Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Hitchcock has us thinking of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite scenario, the “wrong man” movie.

The Wrong Man (1956)
From The 39 Steps to North By Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock returned again and again to accidental heroes, men swept up into danger and adventure over a case of mistaken identity. But The Wrong Man, an overlooked masterpiece from his greatest decade, eschews suspense for the straight-up nightmare of an innocent man dragged through the justice system. With extraordinary rigor, Hitchcock simply follows Henry Fonda, that avatar of decency, as he gets arrested and tried for a series of armed robberies he didn’t commit. Working nights as the bassist for a jazz combo, Fonda can barely support his wife and two kids as it is, but when he’s thrown in jail, his entire family falls off the precipice with him—even if he’s exonerated, there are damages that can’t be undone.

Save for one showy shot where the camera swirls around Fonda’s face while he sits in a holding cell for the first time, Hitchcock emphasizes the ordinariness of Fonda’s experience, the fact that he’s treated no better or worse than anyone else who would be arrested for the same crime. There are no dramatic pleas of innocence or sweaty interrogation scenes, just Fonda helplessly witnessing this surreal spectacle unfold before his eyes, and Hitchcock putting the audience right there next to him. Based on a true story, The Wrong Man ends with suspiciously reassuring titles, but the film is relentlessly bleak and despairing for most of the way, as Fonda wriggles within an ever-tightening noose and the stress drives his wife to madness. The “wrong man” scenarios in other Hitchcock films often whisk their heroes into a better place, like into the tunnel with Eva Marie Saint, but take away the escapist thrills, and the result is far more sobering. 

Availability: DVD, Amazon Instant.