Wednesday, January 20, 2010

#91: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

Released: September 1, 1948

Anatole Litvak; Screenplay: Lucille Fletcher; Cinematography: Sol Polito; Music: Franz Waxman; Producers: Anatole Litvak and Hal B. Wallis; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Leona Stevenson), Burt Lancaster (Henry Stevenson), Ann Richards (Sally Hunt Lord), Wendell Corey (Dr. Alexander), Harold Vermilyea (Waldo Evans), Ed Begley (James Cotterell), Leif Erickson (Fred Lord), William Conrad (Morano)

Anyone that has followed the site knows the love I have for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window and I can’t help but think about that all-time favorite whenever I consider this similar, but lesser film from Anatole Litvak. The similarity comes from the simple setup of having a character that is confined to a single room, who by chance uncovers a horrendous crime. In this case, due to crossed telephone wires, Barbara Stanwyck’s Leona Stevenson, an invalid, uncovers the planning of a murder. When she tries to contact police and tell them what she heard, they say that they can do nothing on such speculative information. Alone in the house and scrambling to find out why her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) has not returned home, Leona begins to worry and reminisce about her past.

As the story unfolds through flashbacks, recounting the courtship and marriage of Leona, a well-to-do heiress to a chemical fortune, and Henry, the high school dropout that the heiress becomes infatuated with, clues begin to highlight the constant tension of the marriage. Slowly, things begin to emerge that reveal that Henry has been the target of an extortion plot by a shady character named Morano (William Conrad) and has been scrambling to come up with a way to pay him off. He attempts schemes like stealing a valuable pharmaceutical from his father-in-law’s company and even hastening the death of his invalid wife so as to inherit her fortune and pay Morano off. Ultimately, it becomes obvious that the murder plot that Leona overheard on the crossed telephone lines was actually killers discussing her own murder. It then becomes a race as to who will get to Leona first, or if she can alert someone before it is too late.

The movie is based on an original radio play by screenwriter Lucille Fletcher. The radio program was only 22-minutes long, so the flashback sequences had to be added to the script in order to flesh the story out to feature-film length. This fact becomes obvious on repeat viewings, meaning that certain sections of the narrative feel like they were added simply to extend the length of the overall product. This is not to say that the story is necessarily a negative. There is undeniably fluff, though. Still, the story is the most appealing part of the film for me. Performances are just solid, nothing spectacular from anyone involved – even from noir heavyweights like Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The story can be unnerving in the way that the Leona character is characterized and photographed. This is a woman who is bedridden entirely because of her own mental problems. There is nothing physically wrong with her – Dr. Alexander (Wendell Corey) makes this clear when he tells Henry that there is nothing that he can do for and that she needs to see a psychiatrist. But these mental problems mean that she has confined herself in her own personal prison. And this is how Anatole Litvak shoots her bedroom, like a dark, foreboding prison cell. Things become unsettling because you are watching Leona trapped in this claustrophobic environment, knowing that physically she could get up and get herself out of danger at any moment, but understanding full well that she likely won’t.

Sorry, Wrong Number also takes itself incredibly serious, perhaps too much so, which is in direct contrast to the dark humor found throughout Rear Window. It’s certainly not in the same league as the Hitchcock masterpiece, but fans of Hitch should definitely check it out and view it as something along the lines of Rear Window’s distant, slightly-older cousin.


  1. Dave,

    “Rear Window’s distant, slightly-older cousin.”

    A slightly older cousin with arthritis, I‘d say. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the film, it is just that the film is not quite up to the level of greatness. And as you aptly point out there is a lot of filler to flesh out the time to feature length. Still, I never have a problem watching Stanwyck, though her hysterics here sometimes got on my nerves. Franz Waxman’s music helps a lot. Another well done report.

  2. Ugh. I'll come right out and say I dislike this one, and it doesn't deserve to be mentioned anywhere near Hitchcock's masterpiece. It has a good idea, but it would've been a FAR better film if it had actually stuck to its claustrophobic single setting rather than adding all those flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. For too much of its length it feels more like an overwrought melodrama than a noir, and Stanwyck's hysterics, as John says, don't help. It has some striking images — like the man in the dark on the other end of the phone, giving Stanwyck cryptic messages, or the weird secret meeting on a foggy, deserted beach — and the ending sequence is flat-out phenomenal, but by that point it's too little, too late.

  3. I didn't mean to compare this to Rear Window quite that much -- if you'll remember, I rank Rear Window as my favorite film of all-time. Just recognizing the somewhat similar premises and how I always think of the Hitchcock film when Sorry, Wrong Number comes up.

    I thought that this choice would be disagreed with. Part of my fondness of it might stem more from memories attached to it, and when I watched it, then completely on the film's merits. I didn't include it in the write-up, but it revolves around the period of my cancer treatments when I watched it, so it's one of those that I always link to a certain period/event and it's impossible for me to completely separate it from that experience. I have the same kind of thing with certain music. Might sound cheesy to explain that, but it's true.

  4. It has problems with the excessive use of flashbacks and it's hopelessly stagy, but as John astutely points out Franz Waxman contributes an atmospheric score and it's hard not to be engaged by Stanwyck, who is as always a scene stealer (even if in this instance she doesn't have much competition.

    It is well worth noting here that none other than Alfred Hitchcock loved this film, and thought Stanwyck was terrific. I think it's safe to say that despite it's flaws, it's still a significant genre piece, and a placement at #91 is fair enough.

    The quality of this extended capsule is typically excellent.

  5. Sam - I wasn't aware that Hitchcock felt that way... it's rare to hear Hitch ever compliment an actor or actress. At least I'm in good company on this one!

  6. Just checked and this one is on TV in the UK next week - I like both Stanwyck and Litvak, so will give it a look. Enjoyed your review, Dave, and I'll be interested to see the points of similarity with Rear Window, although I take your point that it is not that close a resemblance.

  7. Nice timing for this review for you, Judy! Hopefully you'll enjoy. It's not Rear Window, but I think you'll enjoy to some degree.

  8. Oops, I missed this review!
    I guess being a noir junkie I will like ANY film noir, and I did this one, too. But you pointed out its main problem very well: "'Sorry, Wrong Number'... takes itself incredibly serious." Yes, spot on! And, speaking about Stanwyck noirs, I prefer "The File on Thelma Jordon," "They Clash By Night" and "Double Indemnity," of course. The same goes for Mr. Lancaster: I prefer "The Brute Force," "The Killers," and "Criss Cross."

  9. Quirky Character - Expect a lot of the films you list here to show up as things progress...

  10. And I kinda forgot Mr. Lancaster's another film, "Sweet Smell of Success," but there are two reasons why I did: 1) this movie is a class of its own (and one of my faves), and I sorta did not want to pigeonhole it as just "noir"; 2) it appeared later, in the late 1950s, while the majority of the films noirs originated in the 1940s.

  11. I can't believe that you can remember something like this movie, I mean look the year, I bet that inclusive you wasn't born yet.

  12. This is a list of "top 100 film noir", and yet people here are complaining about the use of flashbacks as a part of a film's narrative structure? In distinction to the rest of you, I consider it somewhat of an achievement to have fleshed-out a 22-minute radio play to a standard film length, particularly by the use of flashbacks to expand the story and the characters. We see that Leona is a Femme Fatale of the first magnitude: she is born killing her mother, she castrates her rich father with her manipulation, and winds up snaring Henry with sex and the promise of wealth. We also see that Henry is possessed by his ambition to rise out of poverty and be a major player, and that he is capable of resorting to murdering his wife to save his own hide. In the flashback of the father's home we see that his den is studded with the trophies of all the live game he has killed--and Henry is just one more such acquisition, stuffed and frozen in an imitation of life. In actuality, he is just as paralyzed as is his wife, and themes of sickness, death, infection, contamination, medication/narcotics, and the film's principal metaphor -- the sick, twisted heart -- are all introduced and extended in the flashbacks. We learn how Henry snared Waldo into the drug-stealing scam--by appealing to his ambition and dreams--and there is also the implication that the effeminate Waldo is quite enamored of the sculpture-esque Mr. Stephenson. We learn how Henry and Waldo get snared by Morano at the house at 20 Dunstan Terrace, and how the medical examination by the ever-cool Wendell Corey has turned up a psycho-somatic illness rather than a true "heart condition". The flashbacks are a large part of what creates the film's tension, as all the determinism of the past now leans with an irresistible ton of karma on the present.... Trapping/Imprisonment, sickness/paralysis, purity/perversion, needy dependent love/the cold unfeeling heart--these themes are all developed through the flashback structure. Many of the greatest film noir employ this device -- Out of the Past, Criss Cross, the Killers, Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd, The Killing --the list goes on and on. And these are all in your top 20! Well, I would put Sorry Wrong Number in my top 20 film noir, without a doubt. I think it is one of the seminal films of the cycle, full of great acting, great dialogue, great atmosphere & cinematography, and great tension -- even though you know the WHOLE time that Leona is the one who is on the spot. The movie is about how she came to be on the spot, and that story is told largely through the flashbacks. Ultimately, an unfortunate orphan whose mother died in childbed, she becomes a clutching harpy in a barren marriage, and then dies in bed herself, prey of her prey, trapped in her own self-made prison, the victim of a warped, twisted heart.... Harvey Canter, Tarzana CA