Book Interview: Nothing to Fear — Alfred Hitchcock and The Wrong Men

Nothing to Fear

Publisher: Fayetteville Mafia Press

Release Date: January 14, 2023

A Conversation with Jason Isralowitz

“Hitchcock had made many films that featured wrongfully accused protagonists. In the director’s breakthrough hit, The 39 Steps (1935), tourist Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is framed for the murder of a woman found dead in his flat. For the rest of his career, Hitchcock returned to the theme of mistaken identity so often that it became his trademark. ‘I use the ‘‘wrong man’’ theme a lot because it is something everyone can identify with easily,’ he said in 1978. ‘Each of us has at one time or another been wrongly blamed for something we were innocent of.’

A factory worker goes on the run after police falsely accuse him of sabotage (Saboteur, 1942). A psychiatrist struggles to clear an amnesiac wanted for murder (Spellbound, 1945). A tennis pro inadvertently strikes a deal with a sociopath and comes under suspicion for the strangling of his estranged wife (Strangers on a Train, 1951). A priest faces ruin when circumstantial evidence implicates him in the murder of a lawyer who had been blackmailing the priest’s former flame (I Confess, 1953). An advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent and then framed for the murder of a United Nations ambassador (North by Northwest, 1959). An unemployed bartender whose ex-wife is murdered becomes the chief suspect in the hunt for a serial killer (Frenzy, 1972). All these films use misidentification and false accusation to drive their plots.

While fueled by the same narrative engine, The Wrong Man marked a detour for Hitchcock. Here he set out to tell a true story, crafted by screenwriters who drew from extensive field research and a trial transcript. The director chose not to embellish the story with the plot twists and set pieces that marked his ascendance in Hollywood. Instead, he aimed for documentary-style accuracy. ‘For the sake of authenticity everything was minutely reconstructed with the people who were actually involved in that drama,’ Hitchcock later told filmmaker François Truffaut in an interview for Truffaut’s landmark book on the director…

…But what distinguished the film from other crime dramas of its era — and brought it closer to social realism than anything else in Hitchcock’s canon — was the decision to tell the story exclusively from Manny’s perspective. As the director told the New York Times, Hollywood had to that point failed to present false arrest ‘from the point of view of the person who underwent this ordeal.’ Instead, most films relegated victims of wrongful arrests to supporting roles while centering their narratives on a crusading lawyer, cop, or journalist. Hitchcock cited two examples of this prevailing approach. The first, Call Northside 777 (1948), starred James Stewart as a reporter chasing leads all over Chicago to reopen a case involving the murder of a police officer. The second, Boomerang! (1947), cast Dana Andrews as a noble prosecutor who restages the shooting of a priest to disprove the state’s own theory of the crime. In both films, innocent men languish in confinement, mostly off-screen, awaiting salvation. In The Wrong Man, by contrast, we stay with the Balestreros as they are buffeted by fate without the protection of a heroic lawyer or investigator. Criminologist Nicole Rafter has pointed out that the absence of a ‘justice figure’ sets Hitchcock’s film apart from most courtroom dramas, which include ‘a hero who tries to move man-made law ever closer to the ideal until it matches the justice template.’ As Rafter observed, The Wrong Man has no obvious villain either. Insurance company employees misidentify Manny, but their accusations are well-intentioned, even if tainted by fear. The detectives who arrest Manny fail to conduct a proper investigation, but that failure is not rooted in malice or personal profit.

And so, The Wrong Man has no conventional heroes or villains, no action sequences, and no Perry Mason moments of courtroom drama. The absence of these elements may explain the film’s relative obscurity among Hitchcock’s works. It certainly contributed to a poor showing at the box office. The film made only $1.2 million domestically — well below the $4.4 million haul for Hitchcock’s other 1956 release, The Man Who Knew Too Much. These results pointed to disappointed expectations. ‘Every moment an eternity of suspense,’ the Warner Bros. trailer promised. But audiences primed for the Hitchcock brand found something else entirely: a spare, dark account of working-class lives upended by false arrest.” —Jason Isralowitz (Introduction, Nothing to Fear: Alfred Hitchcock and ‘The Wrong Men,’ 2023)

Critics and scholars have largely neglected The Wrong Man for this very reason, so it is wonderful to announce that a book length study of this undervalued masterwork is finally available. Drawing from archival records, Jason Isralowitz offers a deep dive into the true life history behind the Many Balestrero case along with an examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. He examines how Hitchcock fused striking visual motifs with social realism to create a timeless work of art. The film bears witness to issues that animate the contemporary innocence movement, including the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, the need for police lineup reforms, and the dangers of investigative “tunnel vision.” Given the hundreds of exonerations of the wrongfully convicted in recent years, The Wrong Man remains as timely as ever.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to talk to Isralowitz about his excellent new book.

The Wrong Man - SS03

AHM: First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your new book and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man.

JI: It’s my pleasure.

AHM: As far as I know, this is the first book devoted to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, and some may be surprised to learn that you come at the subject from a legal perspective. What gave you the idea to write a book devoted to this often-overlooked gem, and what challenges did you face bringing it to completion?

JI: About five years ago, I watched The Wrong Man for the first time in many years. I was struck by how urgent the film feels today even though it was made in 1956. It tells a powerful true story of a miscarriage of justice, one that tapped into Hitchcock’s lifelong fear of the police. And yet it remains one of the director’s more obscure films. And so on one level, the book sprang from my interest in drawing attention to the film. But there were two other elements that fueled the project. The first was that I wanted to investigate the real case that inspired the film, and to understand the systemic problems that led to the arrest and prosecution of the protagonist, Manny Balestrero. And the second was that I wanted to explore the way Hitchcock depicted and illuminated those problems. He made The Wrong Man long before the modern innocence movement and yet, in an uncompromising way, the film puts on display issues that experts would later acknowledge have contributed to many wrongful convictions. So, both the underlying true story and the film remain very timely.

The biggest challenge for me was finding the time to complete the book. The research and writing took a long time and during the entire period I remained a full-time practicing lawyer. So, I wrote most of the book on weekends.

AHM: What was your most surprising discovery while researching the book?

JI: I was surprised by the extent of the research and investigation that went into the making of The Wrong Man. Members of the filmmaking team — whether Hitchcock, associate producer Herbert Coleman, co-screenwriter Angus MacPhail, or others — conducted many interviews with the people involved in the actual events. This included not only Manny and his wife, Rose, but also members of the extended Balestrero family; the judge who presided at the trial; the eyewitnesses who misidentified Manny; the alibi witnesses; the expert who administered Manny’s lie detector test; the psychiatrist who treated Rose; and many more. This was all part of Hitchcock’s quest for authenticity in his depiction of the events. And there were notes of a lot of these meetings in the film’s production files that were very helpful to the research.

AHM: The first unit of the book discusses various true “wrong man” histories or case studies that occurred prior to the wrongful arrest of Christopher Emanuel Balestrero, the second unit focuses on the actual Balestrero case, and the third is devoted to the film itself. There’s a wealth of information here. Which of these units was the most challenging to research?

JI: The most challenging was the Balestrero case itself. Because Manny’s prosecution ended in a mistrial, and because the case dates back 70 years, there is no available criminal case file.  For a while it looked like I might have to rely more than I’d like on newspaper and magazine accounts for a lot of the details. But several years into the project I discovered that the transcript of the criminal trial was available in the Warner Bros. archives at the USC Cinematic Arts Library. After extended delays occasioned by the pandemic and some renovations of the archives, I was able to get a copy of the trial transcript. That was extraordinarily helpful for the second part of the book. I was also able to get access, through the New York State Archives, to the files on Manny’s civil litigation against Prudential Insurance Company and the City of New York. Plus, Herbert Brean’s treatment for The Wrong Man had extensive excerpts from the case file of Manny’s lawyer, Frank O’Connor. So, in the end I was able to recreate Manny’s ordeal, with a lot of novelistic details, from these sources, along with those materials in The Wrong Man files that I mentioned.

AHM: There is certainly a lot more information about the case than what is included in the magazine articles that I have read.

In the book’s introduction, you mention Alfred Hitchcock’s ambivalence about the film when he was interviewed by Truffaut in 1962. One of the director’s more annoying habits was that he tended to adopt the majority critical opinion towards his films. He tended to simply assume that they were right, and I don’t believe that they were in the case of The Wrong Man. In fact, I feel like if this very same film were delivered by some other director — perhaps Elia Kazan or Sidney Lumet — that they may have embraced it with enthusiasm. There wouldn’t have been any preconceived notions as to what the film should have been tainting their experience. The trouble is that neither one of those directors would have approached the film from Balestrero’s perspective (at least not in the same way that Hitchcock does).

JI: That’s a great point. It’s clear from the reviews that critics came to the film with expectations that this would be a typical Hitchcock entertainment, with the type of suspense, thrills, and set pieces that marked many of his other mistaken identity films. What they got instead was an uncompromising and restrained approach that did justice to the real story. Hitchcock recognized the incredible drama and stakes inherent in the story of an innocent family that was nearly destroyed by a fallible criminal justice system. And even though he later second-guessed his approach, I think his first instincts to emphasize realism and to tell the story from Manny’s perspective were absolutely right.

AHM: I agree completely.

That first unit establishes a precedence for wrongful arrests and convictions based on eyewitness testimonies in New York during the years prior to Balestrero’s arrest. Victims include Bertram Campbell, Cecelia Leib, Elizabeth Lester, Clifford Shephard, Nancy Louise Botts, Philip Caruso, Louis Hoffner, Thomas Oliver, William Hansley, Horace Wright (possibly), Samuel Tito Williams, Salvatore Gerace, and James Francis.

What systemic flaws created the circumstances that derailed the lives of these individuals, and how did these issues relate to the case of “Manny” Balestrero?

JI: One root issue was the way that the American criminal justice system treated eyewitness testimony. Authorities often accepted eyewitness identifications without much scrutiny. Today, it is widely accepted that eyewitnesses often are mistaken. But back in the 1940s and 1950s, the legal system often seemed to treat eyewitness testimony as infallible, especially if there were multiple eyewitnesses. On top of that, the procedures used by authorities to secure the identifications were suggestive and unfair. Many of the victims you mentioned were subjected to “showups” — the display of a suspect alone before an eyewitness — which would later be condemned since they convey to the eyewitness the police’s belief in the suspect’s guilt. And the lineups (the display of the suspect in a group) weren’t much better because little effort was made to fill the lineup with people of similar appearance. So in the cases you mention, you often had a convergence of several factors: a hasty determination of the suspect’s guilt based on what the eyewitnesses said; suggestive procedures aimed at confirming the premature determination of guilt rather than providing a true test of the eyewitness’s accuracy; and then an ignoring or suppressing of evidence that pointed to the suspect’s innocence.

Manny Balestrero fell victim to similar problems. The detectives accepted the eyewitnesses’ accusations against Manny with hardly any investigation. Prosecutors never seriously looked into Manny’s story or his alibis (which were substantial). And the identification procedures deployed against Manny were terribly unfair. Yet when you look at all the evidence in the case objectively, it’s clear that the state’s case against Manny never made much sense from the beginning. To take just one example, to accept the state’s theory, you had to believe that Manny held up the Prudential Insurance office in Jackson Heights on July 9, 1952 and December 18, 1952 — and that less than a month after the second robbery, he returned to that very same office, accurately identified himself, presented his wife’s insurance policy, and asked for a loan. None of the detectives or the prosecutors ever stopped and considered how implausible this chain of events was.

AHM: How have things changed? Have there been any improvements to our justice system that has led to fewer wrongful convictions (especially in regard to mistaken identity)?

JI: It took a long time, but in the aftermath of the DNA testing revolution in the early 1990s and the resulting exonerations of hundreds of people, there has finally been more of a reckoning with some of the flaws in the system. Over time, the legal system has proven incredibly resistant to change. But the Innocence Project and similar public interest groups have made a big difference in recent years — not only in securing exonerations, but also in promoting and securing improvements in identification procedures and other institutional reforms. There’s now a much wider acceptance of the idea that eyewitness testimony is unreliable and a recognition that eyewitness misidentification has been perhaps the greatest single cause of wrongful convictions in this country. And some prosecutors’ offices have established wrongful conviction units to more proactively investigate innocence claims. With that said, the causes of wrongful convictions have proven very persistent and the National Registry of Exonerations continues to report many exonerations of people who were convicted even within the last decade. And one of the tragedies here is that it is inevitable that there have been many wrongful convictions that still haven’t come to light.

AHM: It is obvious from reading the book that you are familiar with Hitchcock’s work, and I was wondering how you became a fan of his work. Did you dive into his filmography during the research for “Nothing to Fear,” or were you already acquainted with his body of work?

JI: I discovered Hitchcock in college. While I was at Boston University, our dorm screened Psycho on the night of Halloween, and I was blown away by it. That’s where my interest in Hitchcock really started and I saw many of his films while in college and law school. And then as a young lawyer, I wrote a law journal article on Rear Window and the way it explores the delicate balance between crime control interests, on the one hand, and privacy, on the other. And that project led me to seek out some of his lesser-known films, like I Confess (which I also think is underrated). His movies are so rich and rewarding on so many different levels. I enjoyed revisiting many of the films for purposes of the book.

AHM: The opening pages of “Chapter Ten: My Basic Fears” discuss some of Hitchcock’s other “wrong man” features and their treatment of that theme and other related themes. I’m wondering which of those other “wrong man” films are your favorite, and what would your favorite Hitchcock film be overall?

JI: Of the other “wrong man” films, my favorite is probably Strangers on a Train. It has one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains in Bruno Antony and it also has several knockout suspense sequences, including the two different scenes at the amusement park. Overall, though, my favorite Hitchcock film is Psycho, with Rear Window a close second.

AHM: In the book, you claim that it is “one of the most important movies about criminal justice ever made.” What makes the film so important in this regard?

JI: Hitchcock made the film at a time when the legal system had not yet reckoned with its own role in false arrests and wrongful convictions. The system was, in effect, in a state of denial. And here came Hitchcock with this strikingly realistic film that illuminated the truth of what was really going on in these cases. The film not only works so effectively as a dramatic depiction of one specific miscarriage of justice, but it also puts on display the problems that would plague the system for decades to come, including the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, suggestive identification procedures, and what is now referred to as “tunnel vision” — the tendency of the authorities to reach an early conclusion about a suspect and filter all the evidence they receive through the lens of that conclusion.

The Wrong Man is also the rare film that pays attention to the family trauma from false arrest, with its haunting depiction of the breakdown that Rose Balestrero experienced. The film delivers a powerful and timeless warning about the need for vigilance in the administration of justice.

AHM: One aspect of your book that I admire is that it offers a very different reading of The Wrong Man than most Hitchcock scholars (and a new way for viewers to experience the film). As you point out in the book, most critics and scholars tend to blame fate for Manny’s predicament. The book makes a convincing argument that his predicament is not only not that unusual but goes further and places the blame not on the police investigation: “It’s just that the evil identified in the film is not a knowing attempt to frame an innocent man. It is, instead, a rush to judgment by detectives that has become part of their mode of doing business.

Even so, the film is extremely surreal despite Hitchcock’s efforts to portray the events as realistically as possible. What accounts for this? It’s certainly clear in the film that the investigation is single minded in its efforts to incriminate Manny, so why does the film leave so many critics with the impression that fate is to blame?

JI: This point is a source of fascination to me. I think part of the answer is that the film is so restrained and understated. It’s a quiet film and Hitchcock never interrupts the story to have characters make dramatic speeches about the terrible way Manny is being treated. On top of that, the detectives have a tonal reasonableness about them and so perhaps the danger of how they are handling the case — and the recklessness of their procedures and conclusions — becomes harder to see as a result. That would especially be the case for critics and audiences in the 1950s, who were generally deferential to the police. At that time, the accepted narrative surrounding mistaken identity cases was that eyewitnesses had made sincere and unavoidable mistakes — and there was little scrutiny of how the authorities had handled the case beyond that. And on one level that narrative was more comforting to the public because it made the prospect of the same thing happening to you seem more remote.

Martin Scorsese has made the point that modern audiences can appreciate an older film uninhibited by the values that prevailed at the time the film was made. I think The Wrong Man lands differently now than it did in the 1950s, given everything we know from the Innocence Movement and the exonerations of the wrongfully convicted. And yet Hitchcock’s critique of the state’s handling of Manny’s case was there from the very beginning. You see in the film a criminal justice system that was very much responsible for this tragedy.

AHM: The book’s epilogue discusses various participants in the Balestrero case, and one of the most interesting revelations is that Frank Crisona (the Assistant D.A. who prosecuted the case) ended up serving time in prison for mail and wire fraud. This had somehow escaped my knowledge. Did this come as a surprise during your research for the book, or did you know this when you started working on the book?

JI: It came as a complete surprise and one that I found incredibly ironic. While Crisona’s conviction was covered in the press in 1968, no one, to my knowledge, ever connected him back to Manny’s case. That may have been because Crisona’s role in Manny’s prosecution wasn’t that widely publicized. In any case, the criminal conviction of the man who prosecuted “the wrong man” is a plot twist worthy of Hitchcock.

Interview by: Devon Powell



3 thoughts on “Book Interview: Nothing to Fear — Alfred Hitchcock and The Wrong Men

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