Based on Lucille Fletcher’s highly popular radio play, “Sorry, Wrong Number” was brought to the screen in 1948 by producer Hal B. Wallis and Paramount. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and stars Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The original radio show featured Agnes Moorehead and was primarily a tense one woman dialogue for the complete twenty-two minute show. The program was so popular, Moorehead reprised her role several times over the years, but when Wallis and Paramount purchased the property, they decided Moorehead was not a big enough star for the lead role in the film. So here came Stanwyck who had just signed a contract with Wallis making this her first film under the new agreement.
To expand the original short radio script into a feature film, Lucille Fletcher “opened” up her original story which she accomplished by adding a series of flashbacks and even some flashbacks within flashbacks, expanding the role of the husband, played by Lancaster. Fletcher would also turn the screenplay into a novel the same year the movie was released.
Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, the bed ridden wealthy invalid, neurotic to the core, with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays. She is confined to her lavish bedroom apartment, overlooking the New York City skyline. One evening Leona, attempting to call her boy toy husband Henry, accidently due to crossed telephone lines, overhears two men discussing a murder plot. She calls the police, then her father and finally her doctor, but no one believes her.
Over the years, Stanwyck has given many superb and entertaining performances. There are few actresses I enjoy watching more perform her craft. Here she gives a powerful, though bombastic performance that starts at a very high level of tension and never lets up. She never lets you forget, she is “acting” and that is the problem. You should never be aware of the mechanics, and here we are. The Motion Picture Academy is always a sucker for overwrought, over the top performances (think Al Pacino “Scent of a Woman”) and rewarded Babs with her fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination (she would lose to Jane Wyman for “Johnny Belinda”).
On the plus side, director Anatole Litvak (1) created a tightly knit, claustrophobic atmosphere that slowly grows in intensity, the flashbacks effectively showing how Lancaster’s character transitions from an optimistic newlywed to a doomed second class entity browbeat by both his wife and father-in-law. One of the film’s stronger elements is its theme of how the rich manipulate and feel entitled. We watch Stanwyck dominate her lower class husband as does her father who controls everyone in his life. Still, the film is a bit hard to warm up to primarily because there are no likable characters in the entire film. Stanwyck’s Leona, who we should be sympathizing with, is demanding and acidic. Her husband, Henry Stevenson, played by Burt Lancaster, is a weakling and a crook who married into the rich family and works for his father-in-law’s (Ed Begley) company where he is miserable and unhappy. Begley, as James Cotterell, Leona’s father, is just as demanding and unpleasant as his daughter.
Lancaster, already a rising star plays nicely against type giving a logical bent to a husband fed up with being a second class citizen in his own life. It’s interesting that many of Lancaster’s early roles (The Killers and Criss Cross) were downbeat losers who felt beaten by life. For most of us who became familiar with Burt in his later more heroic, tough-guy roles this may be a bit of a jolt to the system, but he is effective and it reflects his range as an actor.
Sol Polito’s evocative dark photography adds some nice touches to the mood and melodramatic pleasures as does Franz Waxman’s overly insistent and verbose score.
(1) 1948 was a good year for Anatole Litvak. Beside “Sorry, Wrong Number,” he also directed the powerful drama, “The Snake Pit” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and star Olivia deHavilland was nominated for Best Actress.