Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Fletcher (screenplay, based on her radio drama), Anatole Litvak (director) Sorry, Wrong Number / 1948
Litvak’s film of 1948 is totally
unbelievable, filled with such ridiculous coincidences and disconnected plot
circumstances that, in the hands of a lesser director and actor, would make
this work laughable. It is, at times, still laughable, but once you accept the
melodramatic and film noir aspects of Sorry,
Wrong Number, the movie becomes quite enjoyable, even though it ends in the
central character’s murder.
slightly hysterical at all times, Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck)—much like
today’s constant cell-phone addicts—is linked to the world, so it seems, only
by telephone. As the film opens, she has been trying, unsuccessfully, to reach
her husband’s office; he is late returning home. Barking out commands to an
invisible operator, we immediately recognize her as an imperiously rich woman,
determined to get immediate results:
Operator! Operator! Operator!
Operator: Your call please?
Leona Stevenson: Operator, I've
been ringing Murray
for the last half hour and the line is
Will you ring it for me, please?
But in this case she gets something she
has not sought out, a crossed line conversation which, after frustrated
attempts to interrupt, she perceives as a plot to murder a woman at 11:30 that
night. Demands that the operator redial the number prove fruitless, and she,
seemingly, a near cripple is forced to contemplate the meaning of
events—something which she clearly has seldom done.
A call to husband’s secretary, a call from her own father, and, finally,
a call from her husband telling her he is traveling on business, gradually
reveals her and her husband’s story, a clearly unpleasant one. Daughter of a
wealthy drug manufacturer, Leona has hand-picked her husband, literally pulling
him away from another woman, Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards), at a high school party. Henry (Burt Lancaster) is from a
poor Grassville family, a man determined to make it good. And perhaps he might
have achieved something important had he married Sally. Leona simply made it
easier for him, introducing him to her father, who immediately awards him, upon
the daughter’s demands, a responsible position in his pharmaceutical company.
But, in fact, the job is an almost meaningless one, and Henry is disenchanted.
Yet every step he takes toward independence results in a nervous attack upon
Leona’s health—clearly, as we learn later, a tact that she has taken since she
was a child in order to get her way.
To raise enough money to leave his job and/or wife, Henry bribes an
employee chemist to help him steal, each week, drugs, which he sells at an
isolated house on Staten Island, a few miles from the complany plant.
In another absurd coincidence, Sally, now married to a detective, has
discerned that her husband in tracking not only the drug-trafficking plot, but
suspects Henry Stevenson’s involvement. Clearly still harboring some feeling
for him, Sally makes a visit to Henry to tell him what she knows and, later, is
another of Leona’s telephonic visitors. Several times, moreover, a stranger,
named Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea), calls, asking to speak to Leona’s
husband, and finally revealing that the illegal activities have been foiled by
the police, the house burned to the ground.
Bit by bit, piecing together the series of
information she has acquired, Leona comes to realize, too late, that the
conversation concerning the 11:30 murder has been about her, and that the
client was Henry. In a final call from her husband, Leona reveals her knowledge
at the very moment that Henry tries to help her escape the approaching
murderer. Despite the fact that we now know that Leona has been perfectly
healthy all along, in her own mind she remains a frail cripple, unable to even
call out for help, thus ensuring her own death.
As I’ve said, the story is quite ludicrous. But Litvak keeps out
attention by shifting our emotional responses to the central characters. Just
as his camera hovers over and circles what we first see as a sickly and
frightened woman, so, as the plot unfolds, do we shift and transfer our
emotions regarding her.
Early on we realize that it is her sexually philandering father, James
Cotterell (Ed Begley) who is the real villain, not only for giving her nearly
everything she has wanted, but for years insisting that she remain with him as
a kind of surrogate wife. Similarly, it is he who has entrapped Henry in a
meaningless job even more than his demanding wife has captured him in their
marriage. Leonara’s darkened room, littered with vials of pills and
entertainment magazines becomes a symbol of both their imprisonments.
Outside this outhouse
environment, things are even stranger and bleaker. Sally’s home is portrayed as
an unpleasant one, her husband and another friend drinking as they plot their
strategies, she forced to herself to go under cover, so to speak, to discover
the truth. Henry’s secretary, evidently, lives in a rooming house where she
spends her nights playing bingo.
Worst of all is the strange world Henry has created to carry out his
fraud. The beach itself, with its ever-present clam digger-guardian, the
desolate shack and boarded-up house, and the quick visits by desperate plotters
create an almost surrealist landscape that represents everything but the “good
life” Henry has sought.
In the end, all the figures of Sorry, Wrong Number, including the
well-meaning Sally, have used each other in search of their own desires and
needs. If the telephone, as the film’s prologue states, is “a link between
millions of lives,” it is also—at least in this work—a tool of isolation,
disorientation, even “death,” a fact of which we might remind us of ourselves
in our constantly text-messaging, twittering babel of communications.