Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A successful adaptation of a wildly successful radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number
very effectively expands the original without compromising its essential claustrophobia.
A neatly packaged thriller, it's also a solid star vehicle for frequent femme fatale
Bedridden heiress Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes agitated when her
phone line gets crossed with two men plotting to murder a woman. She can't reach her husband
Henry (Burt Lancaster), but she gets through to an old friend, Sally Lord (Ann Richards), and
a chemist at her father's pharmaceutical lab, Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea). Through flashbacks,
we learn that the spoiled Leona basically stole her husband from Sally, and forced him into
working for her father, James Cotterell (Ed Begley). Bridling at the restraint, the weak Henry
has gotten involved with organized crime while stealing from his own company. Over time, Leona
has used faked heart problems to manipulate Henry and her father, until she's now a psychosomatic
invalid. Just as Sally's investigator husband Fred (Leif Erickson) is closing in on an arrest,
Henry is told by Leona's doctor that there's nothing physically wrong with her ... which brings
us back to Leona in the present, who realizes that the murder plan she heard on the phone is
targeted at her.
A smart, tight radio drama that starred Agnes Moorehead in what amounted to a 22-minute monologue
in real time, Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted to film by its original author, Lucille Fletcher,
who also happened to be the wife of composer Bernard Herrmann. By bringing in literal elements of
underworld crime, and the corruption of the Henry Stevenson character, the film steers itself
straight into film noir territory. It becomes much more bleak because there's nobody to identify with.
Leona is completely unlikeable, selfishly abusing those she reaches on the phone, and in the flashbacks,
commiting one social crime after another. Here's finally one forties film about psychology that isn't full
of beans. Controlling Henry and her father is so important to Leona,
that it's entirely credible that she could fool herself into believing she had serious health problems.
Burt Lancaster's character is so emasculated that the most he can manage for Leona is a fake
sweetness. The flashbacks very effectively show his deterioration from hopeful groom to domestic
pet, bullied by his wife and his father-in-law. His reckless rebellion is understandable.
The flashbacks are organized around four Citizen Kane-style witnesses. Receptionist Dorothy
Neumann introduces us to Sally Lord, who at first appears to be Henry's mistress. But then we
find out from Sally herself, that she was only trying to warn Henry of her own husband's criminal
investigation against him. The doctor tells of a story Henry told him, a digression that
involves a flashback inside a flashback. And the strange chemist fills in the gaps about Henry's
crime dealings. The flashback testimony keeps returning us to a shack out on a Staten Island mudflat,
a Criss-Cross - like end of the world setting
which provides a visual contrast to Leona's frilly apartment.
Interestingly, the movie obviously intends to build the tension to a high pitch, but the effect now seems
to work in an opposite direction. When we know exactly why the killer's coming, it's almost as if
Leona is being paid back for her petty crimes. Henry's repentently had a change of heart, which is
sincere but far too late. But Leona remains incapable of perceiving anyone's problems but her own, and
thus we have very little sympathy for her. It's bad noir karma coming full circle; we predict her
doom right from the first telephone call.
Barbara Stanwyck does a fine job of making us dislike Leona Stevenson; unlike her breakthrough femme fatales
in Double Indemnity or the later The File on Thelma Jordon (where she corrupts assistant D.A.
Wendell Corey, the doctor in this show), here she's just a mentally disturbed woman
creating havoc. Burt Lancaster is fine as the henpecked, defeated Henry, adding to the string of
depressives that constituted his first film roles in The Killers and Criss Cross. Since
we know him so well from his later athletic hero roles, there's something not quite right about
the moment when he backs down from a pair of tough hoods - our Burt wouldn't be intimidated by a
Paramount's DVD of Sorry, Wrong Number looks fine. With the entire pre-1948 Paramount catalog
now in the hands of Universal, this must be one of the oldest non-silent features remaining in the
Paramount Library. 1
Source materials must have been good, because the appearance of the original slick b&w photography
is retained, and the show looks as if it could been made five or six years later. The only extra
is a trailer that emphasizes the radio connection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sorry, Wrong Number rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 8, 2002
1. Sadly, my Universal contacts tell me that many of the earlier
Paramount pictures held at Universal are lacking decent elements, which perhaps accounts for the
not-very-impressive look of the Criterion Scarlet Empress disc.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson