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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Real-Life Wrong Man

A Hitchcock classic offers a paradigm for understanding the Trump troubles.

Screen Shot 2023-06-27 at 11.51.34 AM
(Warner Bros., Inc./Public Domain)

Last summer, at the end of the week when the FBI raided Donald Trump’s residence at Mar-a-Lago in search of secret documents, I went to the movies.

I considered not going. Those of us who see merit in the Trump agenda and are charmed by Trump’s extravagantly unvarnished personality and old-fashioned showbiz-style excesses have sat through countless media-fueled faux controversies; it is easy enough to tune them out and go on with day-to-day life. But the blitz on Mar-a-Lago was of a different order—not merely an escalation, nearly everyone agreed, but a step into a more ominous future. 

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My instinct was proven right when the Biden Department of Justice indicted Trump on a slew of offenses related to the storing of documents at Mar-a-Lago. Yet I went ahead with my plans to see Alfred Hitchcock’s solemn true-life drama The Wrong Man, which was being screened as part of a local summer film series. I had a sixth sense that the film might help me better process the pursuit of Trump at the hand of a politicized justice system. It did then, and it does now.

Released in 1956, Hitchcock’s film is perhaps the least remembered of any of the Master of Suspense’s mature efforts. Derived from an actual incident, the film stars Henry Fonda as Manny Balestrero, a pious, stoic family man employed as a bass player at the Stork Club in New York. Through an accumulation of misidentifications, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations, purposeful and accidental, Manny comes to be a suspect in a wave of robberies, ultimately standing trial for the crimes—none of which he committed.

The film is a bleak affair. The Wrong Man has none of the spit and polish of Hitchcock’s grand entertainments, such as North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief. The principal characters are conspicuous for their passivity—Manny, though unwavering in insisting upon his innocence, allows himself to be carried along by the criminal justice system like a bottle bobbing in the tide, and his wife Rose (Vera Miles), having been mentally undone by the ordeal, begins to withdraw from reality itself. As a result, the film lacks the psychological complexity of the director’s masterpieces Vertigo or Marnie

Yet The Wrong Man has much to say about how innocent people—even, perhaps, former presidents—can get caught up in the webs woven by law enforcement. Hitchcock captures the way ordinary behavior, inexplicable coincidences, and plain and simple lapses in memory can be perverted in the eyes of those looking for signs of criminality. 

In the movie, Manny has the misfortune to resemble the actual robber, at least in the eyes of panicked, flighty, squinting robbery victims—all of whom the police believe, of course. In an excruciating sequence, Manny is grilled by the cops about his financial straits; with each admission of his family’s money woes, we see his interrogators becoming surer and surer that they have their man. Likewise, when the cops insist that Manny print out the words used in an actual hold-up note from one of the robberies, we see his accusers’ faith in their hunches strengthen with each stroke of the pen. Manny has the misfortune to print much as the robber does.

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The lesson of the picture is essential. The cops’ rigid reasoning does not account for the strangeness and complexity of life—that two people, one innocent and one guilty, can look alike, print the same way, have money problems. 

That takes us to Trump, who may be, in Hitchcock’s definition, the ultimate, even the archetypal, “wrong man.” The former president is the wrong man not because of mistaken identity—he did indeed have in his possession all of those secret documents—but because of intentions either willfully misstated or dumbly misunderstood by his pursuers. 

Again and again during the last eight years, Trump has had his naive, haphazard, or merely misguided actions viewed as malicious or criminal or worse; thus, a probably ill-thought-out phone call by the schmoozing, talkative Trump to the president of Ukraine was laughably distorted into a high crime and misdemeanor. 

In the ongoing documents matter, it seems more likely than not that Trump’s actions were motivated less by the sort of conduct covered under the Espionage Act and more by those of a fired employee absconding with office supplies, trinkets, and mementoes. Let us not forget how reluctantly Trump left the White House after his defeat in the 2020 election. The act of packing away physical emblems of his tenure—tangible reminders that he was, in fact, president—seems in keeping with his personality. 

Straining to ascertain a motive for Trump’s alleged crimes, a story in the New York Times recently connected his conduct to his lifelong affinity for keeping “news clippings, documents and other mementoes.” The story continued: “His office at Trump Tower in New York, a corner space on the 26th floor, had a desk that was often piled high with papers.” In other words, he is a packrat who collects stuff if his name or likeness is on it.

Yet the prosecutors who see evidence of wrongdoing in Trump’s vanity and penchant for memorabilia are making the same error as the cops in The Wrong Man: They are perceiving benign, explicable, or at least comprehensible actions through a criminal lens. In both Hitchcock’s film and the Mar-a-Lago matter, we have examples of a bureaucratic state whose overlords and worker bees cannot comprehend the complexities of human behavior. Let us remember the wisdom of the detective in another Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window: “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”