Sorry Wrong Number is about a woman — bedridden, confined, and isolated — who overhears plans for a murder on a crossed telephone line and comes to realise that the victim of that murder is herself. It´s based on the eponymous radio play from 1943, one of the most famous of its time, in which Agnes Moorehead gave such a legendary performance that she would forever more be associated with it. She did many versions. The one that aired on CBSon 9/6/45 can be listened to here. Lucille Fletcher fleshed out her play for the movies, not too successfully. The film, a big hit in its time, remains a good watch, though it does drag in the last third, and there are too many unnecessary asides (the police inspector with the black child is particularly annoying).
It´s hard for me to think of a film star other than Barbara Stanwyck in the part of Leona Stevenson. Who else would have dared come across as so unlikeable? Leona is a spoiled, selfish, rich girl. A daddy´s girl used to getting everything she wants. And she´s not above buying her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster) and then feigning illness to keep him. I was surprised to see Sorry, Wrong Number does not get even a mention in Andrew Klevan´s otherwise excellent Barbara Stanwyck from the BFI´s Film Star series (London:2013). There are of course so many other great Stanwyck performances to choose from (Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and this to mention only a few that Klevan does deal with). But this is one of her most famous and one of the four she received an Oscar Nomination for (Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941)and Double Indemnity (1944) being the others.
But perhaps Klevan didn´t appreciate the performance. In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman Dan Callahan deems it her most flagrant Oscar bid: ´the showy role of bedridden neurotic Leona Stevenson calls for something more along the lines of the scenery-chewing style of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford than it does Stanwyck´s best life-or-death realness. …As of her high-pressure work in Wrong, Number, I’m glad she didn´t win for this atypical, sloppy picture; it´s not at all representative of her talent, her artistry, or her overall style'(p.175). Perhaps, and Callahan does a great job of dissecting what he sees as the weaknesses of Stanwyck´s performance in his book. But I don´t agree. It´s a fearless performance. She plays an unlikeable, controlling, possessive and neurotic woman so well, the audience ends up disliking the character whilst eliciting pity that a love that is deeply felt should take that form. I suppose I *can* see Crawford and Davis in the part but I can´t imagine them being better.
Callahan notes that ´Lancaster is ill at ease in his role — great to look at but still green as an actor, (p.174). Callaghan´s criticism, that he lets Stanwyck push him around in their scenes together, is to me part of his success in the part.. However, according to Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life: ‘When (Hal) Wallis described Sorry, Wrong Number — Henry Stevenson, a boy-toy weakling, tries to get out from under the control of his rich invalid wife, Barbara Stanwyck´s queen bitch, Leona, by having her murdered — Lancaster said, ´Why not me?’ Wallis objected that he was too strong for the part of Stevenson, but Lancaster insisted that the audience would be more interested in watching a strong man become weak. In the first of what would be a series of roles in which the star was cast against type, Wallis gave in. It was also the beginning of another career motif for Lancaster: getting himself cast opposite strong, experienced, intimidating women’ ((loc. 1695 on Kindle edition).
Burton himself was happy with his performance: ‘I really sweated bullets on that one’, said Lancaster. ‘This was the first part with which I couldn´t identify Lancaster on the screen. Usually there´s some movement, some characteristics which you recognise as your own. But not this one. Ten minutes after I walked into the theater I gave up looking for Lancaster. Seemed like a different person up there. It´s a good movie´ (Minty Clinch, Burt Lancaster, 1984, pp.24-25)
The scene above is critical in establishing the dynamic between Leona and Henry. The camera moves in on Leona and dissolves on the voicing of Sally Hunt (Anne Richards), with a gleeful little smile as we dissolve into her memory of how she first met Henry. We see a crowded dance-hall as Henry and Sally come into view and we´re made to see Sally´s adoring look and Henry´s response to it: they´re a couple in love. And then of course Leona cuts in. This is a critical scene in that we need to see that Henry´s gorgeous, that he´s happy, and that he´s happily involved with Sally. This is the moment where Leona will begin to ruin his life. The film has to communicate what Leona sees in him, which as you can see in the scene above and in the gifs below, it does very well.
Henry´s handsome, taken, ostensibly independent. But someone who can and will be bought. As the poster tell us, ´Heiress to millions….who bought everything she wanted…Including this man!
The ability to buy anything, including love, means however that Leona is never sure whether he loves her or just her money. Thus the the increasing and not entirely psychosomatic illnesses: Leona gets progressively bedridden but it is tied to her not getting what she wants at all times,. It´s her way of manipulating people´s responses to her needs, which is all that she sees, acknowledges and thinks about; and will be what drives Henry to plan a murder he too will come to regret in the end.
Sorry, Wrong Number was a prestige picture: and adaptation of a popular and critical success from another medium. According to Michelangelo Capua in Anatole Litvak: The Life and Movies, ´(it was) a 22 minute radio play….made popular by Agnes Moorehead in a tour-de-force performance in 1943. The play was so successful that it was rebroadcast seven times and translated into fifteen languages´(p.78). It is also, however a noir, with Burt Lancaster as the homme fatale, an interesting counterpoint to his Swede in Siodmak´s The Killers (1946). It´s about desire cutting through class, murder, a connection to the underworld, the night, drug trafficking, and, in its own way, an ode to the telephone. Visually, cinematographer Sol Polito encases the whole film in a world of shadows with a restlessly moving camera, evoking the jitteryness of things that lurk, are half seen, as is demonstrated in this great scene below
But the scene above though crucial — it happens just before the murder — is not an isolated instance and Polito tries to capture a consistent look and use of lighting throughout (see image capture below)
It´s a film that looks great, has terrific use of sound, a legendary central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, and one that makes the most of Burt Lancaster´s appeal. However, it does also feel like a film that´s padded out, filled in, with sequences that seem extraneous. These are mostly the ones with Lancaster and it´s not his fault. These are the scenes that were largely added in to flesh out a short radio play into a feature-length film. I´m not sure how I feel about Anatole Litvak´s direction, some of the shots like the one I giffed above of Burt peeking, are superb, but this is yet another of his Hollywood films — like All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquestthat feels narratively bloated: terrific shot to shot but unsatisfying taken as a whole, inflated plots, convoluted structures, lethargic pacing.