Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Synopsis:

When her phone line gets crossed with another, a bedridden heiress, Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas), overhears a plot to murder an unnamed woman. Leona tries to alert the police, but no one seems to take her seriously. After making a series of phone calls, Leona begins to suspect that she is the intended victim.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“… get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. ”

Confession time: I was initially leery of watching Sorry, Wrong Number after I read that it was based on a radio play. “Is it possible to make a good film out of something as uncinematic as a radio program?” I asked myself. I’m glad I gave it a chance because the movie, despite its simple storyline, works exceptionally well.

As I just mentioned, Sorry, Wrong Number began as a radio play. And from what I’ve read, it isn’t just a little radio thing: Scholars consider it the greatest radio play ever written. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to Lucille Fletcher’s celebrated 1943 radio show (starring Agnes Moorehead, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte) and I have to agree with the critical mass — Fletcher’s play is very clever and suspenseful.

I imagine adapting the 25-minute radio play to the big screen wasn’t an easy task. Producer Hal B. Wallis (The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca) had the good sense to hire writer Fletcher to adapt her play, and for the most part, she did a great job expanding the material. There are indeed a few scenes that feel like unnecessary padding, but overall, Sorry, Wrong Number is a highly effective noirish thriller that builds up to an unmistakably hair-raising climax.

Meticulously constructed, highly engaging and very entertaining,  Sorry, Wrong Number is essentially a case study of the importance of mise-en-scene. Every single shot is crafted with extreme care and attention to detail. Director Anatole “Tola” Litvak (All This, and Heaven Too) does all kinds of eye-catching things with the camera.

Litvak was known for planning every camera set up in advance and this is probably why many scenes are so artfully lit and framed. I’m certain that acclaimed cameraman Sol Polito’s (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) expertise came in handy. Editor Warren Low’s (The Letter) excellent work is also praise-worthy. Franz Waxman’s (Rebecca) ominous music score helps maintain a sense of impending doom.

All technical brilliance aside, Barbara Stanwyck’s superb, Oscar-nominated performance remains the main reason to watch the movie. Since movies are usually shot out of sequence, one has to admire Stanwyck’s punctilious handling of her character’s slow mental deterioration. Stanwyck resists the temptation to overplay emotionally-charged moments — her work is a fine exercise in controlled hysteria.

Burt Lancaster (Birdman of Alcatraz) plays Stanwyck’s weak-minded and shady husband. Because he is essentially supporting Stanwyck, I was convinced that Lancaster was somewhat forced to make the film. I was wrong. According to Gary Fishgall’s book Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, the actor, eager for a change of pace, pressured producer Wallis to give him the role. While there is nothing wrong with his performance, I couldn’t help but think that it was a waste of Lancaster’s considerable talent.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Elevated by a truly magnificent performance from Barbara Stanwyck, and drenched in an atmosphere of brooding suspense, Sorry, Wrong Number is so finely made that you won’t notice the fact that the picture is filled with many convenient coincidences. Minor quibbles aside, this is a must-see film for any Stanwyck fan and/or noir enthusiasts. Remade in 1989. Highly Recommended! B&W, 89 minutes, Not Rated.

15 responses to “Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

  1. Happy New Year, Mr. Binford! Your beautifully written article perfectly extols the virtues of this powerful little film, indeed a classic noir. A well made play that’s held together by the tour de force performance of Miss Barbara Stanwyck, ably assisted by Lancaster et al. You have made me need to see this one again very soon!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Apparently clips from SORRY, WRONG NUMBER were used for the 1982 Steve Martin comedy-mystery DEAD MEN DON”T WEAR PLAID, the 1991 Emma Thompson thriller DEAD AGAIN and the Keira Knightly 2014 action-thriller JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Absolutely brilliant. Really enjoyed that.
    Barbara Stanwyck was of course the stand out but I love the little parts from the secretary and old girl friend and the chemist. It all added up to one top movie. Thanks for the spotlight EB.
    Plus what a fantastic way to use a films title!!! POW!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, I totally agree…well-made, engaging, and entertaining! And yes, I’d say a must for noir fans…so many cool scenes and moments, and as Wolfman mentioned, the use of the title…POW! I’ve never heard the radio play, so based on your recommendation, I’ll track it down.

    Liked by 1 person

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