With the release of previously convicted murderer Amanda Knox in Perugia last night, legally a victim of being wrongly accused for a murder she didn’t commit, we thought it would be apt to re-post this Top Ten from last November.
Of course the truth of British student Meredith Kercher’s horrific murder four years ago is likely to never be fully known, but Knox’s attestations to pleading innocence throughout the case and the dozens of flaws in the prosecutor’s arguments led the Italian jury this week to believe an innocent person had been let down by the justice system.
The theme of innocent people being wrongly accused of crimes or mistakenly embroiled in some form of misdemeanor has been a staple of the thriller film genre for decades. Whilst it is far from enjoyable in real life to be accused of a crime you haven’t committed, below are ten films that use the theme of a wrongly accused protagonist to entertainment perfection…
10. GOTHIKA (2003)
Gothika is interesting introduction to this list as here’s a movie that combines the notions of a wrongful accusation with the standard psychological/supernatural/whodunnit horror plot. Halle Berry is Miranda Grey – a psychologist who is accused of murdering her husband but she has no recollection of committing the crime. Teamed with the manipulation of a rancorous spirit, Grey must prove her innocence whilst regaining her memory.
French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s tight direction works well to create an air of tension and makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Drawing on his breakthrough success La Haine (1995), Kassovitz keeps a distinct gritty style that is evident in his earlier opus, despite his much higher studio budget here. A unique interpretation of the theme, Gothika is certainly not the best film on this wrongfully accused list, however it is nonetheless an entertaining episode that floats through a few different genres.
09. THE DARK CORNER (1946)
This film may appear at first glance to be a standard 1940s film noir, but in actuality it’s a stand-out for a number of reasons. Firstly, it offers legendary comic actress Lucille Ball a highly dramatic role.
The narrative is also interesting – and slightly varies from the other entries in this list – as the protagonist, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens), is out for a fresh start after having been falsely accused of manslaughter. However, he quickly finds himself being manipulated into murdering his old partner – who was responsible for his earlier arrest – by the suave Stauffer (William Bendix). Despite refusing, Galt awakens next to the corpse of his former partner and finds himself implicated in a crime he had nothing to do with once more. Clifton Webb is on hand to play his usual acerbic noir character, who once more proves to be the real villain. With echoes of Laura (1944), The Dark Corner is not as accomplished as many of the iconic examples of the noir genre, but it’s wrongfully accused theme is strong enough for inclusion.
08. THE GREEN MILE (1999)
Combining a story of a wrongly accused man (John Coffey, played with great effect by Michael Clarke Duncan) and his supernatural healing powers, The Green Mile is a truly unique take on the wrong man on death row and is he innocent plot. Duncan’s performance as the accused is tremendously tender and makes you question why there’s a reason for anybody to believe that Coffey could be capable of committing rape and murder.
What transpires is a case built around his learning difficulties rather than any circumstantial evidence or suspicious character traits and Tom Hanks’s performance (as Paul Edgecomb, a corrections officer working on Death Row) is equally moving as he befriends Coffey, becoming aware of his unique capabilities and complete innocence, but remaining unable to change his fate despite this.
The narrative is engaging enough to make the three hour running time pass without having to check your watch and the images and setting of 1930s Depression Era America are breathtaking.
07. STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940)
Modestly budgeted at an estimated $172000 dollars, Stranger on the Third Floor has both a strong narrative and an appropriately brooding atmosphere that’s achieved through the distinct visual style of the film noir genre. Often considered a quintessential example of the genre heyday (1940-1959), it stars Peter Lorre as a typically evil murderer who manages to escape being caught when the testimony of a reporter – Mike Ward (John McGuire) – who has witnessed the crime, convicts the innocent Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr) of the deed.
When Ward’s fiancée Jane (Margaret Tallichet) begins to doubt Briggs’ guilt, the reporter becomes haunted by whether or not his testimony has convicted an innocent man. It is here where the film offers a unique twist on the theme, as it becomes concerned with Ward’s guilt over whether what he thinks he saw was correct: interestingly displayed through a surreal dream sequence, where Ward dreams he is convicted of the murder. The imposing images of the angular bars of the prison cell and the terrifying shadow of the electric chair in Ward’s dream are stylistically impressive and an effective way of expressing his feelings of guilt. Ironically, Ward’s nightmare becomes reality when he finds himself accused of a second murder, again committed by Lorre’s character. As the police don’t believe that this other person exists, Ward can do little but pray that Jane will find the guilty stranger, proving his innocence.
Complete with its foreboding urban setting, angular winding staircases, low camera angles and excellent performances, Stranger on the Third Floor is an outstanding example of the power of the wrongly accused protagonist theme whilst adding its own unique plot points.
06. DARK PASSAGE (1947)
Another classic example of film noir, starring the genres quintessential leading man Humphrey Bogart as Vincent Parry, a man who has wrongly been convicted of his wife’s murder and subsequently escapes prison to clear his name. Dark Passage is notable for the fact that visually it mimics the narrative – for the first third of the plot the film is shot entirely as Parry’s point of view. The exclusion of Parry from the screen stylistically replicates his attempts to remain hidden from the police whilst he hunts for his wife’s real murderer.
The point of view shot was not a new technique and previous films had used the style, including Lady in the Lake a year earlier. However, whilst this earlier film was also a murder mystery, Dark Passage is the first film to effectively use this technique in conjunction with the wrong man theme. The stylistic choices of director Delmer Daves are certainly an original take on this theme and add to the drama and suspense of the narrative.
Whilst this may not be Bogart’s finest moment, Bacall’s performance is excellent and Agnes Moorehead as the villain of the piece is sheer femme fatale perfection.
05. DOUBLE JEOPARDY (1999)
Framed for the ‘murder’ of her husband, Ashley Judd plays Libby Parsons, a woman who is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. After engineering her release the film becomes a tale of revenge and Libby’s attempts to track down her missing son, whilst finding her husband alive and clearing her name.
There is a particularly taut scene where in Double Jeopardy where Libby’s husband Nick (Bruce Greenwood) traps her inside a sealed coffin (complete with a buddy corpse!) years before Tarantino would use the same idea. Tommy Lee Jones stars as Judd’s parole officer and she spends the latter half of the film trying to dodge him on the run. This aspect of the narrative helps build suspense and coupled with the mystery surrounding Nick’s alleged murder, the plot moves at a fast pace and remains entertaining throughout.
Whilst Double Jeopardy is an enjoyable on-the-run romp, there are some legal inaccuracies that mean you have to suspend your disbelief slightly and look past them. Whilst the clause of double jeopardy is a constitutional right of the Fifth Amendment in the U.S., it wouldn’t apply to the events within this film as the clause only prevents people from being put under trial twice with the same facts. Therefore, when Libby kills Nick for real, this would constitute a separate crime and she could legally be tried again.
04. THE 39 STEPS (1935)
The inclusion of a character wrongly accused of murder became one of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s signature traits and this top ten could easily have been compiled from his filmography alone. However, as variety is the spice of life, I have refrained from doing this!
The 39 Steps was Hitch’s second exploration (after his excellent silent thriller The Lodger ) of the theme and starred a very British Robert Donat as the Canadian Richard Hannay, who finds himself accused of the murder of a female spy who unfortunately has expired in his flat! What ensues is a cat and mouse chase across England as Hannay attempts to reach Scotland, whilst dodging the spies and police officers that are in hot pursuit.
What makes Hitchcock’s film so engaging however, is that the wrongly accused subplot of the narrative proves to be more of an aside than the opening scenes would suggest. Two parts screwball comedy to one part thriller, Hitchcock quickly shifts the narrative focus from Hannay’s plight to his burgeoning relationship with the unwitting – and unwilling – Pamela (played with an acidic wit by the beautiful Madeleine Carroll). Handcuffed together for a considerable portion of the narrative, Donat and Carroll’s performances echo those of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert’s in the previous years hit comedy, It Happened One Night (1934). By the close of the film, the audience is far more interested in whether Hannay and Pamela will stay together than discovering the secret of the 39 Steps!
03. THE FUGITIVE (1993)
One of the greatest action/thriller films to come out of the 1990s; The Fugitive follows the story of Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) who is convicted of the murder of his wife through a series of misconstrued evidence. Sentenced to death, Kimble manages to escape after the bus transporting him to prison is involved in an accident. What ensues is a cat and mouse chase through the Illinois wilderness between Kimble and U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). Whilst avoiding Gerard, Kimble must identify his wife’s real murderer in order to clear his name.
Complete with some truly iconic scenes, The Fugitive is effective on all levels. The photography of the scenery is aesthetically pleasing and interestingly imitates the loneliness Kimble feels being on the run. The harsh wilderness is equally Kimble’s friend and foe: whilst it is an aid in escaping the clutches of Gerard’s relentless pursuit, it also makes it that much harder for him to discover the truth and clear his name. With a definite Hitchcockian feel throughout, the film is highly engaging and immensely suspenseful. Whilst there are many fantastic moments of action, much like Hitchcock’s productions, it is the taut atmosphere that maintains a fast pace throughout the film.
02. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever produced, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a young man incorrectly convicted of his wife and her lover’s murder. The story – based on a Stephen King novella – is one of eternal hope and tenacity in the face of insurmountable odds. Frank Darabont’s lyrical direction adds real beauty to the unjust tale and offers a unique take on the theme of the wrongly convicted innocent man.
Robbins and Morgan Freeman (as Ellis “Red” Redding, another inmate) are career-defining within their roles and The Shawshank Redemption is an equally fantastic film due to this, as well as Darabont’s remarkable handling of the source material. Whilst Dufresne’s escape from prison offers a more traditional reading of the narrative trait, it is not the main thematic element of the plot. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that the film is more about maintaining feelings of self worth in a situation that is deemed hopeless. Darabont’s take on King’s novella perfectly captures these themes, at the same time managing to generate suspense and genuine feelings of compassion within the audience. The Shawshank Redemption has touched so many audiences with its tale of everlasting hope in the face of the world’s injustice, that it is destined to remain a timeless classic for generations.
01. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Possibly the most remarkable film to feature a narrative based on mistaken identity and wrongful accusations, North By Northwest is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most fondly remembered classics. Starring the ever-suave Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who gets confused for a government agent – what follows is a series of misadventures (including a murder accusation!) that force Thornhill to fight to survive several attempts on his life by baddie Phillip Vandamm (the brilliantly sadistic James Mason).
However, much like Hitch’s earlier thriller The 39 Steps, it is the relationship that develops between Thornhill and real agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) that proves to be the real narrative draw. Playing the American every-man who is thrust into adventure rather than choosing it, Grant’s Thornhill is far more comfortable seducing Eve than he is scaling the heads of Presidents past on Mount Rushmore. North By Northwest is so successful because of this depiction of an ordinary man’s plight and how he overcomes it.
Also featuring one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema, North By Northwest is the perfect example of how wrongful accusations can provide an extremely exciting, engaging and memorable narrative within fictional feature film. Honed by one of cinemas greatest directors, the wrong man sub-genre of thriller films is sure to provide audiences with entertainment for years to come.