Alfred Hitchcock Introduces “The Wrong Man”

4 01 2011

“I thought the story would make an interesting picture if all the events were shown from the viewpoint of the innocent man, describing his suffering as a result of a crime committed by someone else.” – Alfred Hitchcock

At the end of 1956, Alfred Hitchcock found a way to combine his greatest theme – the wrongly accused man – with something new for him: a film based entirely in fact. The movie was “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, and it brought to the screen the true story of Manny Balestrero, a musician who is arrested after being mistaken for a criminal.

The wrong man had been a favorite subject for Hitchcock going all the way back to “The Lodger,” including some of his greatest heroes, like Richard Hannay of “The 39 Steps” fame and John Robie from “To Catch a Thief.” There’s nothing particularly clever or witty about Balestrero, though. He lives in a small house in Queens, New York, with his wife and two small boys, eking out a living playing bass in the house band at The Stork Club. When Manny learns that his wife needs some expensive dental work, he decides to borrow against her life insurance policy, and it is during a visit to the insurance company’s office that his troubles begin.

One of the clerks at the office sees Balestrero and thinks she recognizes him as a hold-up man who had come to the office before. She calls the police, who arrest Balestrero as he arrives back at home. In a typically Hitchcockian way, the cops immediately start flexing their muscles, refusing to let Balestrero tell his wife where he’s going and insisting that if he works at the Stork Club, he must have lots of money, as well as insinuating that he is a drinker, a gambler, a drug addict or a womanizer. Balestrero insists that he is none of these things, but the police are determined to fit him to the robberies.

After being arraigned, Balestrero is released on bail, and he and his wife hire a lawyer and start to look for witnesses who can place him elsewhere during the robberies. As they fail to find anyone the strain begins to take a toll on Rose. She is distracted and anxious, and seems unable to focus on the people around her.

Balestrero’s case comes to trial, and on the stand his accusers are positive that he is guilty. The case comes to an abrupt halt, though, when one of the jurors stands up and asks the judge if “all this is really necessary.” A mistrial is declared, and while his lawyer says it’s a good thing, Balestrero is full of dread.

Meanwhile, Balestrero has been forced to have his wife committed, as she has become completely paranoid and withdrawn. Balestrero tries to go about his daily routine by continuing to play at the club. One night, while Balestrero is at work, a man fitting his description tries to hold up a grocery story, only to be stopped by the store’s owner. The man is arrested, and Balestrero is called to the police station to be told the good news: He has been cleared of any wrongdoing. As the robber is marched through the station, Balestrero stops him and says, “Don’t you realize what this has done to my wife?” Of course, the robber has no idea what he’s talking about.

Balestrero is a free man, but it’s a hollow victory, as his wife is unable to hear the good news. The film ends on a hopeful note, though, saying that two years later, Rose recovered and rejoined her family.

Manny Balestrero’s story had been told in Life Magazine and also in a book by Maxwell Anderson, who cowrote the screenplay to “The Wrong Man” with Angus MacPhail. Hitchcock delivers it in a terse, sombre film, shot in stark black and white by Robert Burks. Much of the movie was shot on location in New York, including The Stork Club, the subway and a local jail. Bernard Herrmann’s score perfectly echoes the tone of the story, with subdued, jazzy themes that accentuate Balestrero’s brooding tension.

Although Hitchcock had long wished to work with Fonda, he makes an odd Hitchcock hero. He’s timid, and through much of the movie seems unable to take control of his fate. Yet he has a quiet strength that allows him to keep looking for a way out of his predicament. Vera Miles is a great match for him; she, too, seems powerless over the forces around her. Unlike her husband, she collapses under the pressures of their situation. The character develops similarly to the woman Miles portrayed in the very first episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Miles had been signed by Hitchcock to an exclusive contract; it was the first time the director had made such a move. The idea was that Hitchcock would be able to develop the actress to suit his needs as well as controlling what roles she would play, in the hope of avoiding situations like the ones he had previously encountered with Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, where their personal lives ultimately kept them from working with Hitchcock. Of course, this Svengali-like level of control over another person was a pipe dream, and Hitchcock’s working relationship with Miles would not last long.

“The Wrong Man” is an underrated gem, partly inspired by the Italian cinema verité classic “Bicycle Thieves.” It portrays a man living a life of quiet desperation, already struggling when his world begins to fall apart.

Hitchcock himself played an important role in the film. Rather than his usual cheeky cameo or the humorous lead ins he’d been providing on television, the director appeared at the start of the film on a darkened stage, introducing the picture as a real-life drama as gripping as any work of fiction. In the trailer for the film, Hitchcock’s commentary on Manny Balestrero’s story goes on in greater detail:

Next, James Stewart stars in “Vertigo,” one of Hitchcock’s most psychologically challenging films.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: John Michael Hayes

2 01 2011

By the mid-1950s, Alfred Hitchcock’s working relationship with his writers had become very complex. On some pictures, Hitchcock, a writer, and Hitch’s wife and confidant, Alma Reville, would meet for a series of story conferences to discuss the movie in development, often over long, elaborate dinners. Hitchcock would describe the story and his ideas on everything from character to costuming to camera angles. After several of these meetings, the first writer would create a detailed treatment that could run upwards of fifty pages.

A second writer would be brought in to break the treatment down into the first draft screenplay. After revisions, Hitchcock might bring in a third writer to add information about the camera angles and settings. If needed, a fourth writer might polish the script, as Dorothy Parker had on “Saboteur” in 1942.

In 1954, Hitchcock began a four-picture collaboration with screenwriter John Michael Hayes. These four movies — “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” — represent some of Hitchcock’s most intelligent stories, with sophisticated, believable characters.

Nearly twenty years younger than Hitchcock, Hayes had been born in Worcester, Massachusetts. After working as a reporter for the Associated Press, he paid his dues in Hollywood as a writer for radio comedies and dramas including “The Adventures of Sam Spade,” “My Favorite Husband” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” He quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer of scripts that were sharp, funny and exciting.

After writing only a handful of films, Hayes was invited by Hitchcock to meet in regard to a possible collaboration on “Rear Window.” Over dinner, Hitchcock asked whether Hayes was familiar with his movies. Hayes, who had been a projectionist in the Army, had indeed seen many of Hitchcock’s pictures, some dozens of times. Hayes launched into a detailed critique of the director’s films; afterward, Hayes was surprised that Hitchcock had hired him. He later learned that Hitchcock could remember little about their conversation other than Hayes talking a lot, as he had come from a cocktail party where he had had several drinks.

Hayes began work on “Rear Window,” creating a seventy-five page treatment that was considered so good that Paramount gave out copies of it to staff writers for years thereafter as an example of how to write a treatment. In “Rear Window,” Hayes creates a dynamic between photographer L.B. Jeffries and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont that is subtle and believable. They not only have to solve the murder; they also must make their relationship work.

Hayes takes a similar approach in “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” There is the surface problem: John Robie must not only prove his innocence but must also emerge from his life of isolation to form a bond with Francie Stevens; Sam Marlowe and Jennifer Rogers need to find out how Harry died so they and their friends can rest easy and so they can be married; Dr. Ben McKenna and Jo Conway McKenna must rescue their son while reconciling the conflicts between their two careers. Hayes loads his dialogue with meaning; characters don’t merely talk but give us insights into their motivations, their fears and desires.

The breakneck pace of Hitchcock’s production schedule kept Hayes constantly busy; while one picture was shooting or in post-production, Hayes was working on the treatments and scripts for the next ones. The movies were released to strong reviews that called out Hayes’ intelligent scripts in particular, raising his profile. Hitchcock may have begrudged Hayes his accolades; Hitchcock felt he had taught Hayes much of his craft, and that the writer was not sufficiently grateful. Also, Hayes’ fees were rising, which could not have made Hitchcock happy, despite the fact that that it was their work together, and Hitchcock’s direction, that improved Hayes’ standing as a writer. Hayes also dared to tell Hitchcock that he did not think “The Wrong Man” was a particularly good subject for a film.

The issue that broke up this collaboration effort was more complicated than hurt feelings, though. To expedite work on “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hitchcock brought in another writer, Angus McPhail, who had worked on the script to “Spellbound” and on Hitchcock’s wartime propaganda films. McPhail sat in on the story sessions, contributing, to Hayes’ mind, very little, then wrote up the notes in a cursory manner. When McPhail’s name appeared side by side with Hayes in the credits for the film, Hayes lodged a complaint with Paramount Studios. The issue went before a Writers’ Guild of America abritration board, which ultimately decided in favor of Hayes. Hitchcock took Hayes’ action as a betrayal, and the two never worked together again.

In the mid-1960s, while Hitchcock struggled with the script to “Torn Curtain,” those closest to the director urged him to contact Hayes. Hitchcock never did so; Hayes later said that had Hitchcock reached out to him, he would have been happy to work with the Master of Suspense again.

After “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hayes continued writing in Hollywood, with credits including “Peyton Place,” “Butterfield 8,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Nevada Smith.” He continued to write and also teach writing, and was honored with the Writers’ Guild Screen Laurels Awards in his later years. Hayes died on November 19, 2008.

You can read more about Hayes and Hitchcock’s collaboration in Steven DeRosa’s excellent book “Writing with Hitchcock,” which you can order here.

Alfred Hitchcock Encounters “Strangers on a Train”

28 10 2010

“As I see it, the flaws of ‘Strangers on a Train’ were the ineffectiveness of the two main actors and the weakness of the final script. If the writing of the dialogue had been better, we’d have had stronger characterizations. The great problem with this type of picture, you see, is that your main characters tend to become mere figures.” — Alfred Hitchcock

When watching “Strangers on a Train,” a film of relentless pace and stunning suspense, it’s easy to forgive a lack of depth of its characters. And while none of the stars here are at the level of Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman, all play their roles exceptionally well.

Based on the first novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Strangers” stars Robert Walker as Bruno Antony and Farley Granger as Guy Haines, who meet by chance on a train. As the movie opens, we see each – from about the knees down – arriving at the train station in their respective cabs; Antony, in a silk suit and expensive shoes, leads the porter carrying his luggage, while Haines, in plain black shoes and a wool suit, allows himself to be led into the station. Even in its opening moments, Hitchcock gives us dominant and submissive personalities.

Onboard the train, the two men end up sitting next to each other in the bar car, and Antony recognizes Haines, who is a renowned amateur tennis player. Antony knows a lot about Haines, actually, and insinuates more: He’s read about Haines’ marital problems in the gossip columns, as well as Haines’ affair with Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator. Antony insists that Haines dine with him, and over their meal, while he expounds on one crackpot theory after another, Antony reveals that he hates his father. And then the scheme hits him, just as the train reaches Haines’ destination. Antony can murder Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Haines can kill Antony’s father. They can get away with it because neither knows the victim – so there is no motive. Haines, trying not to miss his stop, humors Antony by agreeing that it’s a great idea. In his rush to get off the train, he accidentally leaves his lighter with Antony.

Back in his hometown, Haines learns that Miriam doesn’t plan to divorce him after all. Antony, meanwhile, follows Miriam and two young men to an amusement park, then on a boat ride to a small island. While she chases around with her beaux, Antony finds and strangles her. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most amazing moments: Miriam’s glasses fall to the ground, and we see the murder reflected in one of  the lenses. The scene resonates all the way back to the strangling that opened “The Lodger” in 1925, but Hitchcock’s immense command of his craft, as well as the spectacular work of cinematographer Robert Burks, allowed him to show the killing in a subtle, meaningful way.

Antony then meets Haines outside his home, where he explains what’s happened. And now, Antony says, it’s your turn. Hitchcock begins to turn up the suspense here, as Antony continues showing up wherever Haines goes: at tennis matches, museums and parties. Everything about Antony rubs Haines and other men the wrong way, but he has a way with women – older women,

Bruno Antony demonstrates his strangling technique while staring intently at Barbara Morton, who resembles his last victim.

like his doting mother, especially. And like James Stewart’s professor in “Rope,” he engages an older women at Senator Morton’s (played by Leo G. Carroll) party in a discussion of murder – but Antony goes much further with it, nearly strangling the woman while staring at the Senator’s younger daughter, Barbara, who bears a resemblance to Miriam Haines, including tell-tale eyeglasses. (Barbara is played by Patricia Hitchcock, who updates Hitch’s earlier know-it-all sister from “Shadow of a Doubt” with sexiness and her own interest in murder.)

After Antony leaves the party, Anne guesses that something strange is going on, and Haines explains the situation to her. He then calls Antony and says that he’s decided to go through with it and kill his father, but after giving his police watchdogs the slip, Haines finds not Antony senior but Bruno waiting for him. Haines admits that he wanted to warn his father, and as Haines leaves the house, Antony says that if Haines won’t hold up his end of the bargain, he’ll have to take action – and that Haines’ distinctive lighter, which Antony still has, will help him do it.

Knowing that Antony intends to plant his lighter near the murder site at the fair the next night, Haines races to stay a step ahead of the police and win a tennis match in time to bear Antony to the fairground. There, Antony sees the police and Haines bearing down on him and takes refuge on a merry-go-round. Haines gets on, too. In nearly the only unlikely moment of the movie, a cop takes a shot at Haines on the moving merry-go-round, which is full of kids. He hits the operator, who falls on the controls, and the ride runs amok.

While Haines and Antony fight, an old codger (who was a real employee of the fair) volunteers to crawl under the merry-go-round to get at the controls, but when he stops it, the ride tears itself apart. Haines is thrown free, but Antony is crushed and dying. The police chief grabs Haines, who says that Antony was there to frame him with the lighter. Antony denies having it, but as he breathes his last, his hand opens – and inside is the lighter.

The merry-go-round finale is one of the marvels of Hitchcock’s career, combining miniatures, backdrop projection and screaming actors. More than any other crashing finale from his previous movies, this one is convincing. (Hitchcock admitted to adjusting the film speed at one point during the scene, which you can see when the old man reaches the controls.) There are many other striking moments in the film, including one at a tennis match where a crowd of spectators swivel their heads back and forth to watch the action, while Antony, dead in the center of the crowd and standing out in his black suit among the pastel sweaters and sun dresses, stares fixedly at Haines, a phony smile glued to his face.

The film is also rich in imagery, from the complex patterns and flowing shadows in the train at the start of the film to the ironically lighthearted billboards at the fair during the finale.

As in “Rope,” Hitchcock plays with gender identity here. Bruno Antony is a bit of a gay caricature, a mama’s boy and fancy dresser who foreshadows Norman Bates in “Psycho.” Guy Haines seems like an all-American boy, but there’s something odd about him – he’s passive, as when he allows Antony to pressure him into drinking or taking lunch with him. Haines seems to have some kind of inner conflict, and Antony’s presence exacerbates it.

Although “Strangers on a Train” credits Raymond Chandler as co-writer of the screenplay, Chandler and Hitchcock did not get along, and none of Chandler’s work was used in the final film. Czenzi Ormonde, assistant to Ben Hecht, was brought in at the eleventh hour to write the screenplay, despite her lack of screenwriting experience. She worked closely with Alma Reville and Hitch’s associate producer, Barbara Keon.

Here’s a look at the very dramatic trailer for “Strangers on a Train.”

Next, Hitchcock takes on “I Confess,” a film he made largely in Quebec City, working with Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter.

A New Look at Hitchcock, Piece by Piece

17 10 2010

In his gorgeous new book, “Hitchcock: Piece by Piece,” author Lauren Bouzereau provides a new angle on The Master of Suspense. Rather than covering Hitch’s biography or looking at highlights of his filmmaking career, Bouzereau sorts Hitch’s works thematically into several lengthy chapters. The chapter “Wrong Men and Anti-Heroes” looks at Hitch’s male protagonists; “The Hitchcock Women” examines women of every sort as they appear in Hitch’s films. Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, the master’s daughter, contributes a foreword to the book that looks at her father’s lasting legacy.

There’s more to “Piece by Piece” than just the categorizing of Hitchcock’s many motifs, though. The book features a fantastic assortment of photography, as well as pages that open up so the reader can access reproductions of storyboards, a telegram from Hitchcock to David O. Selznick, costume designs, photo albums, the proclamation of Hitch’s knighthood and much more. Like previous, similar books on Bob Dylan and John Lennon, these documents provide new insight into Hitch’s approach to filmmaking as well as his life.

The photography, too, takes us deep into Hitchcock’s life. Many of these pictures have never been reproduced before; my favorites may be the book’s opener, a formal portrait of Hitchcock from the early 1920s, looking serious and sporting a mustache, and its closer, in which a much older Hitchcock grimaces in mock pain as he plays with his dog. It’s all beautifully designed, and shows Hitchcock as a master of the camera, whether he’s shooting or being shot.

Books like this make a good case for another type of Hitchcock book: One of just photography, from his films and his life, in the style of  the “365 Days” series of art books – like “Piece by Piece,” also published by Abrams Books.

My only quibbles with “Piece by Piece” were fact-based. In discussing “The Birds,” Bouzereau both misspells Ub Iwerks’ name and provides no background about this legendary animator who first brought Mickey Mouse to life; also, the author notes the impact the finale of “Strangers on a Train” had on audiences in the forties, when the movie was released in 1951.

But these are small points. “Piece by Piece” is a treasure for fans of Hitchcock and film history in general, and is very much recommended. You can order a copy here.

More on “Foreign Correspondent”

4 08 2010

Alfred Hitchcock made the move from England to Hollywood for a number of reasons: Bigger budgets for his pictures, actors more in tune with his approach to filmmaking, more creative freedom and greater opportunities to promote his work and himself. Hollywood had moved beyond posters and lobby cards with the theatrical trailer, giving audiences a taste of upcoming movies long before the days of TV commercials and talk show appearances.

Here’s the trailer for “Foreign Correspondent,” promoted as “The Thrill Spectacle of the Year.”

As a bonus, here’s Hitch himself, talking with Dick Cavett about “Foreign Correspondent” and more, probably around 1970. The segment runs close to nine minutes and includes discussions about the casting of the film and how the incredible plane crash was created.

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