Henry Fonda plays musician Manny Balestrero, arrested for a crime he didn’t –could never- commit. His wife (Vera Miles) feels the pressure as the evidence mounts.
This is a very different Hitchcock film as he tones everything down to follow the true story of Manny (Henry Fonda), who’s misfortune it is to look very like a man wanted for several robberies. While the style is not so much Cinema Verite, it is certainly reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism, especially Bicycle Thieves from 1948.
Like that film the story is terribly bleak, but differs in that it isn’t quite so unremitting and has a natural drama to it (neo-realism kind of just happens). It’s ideal for Hitchcock, because if it hadn’t have been a true story, he’d have eventually written it! It just happens to have similar beats to one of his thrillers and the central conceit of a normal everyday man taken away from his family is just the sort of thing he relished. It bears comparison with I Confess, especially as there is an undercurrent of Catholic faith.
Henry Fonda is nothing short of perfect in this role. Such a gentle man, he has boiling emotions behind his eyes, conveying frustration, exhaustion, terror, anger and in a most poignant scene, just desperately sad. Vera Mills matches him in the scenes of her mind breaking down. I bemoaned The Man Who Knew Too Much for not having something to focus on, other than the main plot, where usually he would have a romance building. Cleverly, Hitch hooks onto how Manny’s relationship with his wife breaks down and how he has to fight for it as well as clear his name. It doesn’t matter how innocent you are, there will always be consequences in an ordeal like this.
Apparently Hitchcock regretted showing what happens to her, but it’s powerful stuff. It is his most serious film, but don’t be put off as it isn’t a trial to watch; it’s important to note that it’s paced like any drama and ultimately positive. As piece of suspense, it is superb, especially considering the different approach.
It’s quite brilliant how he chooses to avoid any kind of obvious direction or editing. I’ve heard people describe it as being like a documentary, but I disagree, because if anything a documentary is even more manipulative. This just feels honest, which is why the cast was so important here. Where normally there might be jump-cut or a zoom, now it’s purely lighting and expression. There are still moments of genius that match the fluidity of the story; note how the camera refuses to be blocked by doorways as we follow Manny into his house and later, the cell. Bernard Herrmann too produces a low-key score; his partnership couldn’t have been more in tune with the director across all their films. I continually defend Quentin Tarantino, but partnerships like that do demonstrate how he could be missing out by steadfastly refusing to let others score his work.
Hermann went on to score Taxi Driver and I just read this film was a big influence on Martin Scorcese. It’s obvious now I think about it. This is a very special film and a milestone I think for Hitchcock. It’s a reliable testament to his humility; how he was always able and willing to adapt to new methods that would then continue to inform his work.