Leona Stevenson, a wealthy invalid left alone in her large home, is trying to contact her husband by phone one evening when, due to an operator crossing wires, she inadvertently overhears two men plotting a murder for later that very night. As she desperately reaches out to anyone she can, in the only way she can, via telephone, her story unfolds in flashback and her life unravels in the present.
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Sorry, Wrong Number originated as a highly successful radio play in the early 40s that its writer, Lucille Fletcher, adapted and extended for this screen version. The original radio format was a tense real time 22 minute play which focused entirely on Leona’s struggle in a terrifying situation. In order to “open up” the piece for the screen, Fletcher created a complex structure of flashbacks that fill in the gaps of Leona’s (Barbara Stanwyck) story, depicting her troubled relationship to her husband, Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster), as well as detailing his descent into criminal behaviour. It was the desire of the producer, Hal Wallis, when filling in the gaps in the original story, to join in the trend of post-war films to be more frank in dealing with the psychological motivations of crime in general, and murder, in particular. The director, Anatole Litvak married this perspective with Fletcher’s suspense plot, and a film noir style, and the result was what is still a highly enjoyable thriller.
After a very strong opening scene, where the isolated and difficult invalid finds herself privy to the plotting of a murder, the film then spends its first half setting up the complicated back story of the relationship between Leona, her absent husband, and his old girlfriend, Sally Hunt (Ann Richards). Anatole Litvak, had to impart a great deal of information within a very limited framework of time and space. In the finished picture, he largely succeeds, by being unafraid of even flashbacks within flashbacks, but the momentum of the suspense narrative sometimes seems to be hindered as a result. Nonetheless, Litvak tells an involved tale coherently and effectively, and is aided immeasurably by his stars.
Barbara Stanwyck made a career out of playing strong, often demanding, women and she excelled at imperceptibly showing us their vulnerabilities; the small chinks in their armour that made these women more than just formidable and tough. The role of Leona Stevenson offered Stanwyck a heightened version of this emotional trajectory and she ran with it. Leona, the daughter of a wealthy pharmaceutical executive, is selfish, spoilt and nearly impossible at times. And yet, Stanwyck makes her sympathetic and believable. She makes you feel Leona’s loneliness and fear, not only of violence but of her isolation. Further, here is a woman whose whole understanding of her life and her relationship to her husband is upended within a very short period of time, as she struggles by herself to piece together a mystery that encompasses much more than just an imminent homicide. Stanwyck convincingly portrayed all of this and more, and was rewarded with her 4th Academy Award nomination as a result.
She is ably matched by Burt Lancaster. It was still early in his career and Lancaster was determined not to be typecast. The role of Henry Stevenson was one not usually associated with him - that of a subservient husband. But Lancaster is such a strong screen presence, it’s impossible to believe he is ever truly bullied by Leona. His Henry is quieter and more deferential than one expects Lancaster to be, but there is still a latent intensity present. Lancaster shows us a man who is possessed of a passionate desire to get ahead, which is curdled by self-loathing over his financial reliance on his wife, and ultimately transmutes into a willingness to engage in criminal schemes in order to escape his wife’s power.
In fact, illicit desire - for money, status, or someone else’s lover - often thwarted, and sometimes fulfilled, is an undercurrent in the picture that helps to tie the various strands of the piece together. This undercurrent also links the movie to the film noir genre, a category of films often concerned with the darker impulses of apparently civilized people. As well, the film benefits from noirish black and white photography, particularly of Leona’s large bedroom at night. All shadows and half light, the cinematography helps to illuminate her deteriorating psychological state as she lies ensconced, solitary and scared amidst luxurious surroundings, the victim of rising paranoia that the surrounding darkness may hold her ultimate nightmare.
Despite the various sub plots, the film still moves at swift pace and by the time its 88 minutes are up, all the strands of the story have been brought together in an absorbing and satisfying way.