Sorry, Wrong Number
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