looks around and realizes that few individuals are even interested in his case. When he looks at his sister, Olga is refreshing her lipstick while Gene whispers into her ear.
  14. Gary Brumbaugh describes Persoff, a Palestinian actor who was born in Jerusalem, as "short, dark, chunky-framed."
  15. In the film, this character is a district attorney, but the actual trial was prosecuted by an assistant district attorney (Krohn 180).
  16. See Ignatiev; Jacobson; Guglielmo, "No Color Barrier"; Guglielmo, White on Arrival; Roediger; and Rogin.
  17. Godard describes the ink on Balestrero's fingers as "that mark of shame, once burned into the accused's flesh by an executioner with a red-hot iron" (50). Salecl writes that the ink stains "remind us of blood" (187).
  18. Throughout this exchange, Hitchcock focuses on the psychological aspects of handcuffs. He says, "Psychologically, of course, the idea of the handcuffs has deeper implications. Being tied to something... it's somewhere in the area of fetishism, isn't it?" Also discussed are the loss of freedom and the "sexual connotations of handcuffs" (Truffaut with Scott 47).
  19. In a similar vein, Sam Ishii-Gonzáles argues, "One never has a sense that Manny fully inhabits (fully owns) the point of view from which he views the world." Rather, Ishii-Gonzáles describes these shots as "only seemingly subjective" (139).
  20. Ishii-Gonzáles forwards an argument similar to both Truffaut's and Salecl's. He writes, "[Balestrero's] passivity brings a new dimension to Hitchcock's use of the optical point of view, for while The Wrong Man uses the same subjective techniques that we find in his other works of the period, it is neither employed to generate suspense nor to lure the spectator into an identification with the protagonist" (138).
  21. The difference between "identification" and "empathy" is worth noting. Hollis Alpert in his 1957 review of the film suggested that the Balestrero family was "so typical and average" that they "excite[d] little real concern." Similarly, Slavoj Žižek writes that "even the most tragic moments depicted in the film somehow leave us cold." Alpert's and Zizek's assertions go beyond an inability to identify with a character and instead suggest a lack of concern for the troubles that he and his family face. Audience members may be intensely frustrated by Manny's passivity, but surely, they feel some sense of sympathy for him when he is falsely accused or when his wife falls into a depression. Having no concern for a family such as the Balestreros, no matter how different they may be from viewers, seems almost inhuman. Spoto writes, "We empathize with Manny, reduced to the level of a helpless child as the police strip him of his dignity and insultingly refer to him by nickname." See Alpert 49; Zizek 216; and Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock 285.
  22. On the other hand, Charles Daniell's occupation as a "plastics molder" is mentioned only in Newsweek's coverage of the story ("Shadow of a Doubt" 33). Charles Daniell is not identified as the person who actually committed the crimes that Balestrero was accused of.
  23. See Brean 102. For coverage of Balestrero's arrest and exoneration in the New York Times, see "Convicted Suspect Paroled in Queens; 'Double' Confesses"; "Court Is Turned into a Movie Set"; "'Double' Admits His Guilt"; "Double Arrest Clears Musician"; "Musician Cleared in Thefts"; and "Robber Gets 5 to 10 Years." For the Times's coverage of the production of The Wrong Man, see Esterow. And for reviews of The Wrong Man, see Hartung; Houston; "Iceberg of Chills"; Walsh; and Weiler.
  24. For an extended history of Hollywood's mobilization of Italian ethnicity, see Bondanella.
  25. This diversity in ethnic ties hints at a model of ethnic identity that Werner Sollors theorizes in Beyond Ethnicity. Sollors posits a consent/descent paradigm in which individuals make choices to construct their own unique hybrid identities. Arguing that ethnic individuals can deny their "descent" characteristics and effectively "consent" to a new self, Sollors's paradigm problematizes the generational model of ethnic identity, which has defined and continues to define many fictional characters and many outsiders' views of real-life individuals. Restoring a sense of agency to ethnic others, Sollors's model and Hitchcock's film refuse to make generational standing the prime determinant of ethnic status.

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