The Wrong Man (1956) may not be Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film, but it still has scenes of exquisite, masterful, balanced filmmaking brilliance.
One scene in particular, where the strain of the accusations against musician and accused stick-up man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), drives his wife, Rose Balestrero (Vera Miles), to the edge, and the boiling tension finally bubbles over.
It’s a wonderful scene, so I decided to analyse it step-by-step in order to figure out how the emotional impact had been achieved. Cinematography analysis is like kids breaking their favourite toys in order to see what they are made of. Nevertheless, I’m going to do it. So there.
1. At the start, when Manny enters the room, we see the camera level is set above the eye level of Rose, that (combined with a wide angle lens) makes Rose look small and insignificant. However, her posture is signalling strength.
2. Wide master shot. A lot of empty space between Manny and Rose here. Manny could have sat down right next to his wife, but he doesn’t. There is definitely something going on.
We then get to see each of them more clearly, but Hitchcock avoids tight close up; there’s space here. That, coupled with the wide-angle lens, reinforces that idea of empty space between the characters.
An extremely tilted camera distances Manny as he hears insane accusations. Would you ever expect such a twist? Portrayed as small and insignificant from the very beginning, Rose now occupies the frame.
Now we see Rose torn, with some brilliant acting from Vera Miles.
Back in the days of heavy and bulky cameras, filmmakers mostly used static camera positions. Of course, this is an obvious disadvantage, especially compared to what technology can achieve nowadays, where cameras flow smoothly and travel almost everywhere. Nevertheless, a sparingly used ‘push-in’ has had so much more power in contrast to shots on the sticks. Nowadays push-ins are so common, they no longer seem to serve any purpose and are used in almost all close-ups.
As the scene develops, the surface tension is finally broken, and things are ready to spill over. We can’t present it here, but Hitchcock uses the sound of a train approaching to signal the impending action as Rose is ready to burst.
The creative editing stretches the time of an instant hit, allowing the viewer to see everything from multiple angles and different POV’s. The actual hit does not matter, it is the emotions of both Manny and Rose that are the focus of the scene.
Extreme close up! This is the climax of the scene! Same as with the push-in, such a shot is used only once in this scene and, if I recall correctly, only once in the whole film! If you tell the same joke too many times it will rapidly deteriorate from being brilliant to dull. Hitchcock follows the same principle with his shot selection.
The jump from tight close ups to wide angle emphasises the sudden and terrifying realisation of Rose and her “what have I done” moment. Consider how much less effective this scene would have been if the extreme or medium close up was used instead.
There is now a gradual transition as the climax has been reached, the tension released, and some sense of calm can return.
It is truly amazing how many different cinematic techniques have been used in this short sequence. In a four minute scene the viewer has embarked on an emotional roller-coaster, which started slow and calm, then rapidly elevated to its highest point, before releasing the tension and coming back to the beginning. We have witnessed the total collapse of a family. The noir lighting – extremely low key, with minimal fill – creates deep shadows which complement the mood of the film.
It’s a great example of how even simple, static shots on a tripod (which, by the way, can easily be recreated on a low budget) can create a stunning effect if enough attention is devoted to the creative choices of framing, lenses and blocking.