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Sorry, Wrong Number

Sorry, Wrong Number(1948)

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)


Leona Stevenson is a wealthy invalid confined to her bed. It would be easier for people to feel sorry for her if she weren't such a caustic, demanding woman. One night she tries to call her husband Henry at his office and accidentally overhears two men planning a murder on the telephone. As her suspicions mount, Leona becomes more hysterical and paralyzed with fear, convinced that the murderers she has overheard may be coming for her. Left alone on the third floor of her enormous house, Leona's only connection with the outside world is her telephone, which also becomes the source of her growing panic and paralysis.

Director: Anatole Litvak
Producers: Hal Wallis, Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Lucille Fletcher
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Leona Stevenson), Burt Lancaster (Henry Stevenson), Ann Richards (Sally Hunt Lord), Wendell Corey (Dr. Alexander), Harold Vermilyea (Waldo Evans), Ed Begley (James Cotterell), Leif Erickson (Fred Lord), William Conrad (Morano), John Bromfield (Joe, detective), Jimmy Hunt (Peter Lord), Dorothy Neumann (Miss Jennings), Paul Fierro (Harpootlian).

Why SORRY, WRONG NUMBER is Essential

Sorry, Wrong Number was the film version of the highly successful radio play of the same name by Lucille Fletcher that was so popular it was subsequently broadcast every year for ten years.

The slow build of terror and its reliance on framing shots in tightly enclosed spaces makes Sorry, Wrong Number one of the most effective and memorable suspense films of all time.

Barbara Stanwyck's riveting performance, which slowly builds to the brink of hysteria, was one of the best and most memorable of her career. It earned the actress her fourth Academy Award nomination.

Sorry, Wrong Number marked a sharp departure for Burt Lancaster from the virile take-charge roles he was usually identified with. The weak, hen-pecked husband he plays in Sorry, Wrong Number was a chance to show his range as an actor and it surprised everyone.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

In 1948 writer Lucille Fletcher published a novelization of her screenplay co-authored by Allan Ullman.

In 1950, Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster reprised their roles from Sorry, Wrong Number for a Lux Radio Theater broadcast.

In 1954, Shelley Winters starred in the Barbara Stanwyck role in a television production of the play for the TV show Climax!

In 1989, Loni Anderson starred as the bedridden murder victim in a TV movie version of the play.

Agnes Moorehead, who created the role of Leona in the original radio play, recorded her version of the play in 1952 and performed scenes from it in her one-woman show during the 1950s.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

The opening scene of a telephone switchboard was shot on location at a telephone office on Gower Street in Hollywood.

Director Anatole Litvak first arrived in Hollywood in 1936 after several years of making movies in Europe, primarily in Germany, France, Russia and England. His first American film was the sophisticated comedy Tovarich (1937) starring Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer and he would go on to work with such major stars as Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson, Merle Oberon and Olivia de Havilland. In 1949 he received a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Snake Pit (1948).

Reputedly, whenever Anatole Litvak and Burt Lancaster would clash over how a scene should be played in Sorry, Wrong Number, Lancaster would always say, "OK, let's leave it up to the studio: Either you leave or I leave and who the fu*k do you think is gonna be out?" - meaning Litvak would get the boot since Lancaster was now an established star.

For Sorry, Wrong Number, Barbara Stanwyck received her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination but lost again - this time to her friend Jane Wyman. At a post-celebration party, she reportedly said, "If I get nominated next year, they'll have to give me the door prize, won't they? At least the bride should throw me the bouquet."

1948 was a busy year for Burt Lancaster. Not only was he pursuing film projects for his own production company with Ben Hecht - Norma Productions, but after completing Sorry, Wrong Number, he immediately followed it with roles in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) and Criss Cross (1949).

Not all critics approved of Lancaster's playing against type in Sorry, Wrong Number. Cue magazine, for instance, judged his performance "adequate but not remarkably successful" but Lancaster would continue to make offbeat choices in film such as his power-wielding gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and his none-too-bright Italian truck driver in The Rose Tattoo (1955).

The same year he made Sorry, Wrong Number, Lancaster turned down a chance to star opposite Bette Davis in Winter Meeting (1948) because he thought the script was inferior; the role would go to Jim Davis instead.

Famous Quotes from SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

"You can't live on dreams forever. Waiting only weakens you and your dream. My motto is: 'If you want something, get it now!'" Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster)

"I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live." Henry to Leona (Barbara Stanwyck)

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Number began as a 22-minute radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. The story of a neurotic invalid wife who overhears two men planning her murder via crossed phone wires on the phone had been inspired by an incident in Fletcher's own life when she encountered a shrill, quarrelsome woman waiting in line at her local pharmacy. Fletcher thought that this type of woman would make an interesting character, especially if she was placed in extreme danger.

The radio play of Sorry, Wrong Number was first broadcast in 1943 on the Suspense radio program and starred Agnes Moorehead as the terrified bed-ridden wife. The radio play proved so popular that Moorehead's recording of it was rebroadcast every year for the next ten years.

In 1947 producer Hal Wallis bought the rights to the radio drama with plans to make it at Paramount. He asked Lucille Fletcher, the play's author, to write a screenplay expanding her 22-minute drama into a feature length film. The challenge for Fletcher was in opening the play up and fleshing out some new supporting characters. Another challenge was figuring out how to sustain a high level of suspense for a full 90 minutes.

Fletcher wrote scenes for new outdoor locations and expanded the film's backstory in the form of flashbacks, which occasionally became flashbacks within flashbacks. She also created the character of Sally Lord (played by Ann Richards in the film), who is the film's only sympathetic character. "This ordinary woman, living with her baby in a cramped apartment," said Hal Wallis in his autobiography Starmaker, "was necessary as a counterpoint to the wealthy Leona in her mansion on Sutton Place."

Fletcher's completed script was initially rejected by Hollywood's Production Code Administration because of its depiction of illegal drug trafficking, which Fletcher had to tone down. The PCA also objected to the suggestion that the murderous husband would escape prosecution, and a scene in which a doctor suggests divorce as a solution to the marital problems between the Stevensons. With some significant revisions to address these issues, the PCA was satisfied and the project was approved.

Director Anatole Litvak (All This, and Heaven Too [1940], Out of the Fog [1941]) was tapped by Hal Wallis to direct.

When it came time to cast the film, it seemed a logical choice for Agnes Moorehead to reprise the role of Leona that she had originated. Moorehead was a highly respected actress on both radio and film, having earned Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actress for her work in two films just prior to Sorry, Wrong Number: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Mrs. Parkington (1944). However, Moorehead was considered primarily a character actress and not a leading lady, and in the end she lost the role to Barbara Stanwyck, an established star and leading lady.

Casting the part of Leona's henpecked husband, Henry, proved trickier. Henry's role had been increased significantly from the radio play, and when Burt Lancaster heard his friend Hal Wallis describe it, he became interested. Wallis, however, thought that Lancaster was too forceful a screen presence to be believable as the spineless Henry and told him so. Instead, Wallis thought of Lee Bowman, an actor whose specialty was weak characters. Bowman, however, was unavailable for the role so Lancaster lobbied for it and told Wallis that audiences would be interested in watching him - a physically powerful man- get beaten down. "That's the whole idea," he told Wallis, "a strong-looking boy on the threshold of life allows a woman to buy him and then suffers for it, and all of his character has been drained out of him. And at the beginning of the film, they'll believe I'm strong, and the contrast will make for real dramatic excitement." Wallis gave in, and Lancaster got the role.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Number began filming on the Paramount lot in January of 1948. It was a quick three-month shoot with director Anatole Litvak focused on delivering the film on time.

Barbara Stanwyck shot her part over an intense twelve-day period. Since her character was mostly confined to her bed with only the company of a telephone, it presented a challenge for the actress. Litvak, whom Stanwyck liked and trusted, asked her how she would prefer to shoot her scenes. Stanwyck chose to shoot them in chronological order. Doing this, she believed, would help her build the terror of her character most effectively. "Almost from the word go," said Stanwyck, "she is way up there emotionally, and stays there day after day...I decided I'd prefer to jump in, bam, go, stay there, up, try to sustain it all the way and shoot the works."

Stanwyck found that sustaining that level of emotion all week long and then going home on the weekend was a draining experience. "Five days I was handling it, starting the next day's work where I'd picked up, sustaining it all, and then I had two whole days to relax and not to worry about the character, and I tell you it was strange," said Stanwyck. "It was really hard to pump myself up on Monday morning to try to feel that desperate tension."

For Stanwyck's scenes in her apartment, cinematographer Sol Polito utilized the confined spaces and dark shadows of the black and white photography to make the posh Manhattan apartment seem like her prison.

Reportedly, director Litvak and Burt Lancaster butted heads over how to play the role of Henry. Things got so heated between the two that Lancaster threatened to walk off the picture altogether. They managed to iron out their differences enough to complete the film, but the two never worked together again.

Litvak and Stanwyck, however, got along swimmingly. "We didn't have a very long schedule and Barbara had to work practically every day from morning to night. There was never a word of complaint-only encouragement and enthusiasm, which certainly influenced and helped not only me in my work but everyone connected with the film."

The intense shoot resulted in one of the most riveting suspense classics of all time. Barbara Stanwyck received an Oscar® nomination for her performance, and Burt Lancaster's risky decision to play against type paid off; he began to receive more versatile roles and acting offers that weren't based solely on his physical appearance.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)


Barbara Stanwyck received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her role in Sorry, Wrong Number.

Lucille Fletcher's screenplay adaptation of her play was nominated for an Edgar Award and a Writers Guild of America Award.


"It gives Barbara Stanwyck her fattest role since Double Indemnity [1944] and she makes the most of the pampered, petulant, terrified leading character." -- Time.

"The most extended emotional jag in recent movie history" - Life.

"For sheer, unadulterated terror there have been few films in recent years to match the quivering fright of Sorry, Wrong Number--and few performances to equal the hysteria-ridden picture of a woman doomed, as portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck." -- Cue Magazine.

"Lancaster is grimly persuasive as the homicidal husband who gets caught in a mesh of telephone calls." The New York Herald Tribune.

"Burt Lancaster continues his steady advance from musclemen to accomplished actor." -- Look Magazine.

"Litvak's direction builds carefully, constantly heightening the tension to the nerve-wracking finale. It's an ace job of story guidance and player handling...Considerable emphasis is placed on the score by Franz Waxman music being used to heighten and highlight the gradually mounting suspense. Sol Polito uses an extremely mobile camera for the same effect, sharpening the building terror with unusual angles and lighting. Warren Low's capable editing holds the picture to a tight 89 minutes." -- Variety.

"Lucille Fletcher wrote this overextended treatment of her radio play...Barbara Stanwyck is the terrified and, finally, whimpering woman; Burt Lancaster is her morose husband. The director, Anatole Litvak, seems to be defeated by the extravagantly jumbled, shallow script." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies.

"Artificial but effective suspenser...." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"The people who made it...have tried to do just one thing - to thrill. This they have triumphantly done." - James Monahan.

"The film is not as tightly constructed as the radio play, but it is a fine example of how the hermetic world of film noir creates a sense of entrapment...Although cast against type, Lancaster as the ineffectual and bespectacled Henry....contrasts with Leona's poorly suppressed hysteria and adds a level of verisimilitude lacking in the original version." - Robert Porfirio & Lee Sanders, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.

"Told nearly in real time and almost entirely through telephone calls, the radio-play-based Number derives sleek hysteria from its audaciously constraining narrative strategy." - Ed Park, The Village Voice.

"Sorry, Wrong Number could almost be described as a layman's Rear Window [1954]. Stanwyck is mesmerizing performing entirely from her bed as she uses the phone to prevent her own death. The flashbacks are a little troublesome, what with dated production techniques, they have not held up as well as the same device in other films. Still, they allow the viewer to understand that this is more of a tragedy than a murder mystery....This is one classic movie that may seem sluggish by today's high-paced thriller standards, but patience is certainly rewarded. The finale is a great film-noir mystery denouement. It is such a satisfying ending that it leaves no question unanswered." - Jamie Gilles, Apollo Movie Guide.

"Sorry, Wrong Number was perceived as a scary thriller when it was released. But it's also interesting for the moral universe it describes. Ask yourself who transgresses the moral boundaries and who gets punished. Remember that the film was made in the historical context of post-war adjustment in the United States with men returning to civilian life and women being coerced back into their conventional domestic roles. Sorry, Wrong Number touches on the inevitable anxieties that this convulsion provoked." - Peter Thompson, Showtime.

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Barbara Stanwyck received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) as an invalid who tries to call her husband at his office and accidentally overhears two men planning a murder on the telephone.

The tension accelerates as Leona Stevenson, the spoiled, controlling daughter of a wealthy Chicago drug company owner, makes a number of phone calls from her Manhattan bedroom and finds mounting evidence that her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), who is employed as a vice-president in her father's drug company, may be involved in shady dealings and wanted by the police. As her suspicions mount, Leona becomes more hysterical and paralyzed with fear, convinced that the murderers she has overheard may be coming for her. Left alone on the third floor of her enormous house, Leona's only connection with the outside world is her telephone, which also becomes the source of her growing panic and paralysis.

Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a tremendously successful twenty-two minute radio play performed by Agnes Moorehead in 1943 and translated into fifteen languages. Moorehead was, however, not leading lady material in Hollywood's eyes, and so Stanwyck was selected to play the invalid at the center of this gripping thriller plot. Stanwyck even consulted physicians to learn more about her character's mental instability.

To maximize the tension generated in Stanwyck's superbly taut performance, Russian-born director Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, 1948) shot the entire film in sequence, over the course of 12 days. Though Stanwyck received a Best Actress Oscar® nomination -- her fourth, following nominations for Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944) -- she lost to Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute rape victim in Johnny Belinda (1948).

"If I get nominated next year," Stanwyck quipped, "they'll have to give me the door prize, won't they? At least the bride should throw me the bouquet."

Lucille Fletcher, who wrote the radio drama, adapted Sorry, Wrong Number to the screen, a task that meant taking the story beyond the confines of Leona's bedroom, out into the world. Fletcher accomplished that by using a number of flashbacks and parallel stories to show, first how Leona and Henry met, and then how their relationship began to deteriorate underneath Leona's controlling, selfish rule. The flashbacks also show the various people who help Leona piece together the story of her husband's involvement with the criminal world.

Sol Polito's cinematography was also central in establishing Sorry, Wrong Number's tense mood. Using Polito's nimble camerawork, Litvak establishes Leona's entrapment in her opulent bedroom as the camera roams everywhere she is unable to.

Burt Lancaster was cast against his usual macho screen image as the henpecked husband who thinks Leona's wealth can help him escape a life of poverty, but finds the family drug business and Leona's controlling ways create their own prison. Unlike Leona, Stanwyck was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn to working class parents, Stevens was orphaned at a young age and raised by an older sister. Lancaster also came from the kind of impoverished background that undoubtedly allowed him to better understand the character of Henry Stevenson.

Lancaster and Stanwyck later reprised their roles in Sorry, Wrong Number for a one hour Lux Radio Theatre Show in 1950. Of the film version, The New York Times heralded both performers, "Both of the principals succeed in holding Sorry, Wrong Number to its mood of savage and unrelenting horror." Variety called it "a real chiller."

But despite critical accolades and all the best efforts of writer, director and actress, the film was not a popular success, perhaps -- as some have speculated -- because it was ensnared in too many subplots.

In producer Hal Wallis's autobiography he discussed his rationale for producing psychologically intense films like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number. "Movie-going audiences had matured during the war and no longer required false and sentimental portraits of human nature. I dealt again and again with the psychology of murderers. I showed, and encouraged my writers to show, how frustration, poverty, and a desperate need for money could drive people to psychotic extremes."

Director: Anatole Litvak
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Lucille Fletcher based on her radio play.
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Production Design: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Leona Stevenson), Burt Lancaster (Henry J. Stevenson), Ann Richards (Sally Lord), Wendell Corey (Doctor Alexander), Harold Vermilyea (Waldo Evans), Ed Begley (James Cotterell).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.

by Felicia Feaster

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