Henry Fonda starred in a pair of classic films during a four-month period in the mid ’50s — Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Wrong Man (opened 12.22.56) and Sidney Lumet‘s 12 Angry Men (4.10.57). Both were financial disappointments, but this didn’t matter in the long run. Today the film snobs (i.e., guys like Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody) absolutely worship the Hitchcock while your hoi polloi, hot-dog-eating Average Joes (i.e., film mavens like myself) tend to prefer the Lumet.
Both are first-rate efforts. Blurays of both are sitting on my bookshelves. While I certainly don’t “dislike” The Wrong Man, it is (be honest) a bummerish film that basically says one thing for 96% of its length — “This Queens-residing, moderate-mannered family man and musician is unlucky and therefore fucked.”
I feel a much greater degree of affection and camaraderie for 12 Angry Men.
Sometime last night San Franciscco Chronicle critic Bob Strauss declared that The Wrong Man is “better” than 12 Angry Men. I tapped out a reply this morning:
“The Wrong Man is certainly ‘well made’ as far as that term goes or allows, but it mainly plays like a suffocatingly Kafka-esque thing, a chilly and rather downish and dull procedural about what it’s like for an innocent man (Fonda’s Chris Ballestrero, a Stork Club bass player) to be caught in the vines and tendrils of a judicial system that regards him as guilty of theft, and then what it’s like when his wife (played by Vera Miles) begins to succumb to depression and mental illness.
“The Hitchcockian care and craft levels are there in every frame, but watching The Wrong Man is like sinking into a pit of quicksand and being helpless to climb out…deeper and deeper into the slithery muck. Artier than 12 Angry Men — moodier, more visually expressive — but so much grimmer.
“And what a cast of dispirited downheads! Poor Fonda and Miles. Those suspicious, hawk-eyed detectives (the borough-sounding Harold J. Stone and the younger, WASP-ier Charles Cooper). The none-too-bright women from the insurance company who mistakenly identify Fonda as the thief. The intelligent and personable attorney (Anthony Quayle) who tries to defend Fonda in court. The woman who plays Fonda’s mother and even the two young sons. They’re all part of the same oozy swamp, and then the stuff begins to seep into your pores and down into your lungs and gradually you’re asphyxiated.
“It all alleviates when the real bad guy is captured at the very end. My favorite shot is when Cooper happens to spot the bad guy being brought into the police station. He walks outside, starts down the street and then begins to realize that the bad guy looks an awful lot like Fonda, and so he turns around and goes back inside.
“But that’s one good moment in a movie that’s all about being slowly smothered by a large bureaucratic judicial octopus. Compare this to the 15 or 20 diverting, emotionally engaging, character-rich or soul-stirring moments in 12 Angry Men, which is also one of the most inventively staged and shot confined-space films in cinema history.
“I’m sorry but only a Get Out-worshipping contrarian film snob would call The Wrong Man “better” than Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic. For all I know Kenny and Brody feel the same way. (And don’t forget that these guys are Marnie fans also.)”
My God, the NYC jurors in 12 Angry Men could have been theoretically assigned to Chris Balistrero’s suspicion-of-robbery trial instead of the boy-allegedly-stabbing-his-father murder case, and then they would’ve died of boredom. As juror Robert Webber says early on, “Boy, these cases can be the dullest…”
Wiki anecdote: “The real Chris Balestrero sued the city for false arrest. Asking $500,000, he accepted a settlement of just $7,000. He earned $22,000 from the film, which went to repaying loans for Rose’s care.”