Friday, April 6, 2012

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) - Anatole Litvak

Bedridden and alone for the evening, Leona Stevenson tries to call her husband, Henry, at the office, but the lines get crossed and she overhears a disturbing phone conversation between some men planning a murder of an unidentified woman. The details are sketchy, but the crime will occur that night at 11:15. Already nervous at her husband's absence, she grows increasingly unnerved as she soon hears more troubling news from a old flame of Henry's and from a mysterious Mr. Evans who tells her that Henry has been stealing from her father's company.

A claustrophobic film noir, Sorry, Wrong Number's action takes place nearly in real time with the exception of flashbacks that effectively provide the back story and reveal what's behind that mysterious phone call. It's soon apparent that Leona (Barbara Stanwyck) is a bit of a dominating shrew who keeps her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), firmly under her thumb. Like her excessively doting father who owns a big drug company and for which Henry is buried as a lowly vice president in charge of accounts, she works hard to neuter her husband. An apparent heart condition gives her a ready excuse, and she suffers an attack to manipulate Henry whenever he begins to chafe at the suffocating life he's found himself in and shows a little independence.

Stanwyck does a wonderful job to make you dislike her overbearing character with just little gestures: she doesn't allow Henry to enjoy a glass of champagne at their wedding reception, and turns away when he tries to kiss her on the deck of their cruise liner at the start of their honeymoon. Her attacks of illness seem overly dramatic and too convenient. By the end of the film, however, you are likely to feel differently toward the woman. An unsettling feeling of dread builds as she unravels as 11:15 approaches. If you don't quite sympathize with her plight, you can empathize with her when she is gripped by real terror. She is no longer irritatingly petulant, but a helpless person, crying and unglued as she hears the tell-tale click of the extension phone downstairs, maybe the first "someone is in the house!" horror moment on film. A fabulously versatile actress, Stanwyck is one of the genre's most accomplished performers. Her character's arc here is perfect. For her performance, she earned the last of her four Oscar nominations.

Barbara Stanwyck grows increasingly desperate. 
Her behavior is not all Leona's fault, of course. Since her mother died in childbirth, her rich father has spoiled her rotten. At one point a doctor tells Henry that her attacks are real enough, but psycho-somatic, or self-induced. Panic has a way of doing that--she believes she's really ill. But that little bit of information sends Henry over the edge. He's already involved in a scheme to slowly pilfer a bit of drugs, fence the stolen goods through the mob, and accumulate enough money to break away from the father-in-law. For help, he's recruited Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea), a unassuming chemist with the company. When Henry tries to cut out the middle man, the mob comes calling in the form of the menacing William Conrad, who demands an IOU to produce $200,000, suggesting that Henry's sick wife's life insurance might be an option.

If ever a couple was a poor match, it's Leona and Henry. He's far too weak for Leona, and from the poor side of the tracks. The only apparent attraction for Leona is that he's handsome. But he also represents a way for her to put some distance between herself and her father. In one flashback, Leona tells her friend, Sally Hunt, that she usually gets what she wants. Well, she inexplicably wants Henry, and takes him from the girl. Even Henry finds it odd, asking "What does a dame like you want with a guy like me?"

This would be the only time the two stars were paired in a film. Stanwyck, of course, was a great star, and Lancaster not yet hitting his stride. She seems in full control in their brief scenes together, which works perfectly for the characters and story, though it likely reflects their relative skills as actors at that point in their careers. While she shines throughout, Lancaster is merely adequate. His best scene comes at the end, on the phone with his frantic wife, when he gets to show some emotion, realizing what he has set in motion.

An unlikely and unbalanced pairing.

But the best moment in the film features noir at its best. Mr. Evans calls the Stevenson residence. He's been trying to reach Henry all day. He appears shaded so you can't see his features. He tells Leona to pass along some important information: 1) he has burnt down a house on Long Island (presumably to destroy evidence) and escaped; 2) Mr. Moreno (Conrad) has been arrested, so there's no need to follow through on the IOU; 3) Evans is presently at the location in Manhattan but will be leaving soon; and 4) if Henry needs to contact him later, he might try Bowery 2-1000. When Leona presses him about Henry's whereabouts, Evans tells her he doesn't know but perhaps Henry is already at that number.

It's a confusing phone call, one that fuels Leona's anxiety. Earlier that evening, she had had one from Sally Hunt, who's husband works for the DA. Apparently Henry is in a bit of trouble and the police are on to him. Upon hanging up with Evans, Leona immediately calls the number he gave her. Her fingers shake uncontrollably as she dials. The voice at the other end tells her she has reached the city morgue. Franz Waxman wrote the film's effective score, which keeps the tension going nicely throughout. The morgue line brings an appropriately dramatic flourish.  As Leona collapses on the bed, the camera pulls out of the room through the window and pans down to the ground floor where the silhouette of a man appears on the wall. It is nearly 11:15.

The final scene is a chilling one. Henry calls. An hysterical Leona passes along Mr. Evans' information. Henry is stunned. Standing outside the phone booth, police wait to make an arrest. He hears his wife scream.

The film has a lot more going for it. Stanwyck's terrific wardrobe is thanks to designer Edith Head, who had thirteen separate credits for 1948 alone. Even Leona's night gown looks expensive. But it is the several fur-collared numbers, fancy hats, and big jewels that she wears in flashbacks that look great and tell you plenty about the character.

The astounding coincidences of Leona's accidentally overhearing the initial phone call and of Sally Hunt being married to a law enforcement official who's investigating Henry aside, Sorry, Wrong Number is great.

Director Litvak deftly captured the right mood of desperation and inevitability in the story. He had Louise Fletcher's 1943 acclaimed radio program to work with, starring the great Agnes Moorehead. A link follows here: Radio Play 

Besides Sorry, Wrong Number, Litvak had an even bigger hit that year, The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland. For that he was nominated for best director and de Havilland competed with Stanwyck for Best Actress. Neither actress won, losing to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda, and John Huston took the director statue for The Treasure of Sierra Madre.


  1. Such a great movie! Thanks for the've made me eager to see it again.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. I like the character of Evans too. Poor guy got in over his head.