Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Number was originally a half-hour radio script written by Lucille Fletcher. It was a huge hit. Agnes Moorehead performed the drama to radio-listening audiences seven times from 1943 to 1948. The story had such a strong following, Fletcher fleshed out the tale and turned it into a best-selling novel and later the script for the classic film noir.

Unlike the radio drama - which was a virtual monologue by Moorehead - the film uses flashbacks to flesh out the story. As mentioned in Silver and Ward's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Stylethe stretched-out story ends up taking away a lot of the suspense the radio drama sustained for it's 30 minutes, but the film does capture a sense of entrapment often felt in film noir.

In addition to the flashbacks the second notable difference between the radio drama and the Gothic melodrama is the casting of the bedridden Leona Stevenson. Moorehead is one hell of an actress not only on radio but in film. In addition to her classic role in The Magnificent Ambersons, her strong supporting role in movies like Dark Passage made her one of best secondary actors of the 40s. Moorehead, however, wasn't a leading lady. Station West director Sidney Lanfield went so far as to call her “hatchet face”. I imagine producer Hal B. Wallis felt the hugely popular radio story needed a bigger star for the movie so he got one of the biggest - Barbara Stanwyck. If Bogart was the king of noir, then surely Stanwyck was the queen. Her powerful presence on screen made her the ultimate black widow in noir. Stanwyck's performance in Sorry, Wrong Number is so powerful the audience sympathy - unlike the radio drama - actually shifts to her not-so-bright would-be-killer husband played by the miscast Burt Lancaster.


The story begins in Leona Stevenson's gruesomely lavish bedroom. Stevenson, decked out in full makeup and lace, is a wealthy New York heiress. A recent invalid, she's confined to a wheelchair. That night she's left alone in her room in her elegant bed with only a telephone to connect her to the outside world. The servants are away and she's left trapped in the huge house. She tries repeatedly to contact her husband at his office, but keeps getting a busy signal. Finally Stevenson finds herself connected but she quickly realizes that she's listening to someone else's phone call. She hears two men talking about killing a woman somewhere in the city that night. She hangs up and calls back the operator and the police trying to report the planned murder. She's ignored. Desperate to hear from her husband, she finally receives a call. Unfortunately, it's from her millionaire father calling to see if she'll move back in with him. Stevenson tries to tell the pharmaceutical king about the strange call earlier. Even her rich father doesn't take the call seriously. Stevenson gets even more frantic in her efforts to talk to her missing husband. Working the phone to try to get anyone that will listen, Stevenson gets in contact with her husband's secretary who tells her about a mysterious beautiful woman who visited his office earlier in the day. With these phone calls, a series of flashbacks gradually reveal the events of the past leading up to the present day. It soon become obvious that it's her henpecked husband that wants her dead in an attempt to inherit her estate to pay off a blackmailer. Fear envelopes the woman when she realizes the conversation she heard earlier in the night was not about an unknown woman being killed but herself.

As mentioned earlier, the film does capture a sense of entrapment. Stevenson never talks to anyone face to face until the fatal ending. She's trapped in her room - that she obviously doesn't share with her husband- that's overly decorated with frilly stuff and a giant painting of her father. Director Anatole Litvak cleverly uses flashbacks (aside from the voice-over, the flashback is the most distinctive device in film noir) not only to flesh out the story but to make the woman feel more isolated. There's a palpable sense of claustrophobia whenever the view is left alone with Leona.

Leona Stevenson's father, doctor, and husband's old flame all get on the phone and tell tales that lead to flashbacks going as far back as Leona “the Cough Drop Queen” Stevenson's college years. As J. P. Telotte writes in Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir:"in multiplying narrators and viewpoints a film like Sorry, Wrong Number it unleashes a nightmare of potential that always haunts the noir world - the potential of ambiguity, of multiple, indeterminate meanings, and of a self that is subject to unseen, unsensed forces."

With the help of these flashbacks we learn more about Leona Stevenson's life. Her husband is a knucklehead for one. Played by Lancaster (who made his film debut two years earlier in The Killers), Henry Stevenson is a weak minded guy from the sticks. He's stolen from his sweetheart by the manipulating Leona at a school dance and eventually marries her. He's made a vice president of her father's company but is miserable. James Cotterell hates his son-in-law and makes Henry unhappy. Tired of feeling used by his wife and father-in-law Henry starts stealing goods from the company. That eventually leads to mobsters swooping in and taking what Henry stole. Henry, in a pinch and desperate for cash, arranges to have his wife killed to collect her estate. Lancaster is young and good looking in the role but I have a hard time believing he'd be so manipulated by everyone around him. Some will say that he adds some verisimilitude to the proceedings - especially since Stanwyck is so over the top - but I disagree.

Leona Stevenson's father James Cotterell is played by the wonderful noir regular Ed Begley. He, like his daughter, is a control freak. His home office is filled wall-to-wall with trophies from hunting trips. Mixed in with all the stuffed dead animals are pictures and paintings of his beloved daughter Leona. He clearly wants to control her and keep her. It's revealed later in the film (by the family doctor played by Stanwyck's future File on Thelma Jordon co-star Wendell Corey) that Leona suffers from a bad heart that made her an invalid as a child and again after her husband tried to stand up to her. Even more interesting is the fact that nothing is physically wrong with the woman's heart. It's all in her head. I have no doubt that Leona's father is manipulated by his daughter using that illness as much as her husband is.

The film is filled with coincidences. For one, what are the chances that someone would hear a crossed-lined call from somewhere in the city where the talkers would actually be talking about them? The other big coincidence is the fact that Henry's old flame (Sally Hunt Lord played by Ann Richards) who visits him earlier in the evening is actually married to the city district attorney that is investigating Henry. Luckily - but a little too late - for Leona that these two events happen. Otherwise she'd be totally in the dark about her planned killing. Of course maybe it's fate that's making these coincidences happen. Was it possibly done in an attempt to make a miserable woman fearful in her last hours?

I found the film hard to warm up to at first. There isn't a likable character in the whole movie. As I mentioned, Leona is so strong a character that I tend to root for her husband to get away with it all. I also can't help but think of the clips of an hysterical Stanwyck edited into Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid whenever I see this movie. Those scenes of her just losing it out of the context of the original film are just plain funny. I think I like the movie more now than I did a few years ago thanks to some fine supporting role players. In addition to the leads, William Conrad (one of Lancaster's Killers) and Wendell Corey (wonderfully drunk in The File on Thelma Jordon) always are welcome in any film I watch.

Finally, the appropriately bombastic score by Franz Waxman and the claustrophobic cinematography by director of photography Sol Polito make Sorry, Wrong Number a slick big budget drama that can stand alone from the hugely popular radio play.


  1. I just watched and commented on this "Noir of the Week" the other day. As you say, the "stretched-out story ends up taking away a lot of the suspense." The flashbacks sure damage the structure. Lucille Fletcher seems to have changed her mind about Mrs. Stevenson, or, by trying to explain her isolation and scheduled departure, weakened what once was a nifty little thriller.

    Say, did you ever listen to the sequel?
  2. In the title music and the background music for the opening minutes, Franz Waxman plays with the sound of the phone dial and the busy signal in a way that reminds one of the recent score for Atonement by Dario Marianelli, where the sound of the typewriter is mixed with the score.
  3. It's a wonderful film with great cinematic elements with a very attractive camerawork and an excellent soundtrack. The performances are powerful and the fact of no happy end is welcomed.
    But it's not a noir film at all.
    So many people have listed this film at the noir genre. I saw it yesterday and in my opinion it's a melodrama mixed with thriller elements.