“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!”
With the above charge, the film Sorry, Wrong Number began, when first released over 50 years ago. How different our relationship with the telephone is now. With the ubiquitous cell phone, it’s no longer unseen and it seems we are the servant now, rather than the other way around. As for being a confidante, forget that; all and sundry are privy to other people’s lives now as we are forced to hear the conversations of too many others who are so insecure or obsessed with being in touch that when out in public, are unable to be away from a phone for more than five minutes. But I digress.
Sorry, Wrong Number had its origins as a radio play of the same title written by Lucille Fletcher and was first broadcast on the program “Suspense” on the CBS radio network, May 25, 1943. Agnes Moorehead starred as the protagonist Leona on that first broadcast — one that was so popular that the program was re-broadcast annually for ten years. In 1947, author Lucille Fletcher was approached by Hal Wallis — at that time an independent producer with a working relationship with Paramount — to develop a screenplay based on the radio play. Film production, which began in early January 1948, lasted eight weeks. The completed film was premiered in New York in September 1948 to very favorable reaction. Paramount has now released the film on DVD for the first time.
Leona Stevenson is a wealthy New York invalid confined to her room with only the telephone to connect her to the outside world when her husband Henry and her maid are away. One day, she tries repeatedly to contact her husband at his office, but always gets a busy signal. She contacts the operator to try to get connected. Leona then finds herself connected to a seemingly unrelated phone conversation between two men who are planning to murder a woman that night. When she tries to follow up with the operator and then the police, nobody takes her seriously. Now more than ever wanting to contact her husband, Leona embarks on a series of calls first to her husband’s secretary, then to a former acquaintance named Sally Lord and to Leona’s doctor, and finally to a chemist at the pharmaceutical company where her husband works. With these calls, a series of flashbacks gradually reveal the events of the past leading up to the present day. It soon becomes apparent that those events point to the possibility of Leona’s life being in jeopardy and she begins to fear that the conversation she overheard was not about an unknown woman being murdered, but herself.
Here is a finely written and engrossing murder tale that really keeps you on the edge of your seat as the whole past life of Leona and Henry Stevenson is gradually revealed. Both are effectively weak individuals who by dint of fortunate circumstance (in Leona’s case, being borne into wealth, and in Henry’s case, marrying into it) attempt to wield power over others and end up trapped by their own failings. The screenplay builds the case against both of them slowly but surely, using a neatly constructed series of flashbacks that reveal the character flaws in Leona and Henry that have brought them to their current situations in life. Deception piles on deception until people and events spin out of control (including a seemingly abandoned house on Staten Island which burns down, a plan to steal pharmaceuticals and sell them to a fence, and a chemist who has more gumption that one first expects). One virtually ceases to have any sympathy for either of the protagonists and almost, but perhaps not completely, in Leona’s case anyway, accepts the fate in store for them both.
The performances of the actors playing Leona and Henry are key to the film’s success. Barbara Stanwyck was a 20-year Hollywood veteran by 1948 and she knew exactly what was needed to play the shut-in Leona and yet keep her interesting. She perhaps errs on the side of the melodramatic, but from her performance, we certainly get the sense of first disquiet and then dread as events reveal themselves to her. She creates sympathy in the audience for her character, but it is also mixed with the sense that she’s perhaps getting her just desserts for her own arrogance. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, eventually losing to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda. Burt Lancaster, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer. He had debuted only two years previously in the film noir The Killers, and quickly established himself with forceful performances in two other films in that genre (Brute Force, I Walk Alone). Sorry, Wrong Number would be his seventh film overall and fourth film noir. It was a role he campaigned for, seeing an opportunity to play an essentially immoral character as opposed to his more tough guy roles in the earlier film noirs. His success as the weak Henry helped to show that Lancaster had a future as more than a tough guy, as his filmography of 85 varied films over 46 years (1946-1991) attests.
As suggested, Sorry, Wrong Number is a film noir employing a number of expressionistic camera devices (circling camera shots, looming shadows) that contribute, along with the room that is Leona’s world, to the sense of entrapment or inevitability that is so often associated with the genre. The look that provides that claustrophobic feel to the film is attributable to the team of under-appreciated director Anatole Litvak (and also co-producer of the film) and veteran cinematographer Sol Polito. The two had worked together before while at Warner Brothers on such films as Confessions of a Nazi Spy and City for Conquest, and then most recently on the 1947 noir The Long Night. Polito contributed the camera fluidity and Litvak, the lighting stylistics, with the result being quite an artistic example of effective shadow movement.
For character actor watchers, look for Ed Begley as Leona’s father, Leif Erickson as Sally Lord’s husband, and William Conrad (TV’s Cannon) as a fence.
All of Paramount’s sound films prior to 1948 are under the control of Universal, so 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number is one of the earliest and most prominent sound titles Paramount can release on video itself. The new release on DVD consists of a 1.37:1 full frame transfer in accord with the original aspect ratio. We get a transfer that’s not bad on the whole. The black and white image is relatively sharp and is not weighed down by too much in the way of age-related speckles and scratches. Blacks are fairly deep and shadow detail is quite good, which is important with this film. There is a fair amount of grain evident, particularly in night-time and outdoor scenes. Not a bad effort from Paramount, but not among the best black and white film transfers either.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is provided. It does the job quite adequately, delivering dialogue which is clearly understandable, free of age-related hiss and distortion. A mono French track is also included as are English subtitles.
For supplementary material, we get the Paramount standard — the original theatrical trailer. (Although I notice from some of the other offerings from Paramount of late, that we’re not even getting trailers with them. So perhaps, we should count ourselves lucky with Sorry, Wrong Number.)
Sorry, Wrong Number is a thoroughly entertaining film noir from Paramount that delivers an engrossing plot featuring some excellent acting performances from veteran and ever-reliable Barbara Stanwyck and young buck Burt Lancaster. The DVD successfully conveys the film’s many merits although the transfer is certainly not among the top tier of black and white classic releases. Recommended.