Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak                                    Writer: Lucille Fletcher
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards and Wendell Corey

Sorry, Wrong Number began its life as a radio play by Lucille Fletcher and starred the great Agnes Moorehead in the one-woman production. The play was a popular success and was revived several times, all with Morehead, so when it came time to adapt it for the big screen Fletcher was tabbed to write the screenplay as well. The only problem was that the original play ran a mere half an hour and would need to be fleshed out for the film version. Fletcher added a backstory that essentially follows the young couple from their courtship all the way to the moment when the husband decides to kill his wife so that he can pay off the mobsters he is in debt to. And while that aspect of the film seems to derail the suspense for a sizeable chunk of its running time, it has remained a classic of the film noir genre and a favorite among fans.

Like the play, the story begins with Barbara Stanwyck on the phone, trying to reach her husband, Burt Lancaster, at work. She’s an invalid and is alone at the house. But while she’s having the operator attempt to connect her she suddenly finds herself listening to a conversation between two men who can’t hear her. What she hears is horrifying as they are talking about their plans for murdering a woman that very night. It’s then that Fletcher weaves in the phone calls Stanwyck’s character makes in the play with the convoluted backstory that she’s invented. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, but it still manages to make sense. It’s fascinating the way that she plays with the conventions, in this instance having the femme fatale bring about her own death rather than the death of the man she has duped. Also, Lancaster here is playing something just short of a kept man and, like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard two years later, is too weak to do anything about it until it’s too late. In that respect it’s difficult to see him as a homme fatale.

The great Anatole Litvak is at the helm, director of films as diverse as All This and Heaven Too with Bette Davis, The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland, and Night of the Generals with Peter O’Toole. Stanwyck is about as shrill and unlikable as she gets onscreen, and that’s saying something, but she gives a bravura performance that is incredibly memorable and earned her an Oscar nomination. Lancaster is playing against type here, but it was early enough in his career that it probably didn’t seem too strange at the time. It’s great to see Wendell Corey in one of his earliest roles before his iconic performance in Hitchock’s Rear Window. Ed Begley has a small role as Stanwyck’s overbearing father, and William Conrad has a nice cameo as a fence. Probably the biggest disappointment of the film is the utterly unmemorable film score by Franz Waxman, a tuneless piece of underscoring that is almost obtrusive in the context of the film.

It’s a fascinating film in that there doesn’t seem to be a lot about it that’s particularly noir. A couple of dark, rainy streets, some night shots on the beach, but mostly Stanwyck at home in bed. It’s not really until the mechanism of the murder begins that the suspense ratchets up beyond belief, and then the film becomes a clinic in shadow and light. In the radio play the narrative arc seems almost vertical, the tension mounts so quickly. But here there are long plateaus while the backstory is filled in. Still, the ending is worth the wait, and the conclusion to Sorry, Wrong Number winds up being a thrill ride that leaves the viewer breathless. It’s one of the all time classics, and comes highly recommended.

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