- Hitchcock and Race:Is the Wrong Man a White Man?
So much scholarship has appeared on Alfred Hitchcock that Thomas Leitch has written that "it makes sense to speak of Hitchcock studies as a field of study" ("Hitchcock and Company" 1). Yet the representation of race and ethnicity in Hitchcock's work has been neglected. Only two essays, James Morrison's "Hitchcock's Ireland: The Performance of Irish Identity in Juno and the Paycock and Under Capricorn" and Richard Allen's "Sir John and the Half-Caste: Identity and Representation in Hitchcock's Murder!" purport to treat this important topic in any kind of detail. Morrison treats Irish identity not as a cultural phenomenon but rather as a political one. That is, identities are framed in relation to the political borders within which the characters operate (Ireland and Australia, respectively) and their relationships to British colonial power. Methods of communication, stereotypes, food, kinship patterns, cultural roles, and other folkways are largely ignored. Allen's essay investigates Hitchcock's cinematic adaptation of Clemence Dane's Enter Sir John. In Dane's novel, the murderous villain's (Handel Fane) racial identity as a "half-caste" assures his guilt and thereby plays a more significant narrative role than in Hitchcock's Murder! (1930). Allen argues that Hitchcock's decision to emphasize Fane's sexual identity while reducing his racial background to a MacGuffin represents "the achievement of the work" while simultaneously pointing "to the limits of that achievement." Hitchcock uses the racial/racist theme of the novel to complicate the idea of an overly simplistic notion of sexual identities, but in so doing, he leaves the "casual racism of the 'half-caste' moniker unresolved" (123).
Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) employs a similar strategy by tempering Manny Balestrero's (Henry Fonda) Italian background even as it preserves his ethnic name, the "ethnicness" of his Italian relatives, and his Catholic beliefs. Whereas Murder! retreated from a more radical statement about ethnic/racial inequality in favor of an interest in the sexual, The Wrong Man "Anglicizes" Manny to moderate the film's challenge toward the stereotypical association (especially in Hollywood films) between Italian ethnicity and criminality. In so doing, Hitchcock's film, which levels a strong critique at 1950s American conformity, ultimately conforms itself by refusing to offer a protagonist who is both innocent and blatantly ethnic. Unfortunately, the ethnic and racial aspects of this and other Hitchcock films has been largely ignored by Hitchcock scholars, who have tended to marginalize these issues in favor of an interest in the representation of gender norms, the psychoanalytic aspects of his work, and the formal mastery of his films. The Wrong Man is one of many Hitchcock films that deals significantly with issues of race and ethnicity, [End Page 3] and the investigation of these topics should be a primary concern of Hitchcock studies.
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The Wrong Man is a downbeat film about a middle-class Italian American wrongly accused of robbery. After being falsely charged, Balestrero passively accepts the injustices that befall him because he feels he does not have the means or the right to protest. Rather than encouraging audiences to sympathize with his plight, the film castigates the oppressive conformity that resulted from and, in the rhetoric of Senator Joseph McCarthy and others, supposedly assured the "security" of the 1950s (Sterritt 66–67).1 As Donald Spoto writes, "[t]o view The Wrong Man primarily as the condemnation of a harsh and impersonal judicial system is to miss its wider scope and to limit its provocative potential … [Hitchcock's] mistrust and fear are directed at the whole of society, at the tenuous psychological structures we build as a defense against that society" (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock 288). In some ways, then, Manny Balestrero is similar to one of his literary contemporaries, Tom Rath. The protagonist of Sloan Wilson's 1955 best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is similarly obsessed with kowtowing (at least at the start of the novel) to society's expectations...