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My mother’s listened to Agnes Moorehead’s original radio production – a role she tackled till the 1960s – and I’m interested in comparing these two. On its own film, Sorry, Wrong Number is a tidy noir with a few too many complications to sustain the runtime.
Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) is an invalid left home alone one night when her husband Henry (Lancaster) disappears. Trying to track him down, Leona accidentally hears the details of a murder plot happening at 11:15pm. As Leona tries to track down her husband and find out more about the call she heard, she starts to wonder if the soon-to-be victim might be her!
The opening crawl indicates the telephone as a portal of communication, or DOOM (yes, in all caps) if you’re not careful. With the rise of telephone communications, specifically in the post-war era, it became a little too easy to reach out and touch someone, leading to many films, television shows, and radio programs discussing the horrors of the telephone. The obvious phone-related film I’m sure was inspired by this, is Carol Kane’s When a Stranger Calls.
The Twilight Zone turned the phone into a communication device from beyond the grave in two episodes, while the 1990s saw kids warned about the phone in an Are You Afraid of the Dark episode called “The Phone Police.” Maybe it’s these small-screen cautionary tales that always made me fear the idea of someone being able to call me incessantly. Of course, the rise of caller ID and cellular phones have dampened these fears over the years.
It’s easy to see why Sorry, Wrong Number worked best as a radio production. With a few voices on the phone, filtered to the audience, there’s a personal connection between the audience and Leona Stevenson. There’s also very little time for filler because the only point-of-connection we have is the leading lady. This is an understandable inconvenience for a film, and naturally Litvak creates ways of pushing this to feature-length with extensive flashbacks involving Henry Stevenson, his ensuing relationship and marriage to Leona, and the subsequent path that’s led to the “wrong number” of the title.
You don’t need much gilding when you have Stanwyck, but the overabundance of plot does more harm than good. Leona is inundated with a flurry of calls, both dialing and receiving to give the movie a breathless, breakneck, pace which slams to a stop when the flashbacks arrive.
Leona and Henry’s idyllic relationship never gels with the murder plot, although Lucille Fletcher – who penned the original radio drama – keeps the characters’ unwavering personalities. Barbara Stanwyck plays the strong-willed woman we know and love, a girl who refuses to wait around for Henry to “pick” her to dance and instead walks up to him to demand it. Fletcher’s script, possibly to appease the Production Code, tries to turn Leona into a villain, stealing Henry away from nice girl, Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) whom Leona doesn’t care that she’s hurt.
Leona is also the succubus who, through her almost incestuous relationship with her father, turns Henry from a content man into a frantic addict for money and prestige. It is this hunger for wealth that puts Henry on the path towards Leona’s demise. This is the first time I’ve watched Burt Lancaster as a somewhat romantic lead and he’s good. It’s hard to stand up as a worthy man against Stanwyck, but their introduction puts them on even footing. Once Stanwyck gets her man, Lancaster’s Henry is putty in her hands. There’s a frank sexual tension to Stanwyck’s performance opposite Lancaster. In their flashbacks she practically salivates for him, coquettishly leaning on him before they fall into a kiss.
The noir plot involves Henry scheming for more money and an insurance policy on his wife, elements that Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice did better. The twist, à la Suspicion if a murder actually concluded the film, keeps things lively and unpredictable, but it stretches the enjoyment of brief film. I’m unsure how much backstory is included in the original radio broadcast but I’d have preferred no motive, just Stanwyck continuing to overhear this conversation as the time inches closer.
As a disabled person myself it’s always frightening to fear you’ll be unable to escape a dangerous situation. However, the film undermines all that tension by revealing Leona’s disability is psychosomatic, turning the climax into a battle of wills over whether Leona is able to overcome her fears to save her own life.
The actual telephone plot is where Sorry, Wrong Number is a taut, frightening thriller despite the silly phone close-ups Litvak employs. Much of this “horror” is lost on modern audiences today – again, caller ID in the 1990s would sink the ship – but Stanwyck sells you on the building progression of fear. Leona falls into the “Murder Victim 101” trap a time or two, drawing attention to herself by speaking in the midst of their conversation and refusing to call the police.
The film plays the events with a building cloud of fear and tension. Every ring of the phone sends shivers, and becomes a harbinger of doom like the beginning text warns. Litvak also employs film noir tropes like real-time setting and the clock, inching closer and closer to 11:15 to prepare the audience for Leona’s date with….something. Stanwyck blamed her fear in this film for giving her premature gray hair, but she’s integral towards the premise being as memorable as it is. Her final moments, filled with screams and cries for help – which probably sound doubly intense on the radio, the audience’s mind filling in the images of murder – are indelible and leave the film on a bummer note. Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role in this (genre pictures aren’t as awards friendly now as they were then).
Sorry, Wrong Number admirably builds tension, helped by a grand performance from Barbara Stanwyck. Had the plot conventions not inflated and dampened the tension, it could have been perfect.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.