Format: Movies! on rockin’ flatscreen.
I’ve never been shy about my deep and abiding love for the great Barbara Stanwyck, so when Sorry, Wrong Number appeared on Movies! I figured it was a good opportunity to get a little time with the delightful Babs. It also happened to be the only one of her four nominated performances that I hadn’t seen. This is a film long considered a classic and with pretty good reason. Best of all, it’s Stanwyck who carries about 80% of the film.
Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) is a bed-ridden invalid with a heart condition. She’s also extremely wealthy thanks to her father (Ed Begley). On the night in question, she is distraught about her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) being very late coming home from work. It happens to be the servants’ night off, which means that Leona is home alone. Trying to reach her husband on the phone, she is connected instead to a call where two men are talking, two men who can’t hear her. It soon becomes evident that the two men are discussing a murder that they are to commit that night at 11:15.
Naturally, Leona is concerned and does everything she can to trace the call and to contact the police. She is thwarted at every turn, though. In part this is because not much can be done. This is also because Leona Stevenson is kind of a crank and a worrywart, and the police in particular are used to her.
Slowly, over time, the entire story gets put together. With a couple of calls, Leona discovers that her husband had lunch with a woman named Sally Lord (Ann Richards). Sally Lord was once Sally Hunt and was Leona’s main rival for Henry’s affections. Sally is now married to a man who works for the District Attorney. She contacted Henry specifically because his name has been coming up more and more in her husband’s current investigation.
Still digging, Leona contacts her doctor (Wendell Corey), who gives her additional disturbing news. Days earlier, he met with Henry regarding her diagnosis. While Leona has had several heart attacks, it is Dr. Alexander’s opinion that she’s never really had one; the problem is entirely psychosomatic and there is absolutely nothing wrong with Leona’s heart. And then a conversation with Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) confirms that Henry is in serious financial trouble and potentially legal trouble, and the whole plot comes together at once.
The biggest issue with Sorry, Wrong Number is that there’s really only one place that it can go. The basic rule of conservation in movies is that nothing is going to show up that isn’t relevant to the plot, which means that it’s pretty easy to know where this is going long before we get to where it’s going. This might have been less the case in 1948, but today, anyone with even a moderate history of watching movies knows precisely where this is going to end up even if the last couple of minutes are left in doubt until the end.
Everything else here works perfectly. This is a well-written script. It gives us just enough information to keep the film moving along without losing the audience or becoming dull. The plot, despite being too obvious through most of the film, is carefully designed in this respect. Even though it is too evident with where it wants to get to, it’s difficult not to see the story as compelling. What’s better is how our sympathies for Leona alter over time. We’re initially on her side, but as we see just how manipulative she is, she loses that sympathy, and loses it more when we learn that her illness is simply more manipulation. By the end, though, she gets some of it back.
Barbara Stanwyck is the heart of the film, of course. It’s probably not possible for me to be completely objective about her, so I’m not even going to pretend that I can be. A bad Barbara Stanwyck film is (for me) still not a terribly bad thing. I’m happy to say that her performance here is as good as she ever gave. I like her more when there’s something a little seedy or flawed about her, and Leona Stevenson is definitely a flawed character. It helps that she has a great supporting cast as well. Both Burt Lancaster and Ed Begley are great as her ambitious but underachieving husband and overly doting father respectively.
Sorry, Wrong Number is probably not required viewing, but you could do a lot worse. It’s a solid noir that goes for a constant build of tension and generally succeeds in getting it. And who wouldn’t want to spend 90 minutes with the divine Barbara?
Why to watch Sorry, Wrong Number: Solid thriller and the glorious Barbara Stanwyck.
Why not to watch: It’s pretty obvious where it’s going after a couple of minutes.