Nothing To Fear: Alfred Hitchcock And The Wrong Men
“underscores the danger of relying on eyewitness testimony.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Wrong Man (1956), starring Henry Fonda and Vera Miles, the renowned director’s only fact-based film, told the story of a man wrongfully arrested for the robbery of an insurance company office in Jackson Heights, Queens.
The man was Manny Balestrero, 43, a bass player at Manhattan’s Stork Club (1929–65), celebrated watering hole for luminaries from Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor to Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger. A music prodigy, a devout Catholic, and the son of Italian immigrants, Manny lived in Jackson Heights with his wife and two young boys.
Manny’s friends called him “a gentle soul.” Employees in the Jackson Heights branch of the Prudential Insurance Company said he was the man who had robbed them of $271 on July 9, 1952. Based on the eyewitness identifications, Manny was arrested, arraigned, and imprisoned—until police captured the actual stick-up man, a career criminal who looked like Manny Balestrero.
By then, four months later, Manny’s wife had suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. Manny was a broken man. And it was all because of yet another case of mistaken identity.
In Nothing to Fear, lawyer Jason Isralowitz debuts with a painstaking account of the Balestrero case and the Hitchcock movie based on it, set within the revealing context of New York’s history of wrongful convictions.
Manny had indeed visited to Prudential office in question—not to rob it but to borrow money from his wife’s insurance to pay unexpected dental bills. He had made his visit in January 1953, long after the “look alike” stick-up man.
Recounting many earlier mistaken-identity cases, the author shows how witness coaching, prejudice, and withholding of information have played key roles in this perversion of justice.
He goes on to argue that in subsequent years such cases led to the birth of the innocence movement that emerged in the 1990s after the advent of DNA testing. The Innocence Project, a national nonprofit devoted to exonerating wrongfully convicted defendants, reports that 375 people have been exonerated as a result of DNA testing.
Nearly 70 percent of these cases involved mistaken eyewitness identification.
In the author’s view, the legal culture for many years “exalted eyewitness testimony.” Prosecutors simply ignored or suppressed evidence that pointed away from the defendant’s guilt, he explains.
The Wrong Man, one of Hitchcock’s more neglected films, is nonetheless significant for having “opened a window into New York’s history of wrongful convictions.”
Told through the eyes of Manny Balestrero in an unusual docudrama manner, including scenes shot on actual locations, the film showed vividly the falsity of the cliché that “An innocent man has nothing to fear.” Viewers were able to share the nightmare of Manny’s experience.
Moreover, the case won national attention for what happened to Balestrero’s wife, Rose, played by Vera Miles in The Wrong Man. She blamed herself for Manny’s arrest—he had been trying to borrow money for dental work she needed. She never recovered from her nervous breakdown.
In 2014, the intersection near the family’s old home in Jackson Heights was renamed “Manny ‘The Wrong Man’ Balestrero Way.”
This arresting and important account of a famous mistaken identity case and the Alfred Hitchcock movie based on it underscores the danger of relying on eyewitness testimony.