Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Anatole Litvak, 1948
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster

In Manhattan, the bedridden Leona Stevenson is trying to get in touch with her husband Henry when he doesn’t return home after work one evening. She is accidentally connected to a call where two men discuss a woman’s impending murder, which will occur that night at 11:15 p.m., timed with a passing train to make sure no one hears her screams. Leona, a spoiled heiress, dramatically insists that someone intervene (and find her husband0, but she is ignored by the telephone company, the police, and her doting father, who is hours away in Chicago; they all assume she is ill and bored. But soon, Leona herself begins to put the clues together and, after a series of alarming phone calls, realizes that she might be the murderer’s target.

Adapted from Lucille Fletcher's wildly popular radio play from Suspense, which originally starred Agnes Moorehead, this began as more of a Gothic suspense story, but was transformed into something closer to noir in this film adaptation. Gothic-noir was relatively popular during the period with films like Rebecca, Gaslight, I Walked with a Zombie, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and others. Sorry, Wrong Number becomes less of a “woman’s picture” (as the above were known) and more a film noir thanks to its use of flash back, the disorientation of time and space, and the drug heist subplot that was played down at the Production Code’s insistence.

The radio play’s constantly building suspense is replaced by a sense of impending doom and the realization that none of these characters are inherently good people – each one leads to Leona’s demise by following their own selfish inclinations. She encounters a fundamentally hostile, callous, and cynical world where no one believes her story, her wealth can’t save her, and her feminine cries for help fall on deaf ears. Known as the “Cough Drop Queen,” thanks to her drug industry giant father, she fits in with the Victorian concept of the “cult of invalidism,” where women spent much of their adult lives in bed due to illnesses that were largely psychosomatic or consciously intended. These women were prone to fainting fits and starvation, they were considered thin, frail, and unwell, and represented the extreme of the Victorian notion that women were dependent creatures unable to care for themselves. This was often associated with wealth and was primarily an upper class plight.

None of the characters, including Leona, are portrayed as inherently evil or immoral – they are ultimately products of their environment, twisted by wealth, greed, possessiveness, and paranoia. Leona’s controlling and selfish nature nearly causes her to become the film’s villain, but director Anatole Litvak (Confessions of a Nazi Spy) makes her a truly sympathetic character by the film’s conclusion by asserting that she may be horrible to her husband, but she was made that way. She is unaware that her illness and weak heart are psychosomatic and this is a major blow that helps her reassess her treatment of Henry – in the little time she has left. Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) – a regular presence in film noir and a powerhouse in her own right -- is excellent here and her scenery chewing and hysterical thrashing about is a sight to behold.

I’ve heard some complaints that Burt Lancaster was miscast, but I think he’s perfect here. He’s the right mix of ambitious, naïve, masculine, and submissive to fall under Leona’s spell and become stuck in a trap between her and her father. Henry becomes addicted to money and success and is a prison of his own making. Robust noir regular Ed Begley (12 Angry Men) is memorable as Leona’s father James and between the two, they build a nearly impenetrable fortress of control, manipulation, jealousy, and possessiveness. The claustrophobic décor in both James’ Chicago mansion and Leona’s New York abode is an accurate reflection of their personalities. While her father’s house is stuffed with hunting trophies, hers is packed with lace doilies and other expensive feminine bric-a-brac. Both have large, somewhat garish portraits of each other hanging on their walls and there is no place for Henry anywhere in the mess.

The film’s main flaw is that sometimes there’s just too much plot – it breaks up the film’s tense pacing and carefully layered suspense. Leona’s story is explained by a series of lengthy flashbacks, all initiated by different phone calls. While the phone – and media and communication in general – plays a role in many noir films, it is perhaps the most menacing here and in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Dahlia. With that said, there are also simply too many unrealistic coincidences. Leona just happens to overhear the phone call ordering her death and Sally, Henry’s ex-girlfriend, just happens to be married to the district attorney prosecuting Henry?

Available on DVD, Sorry, Wrong Number comes recommend. Though I’ve never listened to the radio play, the film definitely becomes its own, solid if overwrought creation with help from Franz Waxman’s score, Sol Polito’s cinematography, full of uncomfortable close-ups, and a great supporting cast that includes William Conrad, Leif Erikson, and Wendell Corey. If Gothic noir doesn’t generally interest you, this suspenseful, nihilistic little film might be what changes your mind. 

No comments:

Post a Comment