One of the most enticing aspects of film noir is how fate plays such a huge hand in determining the outcome of lives that go down roads to perdition. When Kevin Courrier was doing a lecture series on film noir, he wrote this piece to accompany the program.
In John Farrow's shrewdly plotted The Big Clock (1948), magazine editor George Stroud (Ray Milland) wishes to have a nice vacation with his enduringly patient wife (Maureen O'Sullivan). But before he can pack his bags, he finds himself fired by his malevolent boss, Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), and eventually framed for the murder of Janoth's mistress (Rita Johnson). In a moment of human weakness, Stroud had engaged Janoth's lover in a conversation about possibly blackmailing his overbearing superior. Although Stroud had no interest in carrying it out (despite how appealing it was to consider), it sets him up to be the patsy. Stroud spends most of the movie running through the publishing house escaping capture instead of drinking cocktails with his wife on the beach. (The Big Clock would be remade as a political thriller, No Way Out, with Kevin Costner as the pursued innocent in 1987.)
|Charles Laughton and Ray Milland in The Big Clock|
|Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train|
What makes The Wrong Man such an unnerving film noir is that Manny calmly co-operates with the authorities, totally confident in his innocence. He goes through witness line-ups (sometimes in other places where the robber had stolen before) and answers all their questions. But the more he does his duty, the insanity of legal bureaucracy and faulty perception digs him into a deeper hole. The sequence of events ultimately costs his wife her sanity as she begins to not trust even her own confidence in reality. Perfectly cast, Fonda conveys the common decency of a man who believes in truth and justice, but those sentiments are inadequate to human and legal fallibility.Owing no small debt to Kafka, The Wrong Man isn't so much about the unacknowledged darker wishes and desires of a good man; but instead, about a good man tainted by the unacknowledged darker perceptions of the culture he is part of. For no malevolent reason at all.