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Savant Review:

Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry, Wrong Number
Paramount Home Video
1948 / b&w / 1:37 / 88 min. / Street date May 28, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Harold Vermilyea, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson, William Conrad
Cinematography Sol Polito
Art Direction Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Franz Waxman
Written by Lucille Fletcher from her play
Produced by Anatole Litvak, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by Anatole Litvak

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 Barbara Stanwyck.


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 room-ful.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
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

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