Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Nothing to Fear

I love film books, and an interesting one I read recently is Nothing to Fear by Jason Isralowitz. It's the first book Isralowitz has written, and its subject is the Alfred Hitchcock film The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda. This is the film, made in black and white, in which Hitchcock eschews nearly all his usual twists and pyrotechnics to tell the true story of Queens, New York musician Christopher "Manny" Balestrero, who in the mid-50s was arrested and went to trial for two robberies he did not commit. What was it that drew Hitchcock to the story? Perhaps it's the "wrong man" theme that Manny's story had, a theme Hitchcock explored over and over during his career, in films such as The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North by Northwest. The Wrong Man was a real-life case involving mistaken identity, and Isralowitz details quite well what happened in the case and how Hitchcock, in almost documentary style, told the story. Isralowitz is an attorney who has been practicing law for nearly three decades, and he is also, quite obviously, a huge film buff who above all else loves Hitchcock. It's clear that he has spent a lot of time watching the director's work and thinking about it, and he understands that to "read" Hitchcock, you don't just analyze his films thematically like you might with a book (and as some do when discussing movies). He appreciates film grammar and how Hitchcock, as visual a filmmaker who ever lived, uses the camera and shot selection and editing and his compositions within the frame, and everything else within his non-verbal arsenal, to convey meaning and emotion. He also happens to write well, with a straightforward and concise style.  

But Nothing to Fear is about more than just the Hitchcock film and the criminal case it derives from. Isralowitz doesn't focus on the Balestrero case or the Hitchcock film until about a third of the way through his book. In the first third, he tells the stories of other people, primarily in New York, who were arrested and convicted, and who then did substantial jail time, on the basis of wrong identifications. In each case, it was eyewitness testimony that led to a person's arrest, and Isralowitz explores the reasons why eyewitness identification is so unreliable. How many people over time have been jailed for what the police and prosecutors called "honest mistakes" in identification? Too many to count. Combine this with sometimes mind-boggling line-up practices the police often used, and procedures like "show-ups", where a suspect would be asked to return to a robbery scene so that a witness could look at the person and decide whether the suspect was, in their eyes, the actual culprit (power of suggestion being very strong for a witness to say "yes" here), and prosecutorial methods that would essentially rule out exploring other possible suspects once an "identified" suspect was in custody; and you get an idea of what a wrongly accused person in the era before DNA evidence might be going up against. Isralowitz's book makes it clear how the Balestrero case, and, by extension, Hitchcock's film, even in the DNA era, remain relevant. The problem of wrongful incarceration certainly hasn't gone away. 

Balestrero died at the age of 88 in 1998. A corner in Queens, New York has been named "Manny 'The Wrong Man' Balestrero Way". In telling his story and the movie about it, Jason Isralowitz combines true crime, legal history, and film -- three topics I find endlessly interesting -- and he is the right person for the job. 

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