By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published May 16, 2019
St. Stephen did nothing wrong.
As he testified about the power of God and the truth of the resurrection, his audience scorned him and “cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.”
The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that they “laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul … and Saul was consenting to Stephen’s execution.”
Stephen dies a violent death, martyred for the faith. Saul later receives a stunning epiphany on the road to Damascus, is transformed as Paul and goes on to become one of the most influential men who ever lived.
Coincidence? Fate? Serendipity? Why does one man suffer unto death, while another—a persecutor and murderer of Christians—receive an abundant life of purpose that transforms the world?
The faithful Catholic knows the answer to these questions: suffering can be redemptive; what the world might see as unfair is often a step toward salvation, and as St. Paul would later write to the Romans, indeed “all things work toward the good for those called according to God’s purpose.”
The filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock knew the complexity of suffering. In fact, one of Hitchcock’s greatest themes concerns the innocent man who is wrongly accused and who suffers profoundly because of that accusation. Yet, Hitchcock also believed in eternal justice. His suffering protagonist is delivered from his persecution and restored to his rightful place while the guilty receive the punishment they deserve.
Hitchcock worked with this Catholic theme in most of his films, usually within a completely fictional context. While his material was occasionally based upon anecdote or actual events, he never presented what might be called a true story until he made the film “The Wrong Man” in 1956.
Catholic beliefs embedded in film
Hitchcock was in fact a Catholic, which many viewers either don’t know or overlook. Educated in England in Jesuit schools, he drifted throughout his life in and out of practicing his Catholicism. Yet, he contributed generously and anonymously to Catholic charities, and he counted several priests among his friends. Most importantly, at the end of his life, he celebrated daily Mass at his home with a priest who obliged Hitchcock’s wishes that the liturgy be conducted in the Latin familiar to him as a boy. The priest later recalled that Hitchcock would be so moved by the Mass, that he would frequently weep as he received the Eucharist.
Hitchcock’s Catholicism, as I’ve written about before, is evident in all of his films. Though it’s rarely at the forefront, as it is in “I Confess,” his Catholic sensibilities, imagination and beliefs are always embedded within the films. Not to understand Hitchcock’s religion lessens an appreciation of his work.
Hitchcock’s faith, and his musing upon the paradox of suffering, are especially present in “The Wrong Man,” which is indeed based upon a true story.
The story concerns a New York City jazz musician, Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who is known to his family and friends simply as Manny. The name references not only the Christ, but also the everyman.
Manny visits a bank one afternoon to withdraw money against his wife Rose’s (Vera Miles) insurance policy. The Balestrero family struggles financially, and Rose needs expensive dentistry. While at the bank, Manny is wrongly identified by a teller as a man who previously robbed the bank. Manny is accosted by the police, who take him to the locations of other previous crimes, and the positive identification is corroborated by several other people. Manny is taken to police headquarters, identified in a line-up, booked and jailed.
The next day, his family manages to collect bail for Manny, and he then retains the legal services of a defense attorney named Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), who honestly tells Manny that it will be difficult to prove his innocence. His alibis are sketchy at best, and he has after all been identified.
As O’Connor works to assemble Manny’s defense, Rose goes mad, at one point striking Manny on the head. As a result of her illness, Rose is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Though Manny is eventually freed, Rose remains paranoid and cynical.
Hitchcock wanted to end the film at that, but Warner Brothers insisted on adding a canned happy ending. The happy ending coda can be overlooked; Hitchcock’s original vision and purpose—to present the audience with the theological and philosophical dilemmas of wrongful accusation and suffering—remain intact.
“The Wrong Man” is a chillingly effective film that draws upon both documentary style and the procedural police drama. Manny’s plight is horrifying. Nobody cares about who he is; they only care about making him into what they want him to be: guilty as charged. Accusations and identifications are made without certainty. Proper police procedure is flagrantly ignored. Manny, who is a sensitive and perceptive man, is reduced to living in an incoherent stupor. He simply cannot believe that what he is experiencing is actually happening.
A glimpse into the mystery of faith
I’ve watched the film with a variety of audiences and the reaction is always the same. Viewers are appalled not only at what happens to Manny but how he reacts. It’s not uncommon to witness viewers protest aloud to the screen.
The problem, as Hitchcock knows, is that society conditions us to believe in a fragile order based upon good and evil, right and wrong. Yet as a Catholic, Hitchcock knows that all of us are guilty of original sin, and all of us have a singular human nature in which the potential for good or bad exist together. We don’t have a dark side and a light side; we have a soul which is capable of redemption even in suffering.
Yet we all traverse a razor’s edge of certainty and doubt. All of Manny’s innocent presumptions about law and order and human decency are quite suddenly overturned. What he’s left with—which Hitchcock makes especially clear through the dramatic device of Manny’s rosary and his belief in prayer—is his simple faith.
I’m most impressed with how Hitchcock treats Manny’s faith. There is no piety, no sentimentality. Cheated by the police, doubted by his own attorney and abused by his wife, Manny simply and quietly resorts to prayer.
Stephen could not have desired death, yet in dying, he had a beatific vision. Saul could not have dreamed that he would be blinded into the fullness of grace. Likewise, Manny Balestrero never imagined that a simple errand to the bank would change his life forever. Yet all these men are transformed.
Hitchcock presents this true story with his typical irony and ambiguity, as well as his gift for sustaining suspense, yet he also allows us a glimpse into the mystery of faith, both his and our own.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.