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Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Wrong Men (originally published 9/98)

Master suspense director Alfred Hitchcock used to tell a disquieting story about his childhood. As punishment for some youthful transgression, according to Hitchcock, he was sent by his father down to the local police station bearing a note. The child handed the note to the officer at the front desk, who read it, then led young Hitchcock back to the holding pens and locked him in a cell. Some five minutes later the officer opened the cell and released the terrified boy, saying, "That's what we do to naughty boys."

Throughout the remainder of his life Hitchcock claimed to have a deep-seated fear of policemen and an absolute horror of being arrested. He used to say that he never learned to drive because he couldn't bear the thought of getting a ticket. If the possibilty of arrest was so abhorrent to Hitchcock, it follows that few things could have inspired more dread in his mind than the prospect of being arrested for a crime he didn't commit. With that in mind, it isn't so surprising that falsely accused characters became a recurring element in Hitchcock's films. We've been looking at films featuring such characters for the last two weeks in light of the recent release of "The Negotiator," which echoes this classic theme, but I've saved Hitchcock's near obsession with this unsettling plot device for last. For a sampling of the master at work, look for these titles on home video.

"The 39 Steps" (1935). Just as the mysterious woman in his apartment reveals to Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) that she's actually a spy, she's killed right in front of him. The only way for him to avoid being charged with her murder is to track down and expose the enemy spies who actually did the deed. His pursuit of the answer to the riddle of something called "The 39 Steps" leads Hannay on an international chase. In addition to being completely out of his depth in the arena of high-stakes espionage, he faces the additional problem of being pursued from two sides, with both the police and the spies after him.

"Saboteur" (1942). When an airplane factory worker is killed in a fire resulting from sabotage, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is charged with the crime. America's involvement in World War II made industrial sabotage by fifth columnist infiltrators a topical theme, but Hitchcock typically chose to turn it around by asking what if an innocent American were to be falsely accused of this heinous crime. Kane's pursuit of the real saboteur ends up in one of Hitchcock's most famous sequences, a chase at the top of the Statue of Liberty, with the antagonists dangling precariously from her torch.

"I Confess" (1952). Montgomery Clift stars as Father Michael Logan, who hears a fateful confession from the church caretaker. It seems that the man has killed a lawyer while in the act of committing a robbery and now seeks to cleanse his soul by confessing. He knows that Father Logan won't turn him in, since he is bound by church doctrine from revealing what he learns in the confessional. Unfortunately for Logan, the murderer had been wearing a borrowed priest's cassock at the time, and was seen by witnesses. Furthermore, it turns out that the dead man had been blackmailing a woman with whom Logan had had an affair before taking his priestly vows. With circumstantial evidence piling up against him and ecclesiastical law forbidding him to use what he knows to clear himself, Logan faces a thorny dilemma.

"The Wrong Man" (1957). Finally, inevitably, Hitchcock got around to using the simplest and most obvious title for films of this type. Henry Fonda plays the title character, Manny Balestrero a mild mannered musician who is accused of bank robbery based on his physical resemblance to the actual perpetrator. As his case makes its way through the criminal justice system, the outcome looking ever bleaker, Hitchcock forces us to watch as Manny's wife (Vera Miles) gradually descends into the private hell of a total emotional breakdown. Of all the many films in which variations on the theme of false accusation are attempted, this may well be the most painful to watch. If any film has ever captured the overpowering dread of a small child hearing the clang of a prison door as it swings shut on him, this is it.

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