Due in part to the companionship of a new friend, I’ve recently found myself pursuing the work of one Alfred Hitchcock. Aside from sharing a birthday with him, and a couple of viewings of North By Northwest, Hitch has always seemed a bit ephemeral to me.
Then I saw Marnie
I had downloaded and deleted Marnie (for space) about 3 times. At the urging of my new friend, I finally sat down to watch it and it was wonderful. A searing, and frightening portrait of a woman on the edge of sanity. The film is filled with expressive instances of colour, both in costuming, and on set. Though initially panned in its own time, Marnie might be my favourite of Hitch’s work. In fact, I watched it twice. Marnie is a classic character for Hitch, and fits well into his pantheon of women with shattered identities and untold trauma. Like Madeline/Judy (Vertigo) and Eve Kendell (North by Northwest) before her, Marnie represents aspects of fractured womanhood and its influence on her reality, and that of those around her.
Of the other Hitch films I’ve viewed recently, including Vertigo, Suspicious, Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief and The Wrong Man, it is The Wrong Man which stands out most.
While Vertigo is probably Hitch’s second best, if not best film, The Wrong Man revels in simplicity – shot in B&W, it sports a relatively narrow aspect ratio. From its bare-bones synopsis (True story of an innocent man mistaken for a criminal), to the ‘wrong man’ himself, Manny Balestero, this film exists on a plane entirely on its own. Neither ambitious, nor timid, its power lies in its modesty.
Manny is a simple man. He has a wife, a mother, and two young boys. He lives in an unassuming house in Queens, and he plays double bass at the Stork Club for $85 a week. His life, and circumstance reflects his personality. He is not a man prone to extreme emotion, but nor is he cold or frigid. He is just a regular man trying to make ends meet. Money is a frequent topic from the start as Manny and Rose discuss the possibility of paying for her much needed dental surgery. Their financial instability is what makes the procedural that follows so tragic and disturbing. It is not simply Manny’s life at stake, but that of his entire family.
Never have I seen scenes of police procedural conveyed in such a heartbreaking way. We can feel Manny’s discomfort and derision as he is finger printed, but he never says a word. He does not pull back, always, he is corporative to the last. Only once do we see Manny act emotional, and it is so innocuous as to be completely agonizing to the viewer. After being positively identified, Manny is placed in a jail cell. He glances around at the sparse accommodations: the hard plank of a bed, the sink to double as a urinal. He stands and begins to pace the cell, testing its limitations. He stops and looks at his hands. He squeezes his fists together, hard, in impotent rage.
There are a few really expressive shots in this film that I enjoyed. This one in particular:
Behind the bars of an insurance office wicket, this woman has condemned Manny on sight. Her face is split in half, distorted as she gazes at Manny in fear. Her face is as distorted as her judgement about Manny. She sees what she wants to see.
The Wrong Man might be the tautest thriller I’ve seen yet. Devoid of spies, government conspiracy, or a scarlet woman, its strength lies in its simple tragedy of a case of mistaken identity, and what will happen to that man’s family.
In the case of North by Northwest and Roger Thornhill – the similarities lie only in the broad spectrum of ‘mistaken identity’. Roger Thornhill is afforded monumental agency in his quest to clear his name in a comparatively lighthearted romp from New York to Chicago to South Dakota. There is never any doubt that Thornhill will do everything in his power to find out what is going on. Manny is not so lucky. Left at the mercy of a justice system that seems intent on putting him away, he is a tragic figure, at once in control of himself, and at a loss to control his life.