The Wrong Man (1956)

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Manny Balestrero Dindu Nuffin

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Wrong Man is based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who was arrested in 1953 after being mistaken for an armed robber. Like in the other Henry Fonda film 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man is also an examination of the flaws in human cognition – in this case, the issue of faulty eyewitness testimony. However, this isn’t actually Fonda’s first film on the subject matter. Previously he starred in 1939’s Let Us Live, another film about a man who is falsely arrested due to poor eyewitness testimony. Both films differ greatly in their plot structure and characters but surprisingly the one thing they share in common other than the subject matter and the lead actor is interestingly enough, an emphasis on Catholicism. It remains to be seen however if Alfred Hitchcock looked at Let Us Live as a source of inspiration for The Wrong Man.

The Wrong Man is absent of any Alfred Hitchcock or Hollywood artifice but rather the movie has that European, neo-realism feel. A film which really captures the urban landscape in all its glory which is only enhanced more by the sounds of the city and the jazz music score; a hallmark which really characterises noir in this period with films such as The Sweet Smell of Success. Likewise, the film has several shots really worth examining from Fonda walking through the doorway of his house and closing a door we the viewer never see to the zoom through the open slit in the prison door onto Fonda and then back out again.

The Wrong Man has no witty dialogue or Roger O’Thornhill style adventures to capture the real culprits. Rather Hitchcock creates something which is oppressively real. A story which really gets under your skin, questions your faith in the criminal justice system, arises your inner skeptic and makes you ask: what if this happened to me? The Wrong Man does as effective a job as possible in both showing and making us feel the degradation Manny Balesterero goes through. In my mind there existed the doubt that Manny really did commit the crime but such a crazy plot twist never comes to fruition.

During the scene early in the film in which Manny visits the Insurance Company Office and the woman at the booth goes over to her work colleagues and asks them to look at the man standing over there in which they all agree he is the man who robbed them months earlier is an example of what we would now refer to as confirmation bias. It this scene an unintentional representation of this or did Hitchcock have knowledge of this phenomenon (the term itself wasn’t coined until 1960).

Some of the elements of the criminal procedure shown in The Wrong Man would not be permissible today; subjects being arrested without being given the Miranda Rights or informed of the crime they are suspected off, interviews being conducted without a written or taped recording being kept, two witnesses allowed to be present together during an identification parade. Manny is even denied the formality of letting his wife know where he’s going despite literally being in the house he is right outside off: would that even have been allowed at the time? Likewise, notice how the friendly cops keep referring to Manny as Chris. The name on his license if Christopher Emmanual Balestrero thus they assume he is called Chris. – The Wrong Man is full of little details like this.

On a lighter note though, what is up with the Balestrero’s two kids?  “We ought to get two music lessons today because we didn’t get any yesterday” – You’re father was just in prison yesterday child, cut him some slack. Likewise in another scene on the kids answers the phone and just puts it down and when his mother asks who it was he just says “it was some man, he didn’t say” – stupid kids.

When Manny is at the police station being questioned by two cops he is made to write down on a piece of paper the words from a note the robber had written himself. The results show that Manny’s handwriting is similar to that found on the note (although the cops don’t hold this against him as they state people tend to write in a similar manner when using upper case) but also that Manny misspells the word “drawer” as “draw” in the same manner that the criminal did on the original note. Surely this is a flawed piece of evidence? Firstly a real criminal could take advantage of the situation and alter his handwriting. Secondly, the officer reading out the note to Manny has a heavy accent and made his pronunciation sound like “draw” not to mention the actual note he is reading from says “draw” and not “drawer” which could have affected his pronunciation a very subtle, subconscious way. Not to mention there is something very suspicious about the way the two cops handle the notes as they hand them back and forth between each other.

The courtroom scene in The Wrong Man is itself chilling. People are chatting, walking in and out, bored, dozing off, the jury is disinterested and Manny’s lawyer appears to just ask the witnesses stupid questions which lead nowhere. Manny’s entire future is on the line yet nobody seems to care. Regardless the real criminal gets caught and Balestrero is acquitted. However, the Fonda “lookalike” does not resemble Fonda and looks far more thuggish other than having the same face shape and cheekbones (in the real-life case Balestrero and the actual criminal looked far more alike). The last appearance of those two smarmy women who first identified Manny at the police station, making no apology to Manny when they see him after his exoneration for all that has happened to him and his family. I always had a bad feeling about them since their very first appearance.

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Invitation to the Dance (1956)

Gotta Dance!

Invitation to the Dance is often dismissed as a failed experiment; I must disagree. In my eyes Invitation to the Dance is a masterful achievement. I find many anthology films tend to be hit and miss with their segments but all three segments presented here are gems. A pure representation of Gene Kelly’s artistry as seen in ballet sequences in previous Kelly musicals. Invitation to the Dance was made in 1953, when Kelly was at the height of his powers, however, due to the film’s lack of commercial prospects. It wasn’t released until 1956 when the movie musical had dropped in popularity due to their lack of commercial viability from the rise of television.

The film’s title says it all; this is a film which tried to make dance more accessible to all and not just some Gene Kelly vanity project. A film to show that dancing isn’t for “sissies”; it can be masculine and badass. Originally Kelly was only going to appear in one segment with the rest starring the greatest dancers in Europe; however, the studio wouldn’t allow this and demanded he appears in all the segments. Regardless I still feel the film succeeds in feeling like an inclusive experience with its array of dancers including a young child whom appear alongside Kelly and are all given their moment in the sun.

The first segment “Circus” offers a slice of early 20th century European culture with a beautiful array of sets full of eye-pleasing colours which still manage to feel authentic; somewhere that’s been used and lived in. All three segments in Invitation to the Dance are devoid of dialogue but Circus really does call back to silent cinema with its melodramatic love triangle premise. In his role as a mime, Kelly gets to express the full range of his physical talents and uses his face to convey all his emotion. Circus is a fine piece of tragic, visual melodrama with an emotionally gutting finale.

The second sequence “Ring Around the Rosy” is the section of the film most reminiscent of the MGM musical in the 1950’s with its use of impressionistic backgrounds as seen in the ballet sequences of Kelly’s musicals. I never do tire of these backgrounds as they’re always a pleasure to behold; an aesthetic and atmosphere which really characterised musicals of the era. I do love the humor present in the segment such as the femme fatale with the exaggerated Veronica Lake hairstyle which constantly had to be pulled back in order for her to even see, to the singer whose voice is the sound of a trumpet which causes the dames to swoon and faint.

The final segment “Sinbad the Sailor” is the most impressive on a technical level in which Kelly dances alongside animated characters in a dazzling piece of Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy. Famously Kelly had previously danced alongside Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945 ) however Sinbad the Sailor takes this to a new level in which Kelly occupies a fully animated environment. The integration and interactions with the animated world and its characters are largely seamless and more than impressive for the time, with the dance steps of the animated characters being on synch with Kelly’s steps. Likewise, he is also joined by a live-action child and only Kelly himself could dance that well with a child. During this segment Kelly also finds a love interest with an animated Middle Eastern girl and the two even engage in a kiss: An early example of an inter-racial kiss in cinema, even if it is between a live action man and an animated woman.

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Old Testament, Real Wrath of God Type Stuff

Upon viewing with my own eyes Cecil B DeMille’s motion picture production of The Ten Commandments, I can only conclude that is cinematic entertainment worthy of the almighty himself and one of which I can wholeheartedly recommend to my fellow man. For man shall be entertained by the will of great cinema, not be the will of inferior productions, for cinema is cinema.

Ok, I won’t talk like that for the entire review but yes, I love old Hollywood epics. The sheer scope, the bombastic music scores, the rich storytelling, everyone talking like they’re Laurence Olivier with everything they say being an epic monologue of well, biblical proportions. You can’t get films like this made anymore. No studio would be willing to finance such a project nor would moviegoers be willing to watch a film four hours long; they would run for the hills if you even suggest it to them.

From the films I’ve seen or have tried to watch from Cecil B. DeMille (aside from The Greatest Show on Earth which I also enjoyed) his work comes off to me as dull, turgid experiences. The Ten Commandments is an unashamedly old-fashioned, stagey and creaky film even for its time but that was DeMille’s Victorian style. Yet with the Ten Commandments, all these DeMillen elements work; perhaps his entire career was leading up to this one film. The Ten Commandments is one of the most classic of old Hollywood epics tapping in with the public’s fascination with Egyptology. No scene during all fours hours of The Ten Commandments feels unneeded, something interesting is always going on with special effects and sets which get better with age; fake but in a good way. Moses parting the sea is one of the greatest and most awe-inspiring special effects shots in cinema history; I can never take my eyes off the screen when it as it occurs.

Only a handful of scenes in The Ten Commandments were filmed on location with the majority being filmed within the confines of studio sets. Yet it is impressive how DeMille is able to create such a vast world in spite of this, beaming with life and personality; a lavish ancient Egyptian fantasy land that you can lose yourself in and one which feels lived in. The cuts between location and the Hollywood sets are seamless while the widespread use of blue screen, matte paintings and miniatures help create scenes which look like beautiful paintings. Also keeping with DeMille’s Victorian sensibilities, the contemporaneous composer Elmer Bernstein is a surprising choice to compose music for The Ten Commandments but delivers an appropriate, bombastic score complete with horns galore.

Everything Charlton Heston says has so much weight to it; his Moses is a superman of whom you would happily follow in a heartbeat and the humanitarian saving grace to the Hebrews when he is still in line to the throne. Yul Brynner, however, is the actor who steals the show; one of the coolest looking stars of the big screen with his distinctive bald look. With his broad and toned figure, no one could look better or strut wearing that Egyptian headdress and attire. Rames is so evil, suave, chauvinistic and charming; at times you love to hate him, at other times you can’t help to just love him. This is a man who would do just about anything to attain power and even no has no problem telling his potential future wife she’s no better than a dog. Heston and Brynner are opposing forces of masculine badassery with every line of dialogue they utter raising the hairs on my back. – There’s no method acting here, it’s completely old school theatrics.

The Ten Commandments boasts one of the most impressive ensembles casts ever to grace a Hollywood production in which every role feels significant from Edward G Robinson as slimy, cocky, shameless snitch Dathan (no one could pull these traits better than him) to the devilish Vincent Price. The other surprisingly entertaining, campy and sultry performance in the film is Anne Baxter as Nefertiti, of whom I swear has to be a nymphomaniac in the way she swoons and gets excited over the thought of Moses and even getting off on Ramses’ insults, not to mention to odd line of innuendo thrown in there (“The very dirty one there. He may serve my purpose”). Likewise, the film’s constant use of the word bondage will get some laughs for the more immature viewer.

A friend of mine once told me that what prevented him from enjoying The Ten Commandments was that Moses got the easy way out by relying on God’s miracles in order to free his people from slavery in instead of political intervention. In reality, without divine intervention, would Moses’ best option be to keep his identity a secret and free the slaves once he becomes Pharaoh? Then there’s the age-old question, if God is all-powerful, then why does he let bad things happen? Moses asks the film’s fire and brimstone representation of God this when he encounters the burning bush but gets no answer. Regardless, such Deus Ex Machina doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of The Ten Commandments.

I am past the militant atheist phase of my life in which I would have to proclaim my lack of religiosity at any given point and thought I knew better. Regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof, stories such as that of the Book of Exodus helped to create the Judeo-Christian values of which define western civilization, in this, a prime variation of the hero’s journey. Prior to the opening credits of The Ten Commandments, DeMille gives an opening prologue in which he speaks to the audience in person of how the upcoming story is about “the birth of freedom” in which the theme of this picture is “whether men are to be ruled of God’s law, or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Ramses? Are men property of the state or are they free souls under God?” DeMille concludes stating “This same battle continues throughout the world today”. Surely it’s no coincidence that the final line spoken in The Ten Commandments is Moses proclaiming, “Go. Proclaim liberty throughout all the lands, unto all the inhabitants thereof”. This was in 1956 when the communist, centralized state society of the USSR was engaged in a cold war with the USA, a country which inalienable rights are endowed by a Creator which government can’t supersede. – Yet, this battle of Moses vs. Ramses still continues on the world stage into the 21st century.

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Bogart’s Swansong Packs a Punch

Watching Humphrey Bogart’s final film is interesting on a number of levels. From the Saul Bass-inspired opening credits to the jazzy music score, it’s unique to see Bogart in a more contemporary 1950’s film. I imagine if he lived longer and stared in movies for at least a few more years they would have been in a similar vein aesthetically to The Harder They Fall. In a period in which opening credits were becoming more interdict, the movie uses them to set up the plot; as soon as they’re over we are right into the heart of the story.

The film features a generational clash between Bogart and Rod Steiger; Bogart being of the old theatrical style of acting while Steiger being of the modern method style of acting. However, I’ve always found Bogart to be an adaptable actor and he seamlessly blends into these unfamiliar surroundings. Bogart’s role as Eddie Willis is one of the most interesting heroic performances of his career, a character dealing with his moral and ethical conscience throughout the film. He may take part in the corruption game but he never fully believes in what is doing and tries to make it as unscrupulous as possible. Likewise, Rod Steiger portrays corrupt sports promoter Nick Benko, a villain who believes his actions are justified. A villain who isn’t evil for the sake of it but throughout the film I get the sense he actually believes in what he’s doing. Steiger hams it up from time to time but in a good way.

The Harder They Fall deals with corruption in boxing and how promoters exploit athletes regardless of their health or well being while also celebrating the power of writing as a force to fight wrong and enforce positive social change, proving once again the pen is mightier than the sword, or should I say boxing glove. I’d be hard pressed to find a film which presents a more in-depth look at corruption in boxing. It’s an informative experience into who pulls the strings and how. The fight scene themselves look like the real deal, no speed up footage or obviously faked punches. Likewise, the grime and sweatiness of boxing arenas and training gyms never fail as effective subjects to capture on film, especially in black and white. Also, what’s the deal with that bus with the cardboard cutouts attached to it? It’s almost like a character in itself.

I had a sense of melancholy during the movie’s closing shots knowing this was the last time Bogart appeared on screen. Bogart was in poor health during the film’s production, suffering from lung cancer (although ironically it doesn’t stop him from lighting up during the movie), but thankfully doesn’t affect his ability to deliver a great performance. The Harder They Fall proves to be a worthy conclusion to, in my opinion, one of the most impressive careers every held by any actor in the history of cinema.