Sorry, Wrong Number, an immensely popular postwar thriller, opens wryly: “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!!!” Superimposed on a busy scene of a bank of telephone operators providing customers with connections, these words weigh in for two reasons: one, as the film plays out it becomes clear that the character who, bedridden, uses the phone throughout is deepened in her isolation by its use, for all the superficial connections provided to her; and two, the tone of this introduction is keyed to the hysterical nature of the woman herself. As this suggests, Sorry, Wrong Number is a good piece of entertainment nudged by considerable intelligence in the direction of genuine art, or of some facsimile.
Sorry, Wrong Number began as a play in the long-running radio anthology series Suspense. First broadcast in 1943, it is best remembered as a tour-de-force for its star, Agnes Moorehead, who re-enacted the role of Leona Stevenson, live, seven more times: a woman who, because of crossed lines, overhears a phone conversation arranging for someone’s murder later that night—a murder she cannot arouse police interest in, and a murder, it turns out, where she herself is the victim. The radio play, trim and compact, ran about thirty minutes. Leona is the principal character, although other characters are heard on her telephone. The author of the play, Lucille Fletcher, won an Edgar Allan Poe Award for it. Fletcher said that she based her protagonist on an arrogant, imperious old woman who challenged her position in a grocery store line when Fletcher was buying milk for her (and spouse, composer Bernard Herrmann’s) infant. Originally, it was Fletcher’s idea that the telephone itself should be the “lead character.” Fletcher expanded her radio play for the film, which is nearly 90 minutes long, adding numerous flashbacks that stress the film’s psychological nature. Many see this as a disadvantage, arguing that the greater length and more involved plot reduce the intensity of suspense. There is no refuting such a charge; on the other hand, the film provides more convincing motivation for the murder, and the far more convoluted plot becomes expressively correlative to Leona’s twisted psychology and the impact of this on her marriage.
Leona, whose hysterical heart condition has, ironically, suited her physical well being to her mental impairment, is alone in her bedroom on the uppermost floor of a huge, expensive old house in Sutton Place in New York City, with the Queensborough Bridge visible over the East River through the open window on a hot summer night. (The location matched the Herrmanns’ own home at the time.) Leona is able to move a bit from her bed only with tremendous pain. She is plainly rich; she is “The Cough-Drop Queen”—a pharmaceutical company heiress. Leona’s lower-class husband, whom she married to dominate, works for her father, who is at the family home in Chicago; it’s clear from his photograph in her bedroom that her father, not her spouse, continues to be the central male figure in her life. Her husband, whom Leona attempts to track down, eventually wires her that he won’t be coming home that night. Both servants are also absent. A sick, unhappy person, Leona is all alone on this, the last night of her life. The camera circles around and around her bedroom, brilliantly suggesting that Leona’s imprisonment, a projection of her mind, is in some sense of her own making.
The filmmaker is Anatole Litvak, who was enjoying a terrific career year with not only Sorry, Wrong Number but also The Snake Pit. Fletcher and he devise some marvelous moments in Sorry, Wrong Number. For instance, when Leona phones the police about the upcoming murder, discussion of which she has heard on the phone, we hear her frustration that the police officer sensibly can do nothing about this because she can provide no specific evidence to empower the law to do anything to intervene. He tells her that the information she has is no better than no information. But reinforcing our sense of Leona’s isolation and of her confinement in a prison of her own mind is what we see at the police station that Leona can’t. While the desk officer is doing his best to deal with the unreasonably demanding Leona, he also has his hands full with a little child who has somehow become separated from her parents. Indeed, when the phone rings from Leona’s call, the officer tells the baby that the call may be from her mother. The affection for the child that the officer, a stranger, displays ironically reflects on Leona’s own loveless life, partly the result of what Leona has made of her life owing to her fear of being unloved. The scene also reflects what Leona’s self-involvement and tunnel vision shelter her from; contributory to this is the fact that the baby is black—a part of the varied reality from which rich, white Leona is cocooned and separated. (The Stevensons, I should add, are a childless couple.) Here I disagree with those who feel that Leona is reaching beyond herself with concern for the potential murder victim. Until it dawns on her that she herself is the intended victim, Leona proceeds to track down the truth, it seems to me, not out of concern for someone else but as an impulsive reaction to what she has heard—an hysterical dramatic impulse meant to fill the void of her solitude and own fears.
Other instances repeat this narrative technique where we see at the other end of the phone line what Leona can’t, deepening our sense of her divorce from reality: when she speaks to her husband’s college girlfriend, Leona can’t see the woman’s married family life, which also includes a child; when she speaks to her doctor, she cannot see that he is out on a date.
Morever, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the connection it draws between Leona’s father’s capitalism and his, as well as his daughter’s, possessiveness. The film distinguishes between capital and wealth on the basis of the degree of power attached to it, for Stevenson becomes a wealthy man by marrying Leona, but he remains powerless, under the thumb, as it were, of his wife and his father-in-law, James B. Cotterell, who owns the pharmaceutical company for which Stevenson works as a vice-president. Henry has no money of his own—a point underscored when we see Leona putting money into her husband’s wallet. (The emotional powerlessness she feels is underscored by the fact that, when she is about to do this, Leona discovers a picture of his old girlfriend in Henry’s wallet.) It is for this reason, in fact, that Henry eventually schemes to defraud the company, enlisting as co-conspirator another employee, a scientist who, despite years of service to the company, is left without accumulated wealth. Their predicament, in context owing to their lack of ownership in the company, reflects on the nature of capitalism; despite their contributions to the company, the owner retains all power, and the humiliations that Stevenson suffers at the hands of his wife and from their marriage, in which his father-in-law as swiftly interferes as he does in the matter of his son-in-law’s job performance, completes the portrait of capitalistic arrogance that directs every aspect of Stevenson’s life. Even their New York City mansion appears as an extension of the Cotterell domain—a point stressed not only by the painting and the photograph of Cotterell but by the artillery of visible drugs—pharmaceuticals—with which Leona has armed herself for her marriage. Indeed, Leona’s condition, both imagined and, as a consequence, real, accumulates into a symbol of the crippling and distorting nature of capital and capitalism, wherein some persons own all and others own little or nothing in their lives, robbing them of self-determination. The discrepancy in turn helps enlarge the arrogance of owners. His son-in-law’s lack of power, a sign of Cotterell’s power in the first place, further incites Cotterell to control every aspect of his son-in-law’s life. His possessiveness, which Leona’s reflects because she also feels like her father’s property, swells and swells.
This material, embryonic in the radio play, needed the end of the war to become an organizing thematic principle of the film. The euphoria of war’s end had been replaced by the uncertainty generated by the Cold War, and, for the first time since the Depression, America found itself in a reflective frame of mind, capable of criticizing its tenets and assumptions. The national hysteria that was McCarthyism yet loomed as a virulent correction to this national self-reflection and self-evaluation—an eruption of denial that America is anything less than perfect. The film Sorry, Wrong Number has some political bite to it.
It also has Barbara Stanwyck in a famous performance. Once, in declaring Stanwyck the all-time best American-born film actress, I identified Leona as being among her most blatant pieces of work. Perhaps in the past I had some difficulty separating Stanwyck’s acting on this occasion from the hysterical nature of the role—the fits and tantrums (“You don’t love me!”). Upon revisiting it, I now find her performance as nuanced as it is bold; belatedly, therefore, I am joining the chorus of praise the performance has long attracted. With unshakable clarity, Stanwyck details Leona’s psychology: the feeling of being possessed that makes her possessive. Moreover, Stanwyck is tremendously moving, succeeding in showing how Leona herself is a victim without sentimentalizing what is, after all, an unpleasant character. There is much more to Stanwyck’s interpretation than the disintegration and humiliation of an hysterical invalid. Stanwyck acts as well as emotes.
Burt Lancaster plays Stevenson. He is inept. Bereft of ability, hunky Lancaster can’t even speak his lines, let alone act them, and many of his line readings are laughable. Lancaster’s only contribution lies in nailing accurately Henry’s social origins; Lancaster convinces us that Henry comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.” However, even the added material addressing Henry’s motivation for murder counts for little in his stiff, leaden, by-the-numbers presentation. It isn’t until he went to Italy and was dubbed by an Italian actor—a real actor—that Lancaster managed what at least looks like a performance. (I am referring to his Don Fabrizio in Luchino Visconti’s 1963 Il Gattopardo, which Lancaster himself regarded as his best performance.) On the other hand, this dreadful “actor” isn’t at his worst in Sorry, Wrong Number; four years hence he would mangle William Inge’s Doc Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann, 1952).
The film is in intense black and white. Sol Polito is the cinematographer.
The film was still more than a year in the future when George Burns and Gracie Allen spoofed Fletcher’s playlet on the radio. Gracie has been listening to too many radio mysteries, and when she accidentally overhears on the phone two bug exterminators discuss getting rid of “the pest” she is certain that her husband’s life is in danger. Gracie will save George no matter what. Say goodnight, Gracie.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.