Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wrong Men: Innocents in Noir Nightshade

One of the cornerstones of film noir is the inevitability of fate. The deeper fear being that despite your best intentions, or your honest nature, bad things will happen to you – for no reason at all. That is, for no reason that is consciously intended. In Fritz's Lang's spiraling nightmare The Woman in the Window (1944), Edward G. Robinson's meekly self-effacing Professor Richard Wanley entertains his erotic fantasies gazing at an oil portrait of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in a storefront window. But when he suddenly meets Reed, in the flesh, on the street, his fantasies begin to have true consequences. After killing Alice's lover in self-defense, Wanley finds himself being pursued by Heidt (Dan Duryea), an ex-cop with blackmail on his mind. It also doesn't help that Heidt was the dead man's bodyguard. Suddenly, the milquetoast professor is stewing in primal juices he'd only dabbled in with his imagination.

In John Farrow's shrewdly plotted The Big Clock (1948), magazine editor George Stroud (Ray Milland) wishes to have a nice vacation with his enduringly patient wife (Maureen O'Sullivan). But before he can pack his bags, he finds himself fired by his malevolent boss, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), and eventually framed for the murder of Janoth's mistress (Rita Johnson). In a moment of human weakness, Stroud had engaged Janoth's lover in a conversation about possibly blackmailing his overbearing superior. Although Stroud had no interest in carrying it out (despite how appealing it was to consider), it sets him up to be the patsy. Stroud spends most of the movie running through the publishing house escaping capture instead of drinking cocktails with his wife on the beach. (The Big Clock would be remade as a political thriller, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner as the pursued innocent in 1987.)

Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in The Big Clock
In Alfred Hitchcock's ingenious and perversely entertaining adaptation of author Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train (1951), a tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is tired of his unfaithful wife Miriam (Laura Elliott). He'd rather be married to Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), a senator's daughter, whom he truly loves. In a chance meeting on a train, he encounters Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a charming psychopath who knows all about Guy's problems. (He reads the gossip pages.) Bruno offers Guy a solution: As a way to commit the perfect murder, he will take care of Miriam in exchange for Guy taking out Bruno's hated father. Since nobody could connect these two strangers, who meet coincidently on a train, it would be the ideal "criss-cross" with no recognizable motive to suspect them. Guy thinks Bruno is kidding. When Bruno fulfills his side of the bargain, however, Guy realizes it's no joke. Now Bruno insists that Guy live up to his end. Before long, he has more than tennis tournaments to consider.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train
What makes these three movies such invaluable noirs is how each one finds the least likely man to trap in a snare of murder and deceit. But rather than treat them as innocent victims of circumstance, each story builds on a plausible recognition of guilt due to their inherent weaknesses. In Strangers on a Train, Guy simply wants out of a bad marriage so he can be with someone he loves. But his repressed hatred of Miriam leaves him susceptible to Bruno's amoral solution. George's passivity in standing up to his tyrannical boss in The Big Clock leaves him open to being suspected as a killer. Professor Wanley's decision to waltz with his libido in The Woman in the Window becomes undermined by the hidden guilt of believing that having those impulses makes him both a killer and a cheating husband.

But probably the most unsettling (and least acknowledged) noir is Hitchcock's subdued 1956 thriller The Wrong Man. Based on Maxwell Anderson's novel, The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestreroby, with the additional influence by Herbert Brean's "A Case of Identity," a 1953 article written for Life magazine about a falsely accused man, The Wrong Man concerns the capture and incarceration of a guy who doesn't even have a visible id, or no intent (conscious or not) to transgress. If the previous victims had inner shadows that were exploited by fate, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is your calmly serene family man without a devious bone in his body. Working nights as a musician at the Stork Club, Manny and his wife Rose (Vera Miles) struggle to make ends meet, but they are a happy couple who effortlessly tune into each other's thoughts. When Rose needs some emergency dental work done, Manny tries to borrow cash on her insurance plan making the trip to the insurance office himself to collect. The trouble is: He resembles an armed robber who once held up the office. So they call the police. From there, Manny is arrested, charged and incarcerated for the crime.

What makes The Wrong Man such an unnerving film noir is that Manny calmly co-operates with the authorities, totally confident in his innocence. He goes through witness line-ups (sometimes in other places where the robber had stolen before) and answers all their questions. But the more he does his duty, the insanity of legal bureaucracy and faulty perception digs him into a deeper hole. The sequence of events ultimately costs his wife her sanity as she begins to not trust even her own confidence in reality. Perfectly cast, Fonda conveys the common decency of a man who believes in truth and justice, but those sentiments are inadequate to human and legal fallibility.Owing no small debt to Kafka, The Wrong Man isn't so much about the unacknowledged darker wishes and desires of a good man; but instead, about a good man tainted by the unacknowledged darker perceptions of the culture he is part of. For no malevolent reason at all.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. This Tuesday, February 15, Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto with "The Wrong Man," the subject of this post. He will also be facilitating a film series called Reel Politics at Ryerson University beginning this up-coming Sunday, February 13th.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post -- great theme! I've seen the Wrong Man and Strangers on a Train already. Will be sure to check out the others.