Big Screen Berkeley: Sorry, Wrong Number

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We’ve reached the telephonic point of no return: according to data collected by CTIA – the industry lobbying group supporting the wireless industry – there’s now more than one active cell phone for every man, woman and child in the United States. Unless (like me) you don’t own or carry a mobile, there’s simply no hiding from your annoying relatives or that disappointing political candidate to whom you donated $10 during the 2008 election cycle.

Back in 1948, things were different. Perhaps you had a phone at home or at work, but you didn’t have an answering machine, and you certainly had no way of reaching someone who was traveling. If you were home and a line was open, you’d probably pick up the phone if it rang. If you missed a call…well, such was life. Aunt Mildred or President Truman would simply have to call again later.

Judging from Anatole Litvak’s Sorry, Wrong Number (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 9:00 PM on Friday, September 6th as part of the series ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There: Wendell Corey, Actor’), however, the phone was already an essential household accoutrement by the late 1940s. Acknowledging its long – but not yet unavoidable – reach, the film begins with this disturbing preface: “In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs – – the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring…and horror…and loneliness…and death!!!”

Based on Lucille Fletcher’s radio play of the same name (and skillfully expanded and adapted by Fletcher for the big screen), Sorry, Wrong Number stars Barbara Stanwyck as Leona Stevenson, an invalid housewife spending an evening alone in her Manhattan penthouse. It’s the nurse’s night off, and Husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) should have been home hours ago. Repeated phone calls to his office yield nothing – until a crossed line connects Leona to a disturbing conversation about an impending murder.

Neither the phone company nor the police seem terribly interested in her story, but Leona will not be denied, relentlessly pursuing Henry via frantic phone calls to his bingo-playing secretary (Dorothy Neumann), old girlfriend Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards), family physician Philip Alexander (Wendell Corey), and even dear old Dad, pharmaceutical magnate J.B. Cotterell (Ed Begley). Flashbacks fill us in on the Stevenson couple’s strange relationship – and suggest there’s more to Henry’s disappearance than a purported convention trip.

Imperious, officious, preening, confident, assertive, and sexually aggressive, Leona is everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be in 1948. It’s the perfect role for Stanwyck, whose performance earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (she ultimately lost to Jane Wyman, whose character in Johnny Belinda was a much more appropriate exemplar of American womanhood).

The original radio drama (first broadcast in 1943 with Agnes Moorehead as Leona) was less than thirty minutes long, compelling Fletcher to flesh out the proceedings with additional exposition and back-story. Blending elements of Gothic horror, film noir and mystery tropes, her screenplay concludes on a grim note that impressively manages to stay within the parameters (if not the spirit) of the Production Code.

Footnote: Corey, the inspiration for this terrific PFA series, gets the film’s best line, delivered when Leona’s call interrupts a pleasant social occasion: “I believe I prescribed a sedative for you…well, just double the dose!”

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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  • Marcia Tanner

    Lovely review, John Seal. Do you know the artist Christian Marclay’s “Telephone” video montage of 1995? Barbara Stanwyck is in it. Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH5HTPjPvyE

  • susankl

    “Unless (like me) you don’t own or carry a mobile, there’s simply no
    hiding from your annoying relatives or that disappointing political
    candidate to whom you donated $10 during the 2008 election cycle.”
    Or, unless (like me), you turn the ringer or the entire phone off much of the time, or check the caller ID and talk to only the callers you want to talk to? Why oh why do people think that the phone owns them instead of the other way around? Odd.

  • John Seal

    Thank you, Marcia. I hadn’t seen that before. Quite revealing…there’s a book (or at least a thesis) waiting to be written about telephones and the movies!