Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)


After finding out that his wife has been unfaithful, a lawyer (Gary Merrill, All About Eve) takes a late-night flight out-of-town. After the plane crashes and all die except him, the attorney decides to visit the relatives of the victims.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“It was from him that I learned what love really was.”

Well-written, well-acted drama that, while always entertaining, relies on one of Hollywood’s favorite narrative gimmicks: a trip that turns into an odyssey of self-discovery. It was the basic premise of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels and will in due time become an important component of the modern road movie. More recently, the idea was used in About Schmidt (2002) and Nebraska (2013).

Phone Call from a Stranger, written by Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath), directed by Jean Negulesco (Johnny Belinda and Three Coins in the Fountain), is divided into three sections. Two segments are very serious, while the third one is mostly played for laughs. All three segments offer a lesson in tolerance and forgiveness. You know what the movie is up to, but it doesn’t feel as preachy as it sounds.

In his first leading role, Gary Merrill gives perhaps his finest performance as the troubled attorney who finds the strength to forgive. Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun), Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Keenan Wynn (The Absent-Minded Professor) play the three passengers Merrill befriends during the ill-fated flight. The film debut of Beatrice Straight (Network and Poltergeist), who plays Rennie’s wife.

Bette Davis appears near the end of the movie as Wynn’s widow. It’s a very small role but Davis milks it for what it’s worth. In his autobiography, Bette, Rita and the Rest of My Life, Merrill insists that Davis “talked the producers into letting her do it (the role), for which she was paid a handsome $35,000” ($339,000 in 2018 dollars) for a three-day job.

On the other hand, Davis would later claim that she fell in love with the role of Wynn’s wife while helping then-husband Merrill study his lines. Director Negulesco was apparently very displeased with Davis’s performance, but I thought she was very good — Davis, in my opinion, is surprisingly warm and understated.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Phone Call from a Stranger isn’t a classic, at least not in the way we define them. I did like what the movie had to say about love, redemption and mercy. I also liked how the movie gave you a peek into the private lives of families in the 1950s. No need to get depressed about today’s problems; the film makes clear that people, no matter the time period, have had to face all kinds of problems. B&W, 105 minutes, Not Rated.


7 responses to “Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)

  1. Added to my notepad list. Keenan Wynn’s keeps popping up on random stuff i’ve been watching recently. A few classic’s (I jest) from the 80’s Wavelength & Black Moon Rising lol. Both cheesy but good fun. Be good to see him in more serious drama fodder.

    Liked by 1 person

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