Sorry Wrong Number is a classic 1948 black and white film noir from the golden years of Hollywood starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. It was directed by Anatole Litvak.
Stanwyk (Double Indemnity) is a tour de force as a wealthy invalid heiress, home alone in the bedroom of her three-story house with the phone as her only link the outside world. Her maid has the night off, she can’t reach her husband, and she becomes increasingly unhinged as she is mistakenly patched into a phone call with two criminals planning a murder of a woman that very evening.
It’s a juicy setup, yet strangely enough Stanwyk couldn’t be less likable, barking orders at whoever happens to be on the other end of the line. Her manner is that of someone used to getting her way, grating, neurotic and increasingly hysterical, making it quite difficult to empathise with her plight.
Sorry Wrong Number is a film of flashbacks – there’s even a flashback within a flashback. It also uses the familiar noir trope of voiceover, yet adeptly moves between multiple voices and multiple perspectives. There are two narratives occurring simultaneously and they repeatedly intersect as the past informs the future. From each flashback we put more pieces together, and begin to share her hysteria as the tension rises.
We see Stanwyk earlier in life, young and confidant, brazenly taking what she wants – even if it is her girlfriend’s man. We see her using her money and power, and if that doesn’t work there’s always emotional manipulation. Lancaster (Birdman of Alcatraz) plays against type, trapped by Stanwyk’s wealth and manipulations, a trophy husband, yet desperate to be self-made. The supporting cast too is something special, particularly Australian actress Ann Richard (Lost Honeymoon) as Lancaster’s former lover and Harold Vermilyea (Born to Be Bad) as the somewhat naive chemist. Their characterisations and eccentricities add additional depth and really bring the film to life.
Ed Begley’s (12 Angry Men) turn as Stanywk’s father though is remarkable. It’s simultaneously doting and creepy. He won an Academy Award in the 1962 Tennessee Williams adaptation Sweet Bird of Youth, yet he deserves one here. Their relationship is so complex, weirdly co dependant, almost infantile. Begley’s ashen impassive face at his daughters wedding is almost comical. It wouldn’t be out of place at a funeral.
This film is a master class, Anatole Litvak’s (The Snake Pit) camera moves relentlessly up and down the stairs, around the house echoing the emotional tumult Stanwyk experience. Sol Polito’s (Sergeant York) use of light and shadow, particularly during the climactic scene is breathtaking and Franz Waxman’s (Rear Window) score is noirishly bombastic – over the top with violent crescendos and hysterical melodies.
The film came from a twenty-eight minute radio play by Lucille Fletcher (who also wrote the screenplay). It’s perhaps the second most well known radio play outside of Orson Welles’ War of The Worlds. We learn in the extra features that Welles called Sorry Wrong Number the greatest radio play ever written – which is a huge accolade as Welles was notoriously stingy with compliments.
Though the original 1943 radio play starring Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Kane) isn’t here, we do have Stanwyk and Lancaster reprising their roles for a 1950 version for Lux soap, and another version with contemporary voice actors filmed on stage in 2009. There are some subtle changes in tone and delivery and it demonstrates the amount of plot and characterisation that was fleshed out to push 28 into 88 minutes.
There’s also a feature length commentary from Film Noir Foundation board member Alan k. Rode, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the film – including even the smallest bit player. And if that isn’t enough there’s a making of feature where we learn the background to the production, particularly the difficulty in trying to develop a narcotics sub plot in 1948. I also learned Lucille Fletcher was married to composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho), who was originally offered the film yet turned down the tokenistic offer as he wasn’t willing to take a pay cut. If you’re a fan of the film or late 40’s Hollywood in general then these morsels are gold.
It’s great to see such an iconic film given such great treatment. The 180p blu ray looks pristine, and its bundled with a ridiculous amount of contextual extras. I’ve always been a huge fan of film noir and American films of the 40’s and 50’s. Whilst I’ll happily watch them on third generation VHS or blurry poor quality streaming services, Sorry Wrong Number deserves better. This is it.