Sorry Wrong Number

US (1948) Dir. Anatole Litvak

Over the past few years, they have been scares in the media that excessive use of mobile phones could cause brain cancer. Some have baulked at this idea but as this classic 1948 film noir drama suggests, even an ancient rotary dial telephone could eventually lead to someone’s death if they are that unfortunate.

Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is the spoiled daughter of pharmaceutical magnate James Cotterell (Ed Begley), married to Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster), a former drug store worker now the company vice-president. Bed ridden with a heart condition, Leona gets tetchy when Henry doesn’t come home one night and all the staff have gone home.

When Leona tries ringing Henry’s office the operator accidentally mis-connects her to listen in on another call in which it sounds like two men a plotting a murder for that night. Leona’s attempts to report this to the police and the phone operator falls on deaf ears but in making other calls to find you where her husband is, Leona hears some shocking stories that make her fear for Henry’s life.

It’s not difficult to see how this story worked in its original form as a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, who adapted this film script too, starring Agnes Moorehead in 1943, since it puts the listener in the place of Leona having to visualise everything being told to her. The transition to the visual medium is smoother than it could have been but not without its issues as much of the dialogue is exposition and awkward info dumps.

But credit to Fletcher and director Anatole Litvak for fleshing out the crazy world Leona hears about and bringing it to life for the big screen, turning an already tense drama into a slice of visual noir. Being able to see the events of the various background stories occur presumably makes the story more palatable than the blur of the audio version, as well as giving Litvak leeway to spice things up a little.

The pivotal cross call happens moments into the opening scene as Leona huffs and puffs at her husband’s absence. The unsubtle conversation is risible in its stereotypical delivery, gruff voices talking menacingly in veiled parlance. Given what we later learn about Leona’s needy personality, it is odd to see her so concerned for a woman she doesn’t know and never will, but even Leona has a conscience.

No-one wants to take Leona seriously, a police officer suspecting she might have heard a radio broadcast instead (in the early days of cordless phones they could have said the radio might have interfered with the signal). However, Leona still has to find out where Henry is so she begins by making a round of calls, beginning with her father who is busy at a party.  

From her husband’s secretary (Dorothy Neumann) Leona learns Henry hasn’t been seen since he went to lunch with a Mrs Lord. Leona has the operator tracks her number down to discover that Mrs. Lord is Sally Hunt (Ann Richards), the woman Leona stole Henry from back in college. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother to make any of them look younger in that flashback so we are to make believe that 41 year-old Stanwyck and 35 year-old Lancaster as their apparent young adults here.

Sally sneaks out of the house to ring Leona back and tell her that her lawyer husband (Jimmy Hunt) is involved in a case that concerns Henry but she doesn’t have all the details, so Sally went to visit Henry to warn him. Stretching things a bit, curious Sally then follows her husband to see what he is getting up to, but this introduces us to Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea), who mysteriously keeps calling Leona with an urgent message for Henry.

Playing out as a series of incidents held together by what appears to be a flimsy common thread of conjecture and happenstance, the mystery deepens as the revelations forces each scenario to veer off towards a different conclusion that once suspected. While Leona is going out of her mind with worry and confusion, the audience is experiencing the latter as nothing and no-one involved is what they seem.

Credit to Fletcher for the intricate plotting and sustained mystery, wrong footing us with each new twist ahead of what is a truly bold and un-Hollywood ending for the time. It is amazing to think that at the start of this film the whole concept seems implausibly daft but 88 minutes later our nerves are shred as the final credits roll.

The musical motifs are overdramatic and intrusive otherwise Litvak’s intuitive use of shadows, dizzying camerawork, and the subversion of innocuous every day sounds work a charm in building the tension. Some of the characters fall into archetypes which robs them of their credibility but within this framework they serve their purpose well enough.

Despite going onto to achieve legendary status, this was only Burt Lancaster’s sixth film but his rugged leading man credentials were very much present here. Lancaster brings out the raw ambition of Henry without compromising his principled side, painting him in subtle shades of grey to keeping the mystery going.

For Barbara Stanwyck, she is no stranger to playing dark characters, Leona coming a few years after her signature role in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Leona is actually an obnoxious and selfish brat of a woman so to see her gradually breakdown over being so helpless and tortured by the lack of information should be a case of just deserts. By the end, Stanwyck has us on her side and earns our pity for the hysteria she suffers.

A film like Sorry, Wrong Number couldn’t be made in a modern setting because of the advances in telecommunications and the dominance of the mobile phone would instantly negate the concept. A remake set in the pre-mobile/internet age would be the way to go but then again, why would need it when we have this original?