Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948) directed by Anatole Litvak
“What does a dame like you want with a guy like me?”
This line points to one of the problems people have with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), a screenplay written by Lucille Fletcher, who also wrote the famous 1943 radio play. Other people cite problems with Barbara Stanwyck’s performance, Lancaster’s casting, a proliferation of flashbacks, too many characters, and more. I agree with many of these issues, yet I unapologetically love the film.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson, who could be Stanwyck’s most unlikeable character in a long and distinguished career. As the film opens, she’s bedridden, trying to find out where her husband is, why he’s not home, and when he’s coming home. Leona is wealthy, entitled, privileged, snooty, arrogant, impatient, loud, hysterical… I could go on, but you get the idea. Her bedroom his filled with bottles of medicine, pills, items of luxury, and a framed photo of her father James Cotterell (Ed Begley).
As she picks up the phone to deliver her next rant to some unfortunate underling who should have her husband Henry’s entire itinerary memorized, Leona hears two men talking. They discuss plans for “making it look like a simple robbery,” but someone’s going to be murdered at 11:15 pm. The only exercise Leona gets is from jumping to conclusions, so she’s convinced that, since she’s the most important person in the universe, they’re talking about killing her. So Leona, in her usual entitled, nasty way, contacts the police, who are totally uninterested. It’s nearly 10 pm, the servants have all gone home, and Leona is all alone.
What follows next is a series of flashbacks, more flashbacks, and at least one flashback within a flashback, but I’ll try to give you the gist of the story without too many spoilers. We learn that earlier that day, Leona’s husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) met with a woman named Sally Lord (Ann Richards), who may have been the last person to see Henry, which brings up a flashback about the pasts of both women.
We also learn how Leona fell for the uneducated “wrong side of the tracks” Henry, and how Henry got involved with a chemist named Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea).
There’s more, including a mysterious house on Staten Island, a more mysterious man named Morano (William Conrad), and more. And what is Leona’s doctor (Wendell Corey) not telling her about her condition? My head’s spinning just thinking about all this...
This is the third time I’ve seen the film, and it’s starting to make sense. The first time I saw it, I was a teenager and couldn’t follow all the characters and flashbacks. The second time (probably six or seven years ago), I liked it, but had several issues with it. This time, I really focused on it (taking several pages of notes) and now appreciate how all the connections work out. I wouldn’t call it brilliant, but the structure is clever, incorporating the unity of time (as in perhaps the most famous unity of time movie, High Noon). In other words, the action on screen matches the film's actual running time. You don’t notice it because of the many flashbacks, but it’s there.
The convoluted nature of the storyline reflects the convoluted nature of Leona’s mind, which is breaking every speed limit possible in a dozen different directions at once. She’s becoming unhinged, and when you think about that, perhaps Stanwyck’s performances isn’t as over-the-top as it seems.
But one of the main problems in the film is Stanwyck’s attraction to Henry. Sure, he’s good-looking, but what else? He doesn’t know anything, he’s not from her social class, and he’s really not very smart. Maybe she sees Henry as someone she can groom, maybe she sees marrying him as an act of rebellion against her father, or maybe Henry’s just another plaything.
People who have heard the radio version (I have not) complain that the film’s padding makes it unnecessarily convoluted, that the original is the best way to experience the story. I eventually want to check out that original Suspense radio program (which featured Agnes Moorehead in the lead), but I do think the film version is engaging, but you may have to see it more than once.