Noir on a dark night: Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

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Sorry, Wrong Number’s plot is based in 1940s technology that well and truly dates it, but the film has lost none of its suspense over the years. The technology in question is the telephone, the clunky kind, with operators and switchboards keeping the connections going behind the scenes. Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bed-ridden heir to a toiletry products empire, overhears a disturbing conversation when she tries to make a call. It seems to be about a plan to kill a woman at 11:15 that night. Alone in her house, she calls everyone she can think of to try to prevent the murder, but encounters disinterest from the authorities and a bafflingly complex mystery involving the people in her own life. The danger may be closer to home than she first thought.

Leona is not a likeable character. The more we learn about her marriage and her illness, the more selfish and pathetic she becomes. It would be a mistake not to see that this is how Stanwyck plays the part. Aside from Leona’s old college friend, Sally (Ann Richards), everyone else in the film is only barely more pleasant, from Leona’s husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), to her magnate father, J.B. (Ed Begley). None of them seem especially malicious, per se, but Sorry, Wrong Number is a true film noir in which anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, can be corrupted or simply make terrible mistakes.

The film is not just bleak, but at times achieves a downright eerie quality. Much of the story is told in flashbacks from multiple perspectives, strongly influenced by the teller’s bias or lack of knowledge. When Sally describes following Henry out to Staten Island, the things she witnesses are mystifyingly strange. The music and day-for-night filming make the mystery unnerving. And one of the last phone calls Leona takes is thoroughly cryptic, even as it tells us the facts we have been waiting to hear. The painting shown in this caller’s hotel room would be haunting even if Leona’s next call didn’t reveal how it reflects upon what that caller intends to do next.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a radio play, and clearly would work in audio form. However, Anatole Litvek gives the film some nice visual touches, such as Sally at a train station, trying to stay on the phone but out of her husband’s sight, or the scenes on Staten Island. He uses several long shots that tell a story in themselves, whether by moving slowly around a room to show the occupant’s belongings, or moving from a clock over to Leona in bed, then out her window and down a level to show a figure outside her house.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based upon a premise that is irresistible despite being dated, and involves a mystery that manages to be truly mysterious. We can easily guess that Leona may be the woman intended to die at 11:15, but the why of it is a complex question. The film has strong performances, particularly from Stanwyck and Lancaster. In fine noir style, it depicts a dark world in which everyone is connected and yet help still could not be further away.

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