Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak


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.

Sorry, Wrong, Number LC1To 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.

Sorry Worng Number1Over 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”).

Sorry, Wron NumberOn 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.

Sorry, Wrong, NumberLancaster, 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.

17 comments on “Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Anatole Litvak

  1. Stanwyck always so impressive to watch, but I would have loved to have seen Agnes Moorehead perform this role on film, her most famous radio role. She would have been splendid.


    • John Greco says:


      I’m sure Moorehead would have been interesting to see in this role, but Paramount would have never let her carry the leading role. It would have been fascinating to see though.


  2. Lawlor Wm.Lee says:

    I could not agree more with this review. It is an interesting piece but it lacked heart, with no one to whom we can connect. Stanwyck was one of the best actresses of the time and had an incredible screen presence but in this one she was too, too much here. Nevertheless, despite the films flaws, it is something worth having seen and it has stayed with me over the years.


    • John Greco says:


      Yeah, it’s flawed but visually it’s an interesting work. The editing, the soundtrack, and lighting add quite a bit of nice atmosphere that build the tension. Thanks for stopping by and welcome!


  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Really excellent, concise essay of a film I have also long acknowledged has yielded some overwrought emotions and missteps, but still packs a wallop due in large measure to the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest of all American actresses. Yes the film is largely claustrophobic and Polito and Waxman make notable contributions. This is not Litvak’s best film, but on balance it’s a noteworthy accomplishment that I can watch anytime.


  4. John Greco says:


    I do think Stanwyck, who I admire very much, overacts here, but as you say, the film is one I can watch anytime. Thanks as always!


  5. ClassicBecky says:

    For my part, John, I always thought this story should never have been made into a movie. Expanding it to include other characters, subplots, etc., buried the original idea of complete isolation and physical and emotional dependence. I think it’s appeal and meaning in a shorter radio play or stage play was just that, and making a movie of it was a mistake. The overacting likely came partly from the fact that Stanwyck’s character was stretched out over a longer period of time and required to much of being afraid and annoying.

    Nice article, John… and I really liked: “… with more pills on her end table than Pfizer Inc. produces in a month of Sundays.” I think if I had been convinced I was going to be killed, I would just have some of that arsenal and slept through my own murder!


    • John Greco says:

      “.’Expanding it to include other characters, subplots, etc., buried the original idea of complete isolation and physical and emotional dependence”

      Becky, a very good point which I agree with. It takes away from the main storyline. I do like Lancaster in the role, but of course, without the padding he would of had no part at all.


  6. ClassicBecky says:

    I meant to say, “I was just have SWALLOWED some of that arsenal..” Typo!


  7. I must admit that I think Stanwyck is terrific here … her character is bombastic and over the top, and Stanwyck just lets it go. It’s not easy playing an unlikable character that you somehow need the audience to feel something for, and Stanwyck manages to do so.


    • John Greco says:

      CFB, I respect your opinion and I love Stanwyck, but I do think she was Oscar fishing with this one. Seriously. I just felt you could feel she was “acting” and not being the role. Just my opinion. Despite the film’s flaws I do enjoy watching it.


  8. dobbie606 says:

    the Director holds the ‘reins’ & Ms Stanwyck et al gave as requested/decreed. shame,really.


  9. Judy says:

    John, I’ve just watched this film – it’s one I’d been meaning to see for ages, and it turned up on TV this week, with your review giving me that extra push to see it. Stanwyck is one of my favourite actresses, but I must agree with your view that she goes rather over the top in this. The scenes in her apartment seem to be overwrought compared to the rest of the film, almost as if there is a Gothic horror film hiding out inside a noir! For me the film gets better every time it moves outside that room and into the more downbeat noir territory outside, with all those flashbacks within flashbacks – Lancaster is great (and incredibly handsome in this), though his character doesn’t quite hang together.

    I felt Ann Richards as the ex-girlfriend was one character I could sympathise with. Her husband is incredibly bossy, casually ordering her to send the kid to bed and then to go out and buy beer for his friend – but I suppose at least he isn’t a criminal, so maybe she got off lightly! Interesting how many different takes on drugs there are in this film, from illegal dealing to those bottles by Stanwyck’s bed. I also love all that shadowy camerawork and the scenes down by the docks. Thanks for recommending this, a lot of fun to watch.


    • John Greco says:

      “The scenes in her apartment seem to be overwrought compared to the rest of the film, almost as if there is a Gothic horror film hiding out inside a noir! ”

      Good point Judy, it does have a bit of a paranoid feel to it, and I like your point about all the drugs in this film. Though I mention all the pills on her table, I did not connect it with the illegal selling Lancaster was invovled in. For a film from this period that’s pretty suprising. It ia a lot a fun to watch even if it does not hang altogether.


  10. Nice review, John! One of my favorite noir films…I just really love everything about it, and yes, Ms. Stanwyck does go a little over the top at times, but I always considered that a by-product of the character she was portraying. And I was thinking the same as Judy above…the only character you can really care about was the ex-girlfriend, played by Ann Richards. And the ending…very chilling, and a wonderful example of noir filmmaking (in my humblest of opinions!).


    • John Greco says:

      Hi Todd and thanks. True, Ann Richards character is the only sympathetic character in the film. And the ending is extremely tense and well done. Despite what I consider some short comings I enjoy watching this film again and again.


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