In his examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Wrong Man, University of Arkansas film scholar Jonathan Cavallero finds that the director perpetuated the very stereotype he tried to avoid in the film. The film’s Italian-American protagonist is not a movie mobster, nor does he appear Italian, which may make his innocence more believable.
“In order to level a critique at American conformity, it seems Hitchcock himself conformed to the prejudices of Hollywood productions,” Cavallero wrote in an article published in the Journal of Film and Video. “Rather than perpetuate the stereotype through the representation of an ethnic criminal, Hitchcock perpetuated the stereotype by refusing to make the wrong man ethnic.”
The Wrong Man was based on the factual experience of an Italian-American man, who, wrongly accused of a robbery, accepted the injustices that befell him as a result of the accusation. Hitchcock used the film to criticize the social conformity of the McCarthy-era United States, but the task was complicated by the main character’s ethnicity. Hitchcock wasn’t willing to negate the gangster stereotype of Italian-Americans common in earlier Hollywood productions, such as Scarface and Little Caesar.
Hitchcock’s “usual style of filmmaking, in which an audience was encouraged to identify closely with a character, was complicated by Hollywood’s previous use of Italian/American protagonists, especially in crime films,” Cavallero wrote.
Italian-American characters in Hollywood “grew out of larger cultural discourse that framed Italians as ethnic ‘others,’ not ‘Americans,’ Cavallero wrote. Moreover, “audiences were invited to blame ethnicity, ethnic characters, and/or ethnic cultures for the state of the United States during the Depression.”
Prior to World War II, Italian-Americans had been often treated as outsiders in the United States: newspapers blamed Italians for the Great Depression, and during the second world war some Italians were sent to internment camps or were subject to curfew and travel restrictions. Italian-Americans enlisted heavily in World War II, and coming out of the war, some movies, such as Marty and Rose Tattoo, while still employing Italian stereotypes, had moved away from the association with criminality.
Several factors in The Wrong Man work to distance the main character, Manny Balestrero, from the stereotype of an Italian-American. One way that Hitchcock countered the negative perception of Manny’s ethnicity was to “whiten” him, thus making him an acceptable, mainstream American. In one carefully constructed scene, Manny is arrested and fingerprinted. Hitchcock cuts to an extreme close-up of his hand with the fingers stained by black ink, a contrast that establishes that Manny is not black and, therefore, is white. A similar technique had been used in earlier films like The Jazz Singer, where white ethnic actors used blackface makeup to claim their white status.
Hitchcock cast Henry Fonda, a star who was known for playing icons like Abraham Lincoln and Wyatt Earp, as Manny. Fonda furthers the notion that Manny is an American everyman, and he is able “to ‘whiten’ the character simply with his presence,” Cavallero writes. Fonda plays Manny as a thoroughly assimilated individual who has none of the stereotypical Italian characteristics used in movies of the time. Not only is he not a criminal, but also he has none of the ethnic markers – no Italian accent, no hand gestures – common with Italian characters in films.
His wife is not Italian, and she and Manny live in an anonymous house in a non-ethnic neighborhood with their two apparently non-ethnic children. There is no garlic or pasta in their kitchen. The stereotypical Italianness of Manny’s mother, sister and brother-in-law only serve to emphasize Manny’s assimilation.
In fact, Cavallero said, “Hitchcock’s decision to water down Balestrero’s ethnicity, while preserving the ethnicity of those around him, capitulates to the stereotype instead of challenging it.”
Further, Manny becomes so non-ethnic that it was difficult for audience members to recognize the film’s critique of Hollywood’s traditional use of Italian ethnicity. That includes experienced film viewers, Cavallero said: even director Francois Truffaut, who wrote an entire book with Hitchcock on Hitchcock’s films forgot that Manny was Italian.
Cavallero’s article is titled “Hitchcock and Race: Is the Wrong Man a White Man?” Cavallero is an assistant professor of communication in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas.