Friday, March 09, 2018

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

USA, 89 minutes
Director: Anatole Litvak
Writer: Lucille Fletcher
Photography: Sol Polito
Music: Franz Waxman
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Harold Vermilyea, Leif Erickson, William Conrad, Jimmy Hunt

[Spoilers] This nifty Barbara Stanwyck thriller originated as a radio play first broadcast in 1943. As a result it is at least as set-bound as most movies adapted from stage plays. Yet, at its best, it finds ways to take advantage of the great strength of radio theater, which is an uncanny ability to recruit the listener's imagination. It doesn't hurt that the whole premise here is based on mystifying another object of audio, the technology of the telephone—all those mysterious clicks and shifts in sound quality, like you were hanging your ear into outer space. You could dial zero and talk to a human being in 1948. In 1949, Jack Webb recorded himself placing a long-distance phone call for Dragnet, still a radio show at the time. It takes two minutes and gives some sense of the world at your reach from the inside of your telephone when you picked up the receiver then (listen here, h/t Steven Rubio). That's what the best parts of Sorry, Wrong Number sound like.

The prologue sets the tone: "In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives ... It is the servant of our common needs—the confidante of our inmost secrets ... life and happiness wait upon its ring ... and horror ... and loneliness ... and ... death!!!" (yes, three exclamation points). Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, an invalid woman in her 30s confined to her bed. She is in New York with her husband, who is there on a business trip, He is supposed to be with her that evening to care for her—her usual nurse has the night off. The movie essentially takes place in real-time though much of what we see is flashbacks. As the picture opens, Leona has been frantically calling her husband's office all evening and only getting a busy signal. Shortly before 10 she calls an operator and asks her to place the call. Somehow she is patched into a phone call she can only hear. The men speaking do not hear her when she speaks. Then she notices their conversation sounds like it is about a murder for hire, scheduled to happen at 11:15 that night. Can you guess? Can you guess?

She tries to get the operator to reconnect her to that line but it's not possible. She calls the police but her information is vague and they are busy. A mysterious man named Evans calls her with a convoluted message for her husband, who is still not there. She tries to reach a mysterious woman who visited her husband at his office that day. There's no end of convenient coincidence here (starting, of course, with Leona being patched into that phone call) but the revelations are deft and complicated and they come swiftly enough that problems like that are obscured. This show is always a ride. The woman turns out to be a former girlfriend of her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster). Henry is seen mostly in flashbacks, as the story of their marriage and his career unfold over the hour or so of the telephone investigation conducted by Leona.

Some of the developments can be quite ridiculous, as when three men are trailed undetected across an isolated and open field on Staten Island. But Sorry, Wrong Number never loses its confidence, and just keeps moving to the next revelation in a carefully packed chain of them, even as it maintains the air of a comforting, slightly wooden episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents—quiet, with grim determination, and no promises of happy endings. There's actually a lot to learn about Leona, her marriage, and her disability, and much more to see in Stanwyck's vivid performance. She is one of those players who always seemed to choose interesting roles and always did good things with them. Sorry, Wrong Number is no exception, though it doesn't have much for anyone else to do, including Burt Lancaster who mostly sleepwalks through this one. Wendell Corey as her doctor is pretty good, and so is Ed Begley as her Chicago tycoon father.

If Sorry, Wrong Number is mostly a one-woman show they picked the right woman. I never get tired of watching Stanwyck in near-hysterics here, trying to figure this thing out. Leona is not particularly likable—spoiled rich girl and a bit of a rat—so on one level you the viewer don't mind that much watching her get it. There's a nice constant sense of doom inexorably closing in, and many very nice details like a telephone number she's given to call as a contingency—Bowery 2-1000 (among other things, dialing those last three zeros only adds to the suspense). Somehow, you never quite believe the ending you know is coming, which is a clever way to give the picture a shock twist. You just can't believe they have the heart—at least, that is, until you finally hear those last words, otherwise known as the title.

Top 20 of 1948
1. Sorry, Wrong Number
2. Bicycle Thieves
3. Red River
4. La Terra Trema
5. The Red Shoes
6. Pitfall
7. They Live by Night
8. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
9. Moonrise
10. A Hen in the Wind
11. Portrait of Jennie
12. Unfaithfully Yours
13. Fort Apache
14. Women of the Night
15. Key Largo
16. State of the Union
17. The Search
18. The Big Clock
19. Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
20. The Paleface


  1. I always love seeing Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein on Top lists. I appreciate the shout-out. In my role as Guy Who Listens to OTR, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Agnes Moorehead, who performed the original radio version of Sorry Wrong Number. She did it many times over the years ... it was like her trademark.

  2. Great detail about Agnes Moorehead -- I didn't know that. I can see she'd be good in that role.