Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)


The following is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Aubyn at The Girl with the White Parasol from July 16-22.  For a list of participants and the movies to be discussed, please click here.  Also, too: I’ve done what I can not to reveal the ending of this movie…but on the off chance you’ve not seen it (or have no familiarity with its source material) I will warn you there be spoilers.


“In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives...” – from the opening crawl of the film

Wealthy heiress Leona Cotterell Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck)—known as “The Cough Drop Queen” in reference to her father’s (Ed Begley) pharmaceutical empire—is all alone in her New York apartment, a bedridden invalid.  She’s desperately trying to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) by telephone, and during the course of her attempts intercepts a conversation between two men discussing their plans to murder a woman.  Leona tries to report the event to the phone company…and then to the police; both institutions claim they are helpless to do anything without any additional information.

Leona continues to try and contact Henry through a series of increasingly frantic phone calls.  In the course of her bedroom inquiries, she speaks with her husband’s secretary (Dorothy Neumann)…who tells her of a mysterious lunch date he had with a woman identifying herself as “Mrs. Lord.”  Mrs. Lord is the married name of Henry’s old flame (and Leona’s former rival) Sally Hunt (Ann Richards), who clues Leona to an investigation involving Henry that Mr. Lord (Leif Erickson) is pursuing—having to do with shady activities involving Henry, a company chemist named Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) and a racketeer named Morano (William Conrad).  After a series of labyrinthine flashbacks that also involve conversations with Evans and Leona’s physician (Wendell “Hic!” Corey), Leona learns to her horror that the murder being planned will hit a little too close to home.

No less than authority than Orson Welles once dubbed Lucille Fletcher’s classic half-hour drama Sorry, Wrong Number “the greatest single radio script ever written.”  Well, Orson never was one to skimp on the hyperbole; I’m not sure it’s the greatest ever written but I certainly would argue that it’s one of the most famous.  With its initial performance on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” Suspense, on May 25, 1943 Sorry, Wrong Number would be performed on the series a total of eight times…and every single time with Agnes Moorehead at the mike.  Moorehead didn’t warm to the play at first (she thought it was a tad morbid) but gradually came around to realizing that it was a genuine tour-de-force of acting.  It would become the actress’ signature role—by the last time she performed it on Suspense in 1960 she was still using her copy of the original script.

Producer Hal Wallis wanted to make a movie version of the play at Paramount, and commissioned Fletcher to flesh out the half-hour script in 1947.  Fletcher decided to borrow a technique that worked well for her friend Orson in Citizen Kane (1941); namely, telling the story of how Leona Stevenson happened to be lying helpless in bed on the night of that fatal phone call through flashbacks.  The studio needed a bigger name than Moorehead to play the part (Aggie was more of a character actress despite the fact she originated the role on radio ferchrissake) and first approached Laraine Day…who turned them down, since she was scheduled to work on My Dear Secretary (1948) at the same time.  Paramount decided on Barbara Stanwyck for the part.

For years, I always had trouble with Stanwyck in this role—only because I just couldn’t reconcile the ball busting dame from Double Indemnity (1944) and The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) as a helpless invalid.  Also—I would have loved to see Aggie play Leona.  The studio offered her a smaller part in the film, and one can only assume Moorehead sent them a bucket of sand and some pounding instructions; though she was disappointed in not getting the part, she did receive some comfort in knowing that Stanwyck insisted on playing a recording of Agnes’ performance on the set to keep her in the mood.

Having revisited the film several times over the past four or five years, I’ve changed my mind about Stanwyck’s performance—she’s actually quite good in the role, and actresses are supposed to take on challenges (that’s why they call it acting).  The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences also seemed to think she excelled in the production because she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination the following year—the last of her four nods before MPAAS handed her an honorary statuette in 1982.  Babs hits all the right hysterical notes as a woman who slowly begins to realize after putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together that she’s in mortal danger.  (In later years, Stanwyck claimed that the “terror” from this film is what caused her hair to turn prematurely gray.)

Burt asks the waiter who the dude in the shades is behind him.  The server's not sure...but it's actually director Anatole Litvak.
As great as Barbara’s performance is, it’s the direction of Anatole Litvak that is in many ways the real star of the film.  Litvak knew that a series of scenes showing people conversing on the phone would get old very quickly, so he uses a constantly moving camera to explore the sets surrounding the characters—for example, in the opening sequences in Leona’s bedroom, where she explains to the phone operator that she’s sickly, there’s a pan to the various medications and pill bottles on a table near the woman’s bed.  We also see photographs of Leona and husband Henry (wedding picture, etc.), allowing us to become familiar with the couple before we hear their story.  Litvak also uses this constantly-in-motion camera to contradict what certain characters are saying to Leona over the phone—in a conversation with her father, J.B. Cotterell (Begley), Leona is told that J.B. would like her to come home because the house is “like a morgue.”  The audience has witnessed a raucous party with drinking and dancing in the background and surmises that Dad is just telling Leona what she wants to hear.

Sorry, Wrong Number is considered an example of the style known as film noir—and the use of looming shadows and flashbacks upon flashbacks upon flashbacks is more than sufficient street cred.  Though it is a tad melodramatic at times this does not make the film any less suspenseful; there’s a great sequence where Leona phones the mysterious “Mrs. Lord” at her apartment (the phone is answered by her son, played by kiddie thesp Jimmy Hunt) and eventually learns that it’s her old rival.  Sally doesn’t want her husband Fred to know who’s on the other end (we will soon find out why) and there’s a good deal of palpable tension as Sally first fobs her off as someone asking about a recipe…until she is later able to break away and phone Leona from a drugstore, where she explains that Fred is with the District Attorney’s office.  Sally runs out of change (these were the days before cellphones) and must call Leona a third time from a phone booth inside the subway…and there’s an edge-of-your-seat moment when Fred and several other cops arrive, with Fred wanting to make a call from that same phone booth…

Ann Richards, the actress who plays Sally, seems to get by more on her accent (she was originally from Sydney) than any true thespic skills…but I really do like her in this role because I think the accent does add a little mystery to her character.  Husband Fred is essayed by Leif Erickson, and the presence of Jimmy Hunt as his son will make you giggle if you’ve ever seen Invaders from Mars (1953).  Other supporting players in the film do first-rate work: William Conrad, “The Man of a Thousand Voice,” is in his element as the gangster Morano and his fellow radio thespian Ed Begley also shines as Leona’s clueless dad.  Then there’s the luckless Wendell Corey…who does manage to escape the black widow clutches of Stanwyck in this one (he’s not so lucky in Thelma Jordon and The Furies) as the colorless doctor who diagnoses Babs’ illness as strictly psychosomatic.

Burt Lancaster doesn’t really get his big moment as Henry Stevenson until the film’s sweat-inducing climax—and for years, I had difficulty accepting Burt as the henpecked husband because he didn’t seem ready for those kind of roles at that stage in his career (he licked the problem by the time he appeared in Come Back, Little Sheba).  Lancaster, in lobbying producer Hal Wallis for the part, argued that audiences would thrill to see a strong-looking individual like himself get beaten down. When I re-evaluated Stanwyck’s performance, I started to give Burt a second glance, too; Babs seems like the kind of woman who could keep his cojones in a jeweled case, and I love how effectively this is conveyed during the flashbacks to their honeymoon—Leona is shown cutting Henry’s champagne intake and waving off a display of public affection while her vow “I, Leona, take thee Henry” is repeated over and over again on the soundtrack.


In stretching out her original play to eighty-nine minutes, Lucille Fletcher had a bit of a problem with Mr. Censor, who wasn’t all that keen on the drug trafficking aspect of her original script; the bluenoses also weren’t sold on the idea that Henry would escape the long arm of the law by movie’s end so Fletcher was forced to do a rewrite or two.  Fortunately for fans of the radio play, the integrity of Lucille’s memorable final lines are still in the movie; my advice to you is listen to the radio original before unspooling the film…and I think you’ll be pleased with the end result.

18 comments:

Danny said...

I watched this a long time ago when I was on a big Stanwyck kick, but I have to note that I found that first hour kind of dull. There's a lot of backstory there, which they need for the runtime, but not the suspense. I do think the film picks up a lot when it nears the end, though, and that finale is a ball. Great article, you definitely made me want to give it another go. Thanks!

Dawn Sample said...

This is a great thriller for sitting on the edge of your seat. I love all of Stanwyck's films. A must see for all her fans!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding about this film!

KimWilson said...

Nice post, Ivan. Sorry, Wrong Number is one of Stanwyck's strongest dramatic performances ever. Her ability to perform much of the movie on the phone talking into a receiver and it not seem boring deserves kudos.

Caftan Woman said...

It does take a couple of rewatches to accept the performers in these roles, but ultimately it is worth the ride. Fletcher's premise is too solid not to work.

DorianTB said...

Ivan, my sister and I liked SORRY, WRONG NUMBER a lot over the years, so I especially enjoyed your detailed and fascinating post! Having only seen Barbara Stanwyck's riveting version, I hadn't that realized Agnes Moorehead, one of Team Bartilucci's favorites, had actually originated the role! Now I've got to find the original radio play! This was a great choice for Aubyn's Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon!

The Metzinger Sisters said...

I still remember that dark and stormy night when I happened to chance upon Agnes Moorehead's performance of Sorry Wrong Number on a distant AM station. In many ways the story plays out better on radio, but I'm glad Stanwyck was chosen for the film role. She was wonderful. Your write-up makes me want to watch the film again.

VP81955 said...

"Sorry, Wrong Number" from "Suspense" should be easy to find; I believe all eight of Moorehead's performances are available online.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm a big fan of both the radio play and the movie. It is too bad that Agnes Moorehead didn't get the lead in the film; as huge a fan as I am of Stanwyck, I think Agnes would have been utterly mesmerizing. However, Stanwyck is no slouch and she does a terrific job.

I still have a little trouble with Burt Lancaster as the husband, but I will keep your points in mind the next time I see this.

Hamlette said...

I love the radio play! You can get an mp3 version of it here. I've bought a couple dozen radio shows from them over the years, and they're very reliable.

The movie version... I wanted it to be better than it was, I guess. But still, enjoyable!

FlickChick said...

A real thriller thanks to Stanwyck - I hated her and then I feared for her! Oh - and I really hated Burt in this one. Where areRussell Crowe or Naomi Campbell (champion phone throwers) when you need them?

Christy said...

Sorry- if this is a repeat...I'm writing from France where the internet is spotty. :) Such a great thriller- Barbara is good, albeit her character a little campy. But it totally works. I was struck the last time I watched it how the technology now would never allow such a riveting idea with the telephone. Another reason to love the classics.

Thanks for writing- sure enjoyed talking/writing about these wonderful old gems.

Carley said...

I adore this film, and your analysis of it was great. Thanks for posting, Ivan!

Judy said...

I saw this one quite recently and found it builds up the tension very effectively - must agree that it is hard at first to accept Stanwyck as the bedridden invalid, but she gives such a powerful performance that she soon convinces. You've put together some great background information here, Ivan - I wasn't aware of the Agnes Moorehead radio version(s) and must now give the play a listen!

Aubyn Eli said...

This movie was actually the first Stanwyck movie I ever saw. And as a kid, I really had no idea what to make of the thing. I was put off by the nastiness of Stanwyck's character and the weak confusion of Lancaster's. But then I discovered Double Indemnity and began the road to Stanwyck worship.

You give an intriguing analysis of the film and how it compares to the radio version. I wish we had that alternate version with Morehead, even if Stanwyck gives it her all here.

There is a kind of Baby Jane poignancy to Lancaster's final scene. "You mean all this time we could have been friends?" I wonder if Lancaster was inspired by Stanwyck pulling a similar ball-busting turn against Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Well done all around, Ivan. You've convinced me to give this one another look. Thanks for contributing so memorably to the blogathon!

portraitsbyjenni said...

Great review. I have always thought Stanwyck great in the role, but sort of think as you, that Lancaster was too macho or strong to play a henpecked husband, and I often thought he was a bit too young to be her husband. I think an older actor who could portray wimpy would have been a bit better. I haven't ever heard the radio version and plan on seeking it out.

said...

This was my first Stanwyck film and I was very surprised. What a great thriller! Barbara could do anything, and she really made me believe in her invalid character.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
Greetings!

Stacia said...

Larraine Day! What were they thinking? Well, since I agree with you about Burt, I suspect they weren't thinking quite hard enough. He's just a few degrees off in the role.