In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives… it is the servant of our common needs, the confidante of our inmost secrets… life and happiness wait upon its ring… and horror… and loneliness… and… death.
In a suspenseful production we are captivated by crossed telephone wires that lead to the discovery of a murder plot to take place at 11:15 that night, an eerie dark mansion situated under a starry New York sky, mysterious people involved in a secretive meeting at an abandoned house in Staten Island on the brink of being burnt down and the frightful presence of a bedridden Barbara Stanwyck home alone in her bed trying to investigate her husbands disappearance and the proposed killing. All that and more results in a nail biting climatic finale of the ghastly sight of a shadow slowly ascending the staircase.
The above passage is referring to the 1948 cinematic masterpiece Sorry Wrong Number, a startling tale that proves why the telephone can be a deadly weapon, especially when it comes to hearing unwanted secrets while trying to locate your husband who was suppose to be home hours ago, and that is exactly what Barbara Stanwyck discovered in this chilling classic.
The late 1940’s is known as a prime time for cinema. It was during this period when the thriller and Film Noir genres were at their pinnacle with notable productions like The Big Sleep and Out Of The Past becoming box office hits and established Noirs, but while other classics like The Spiral Staircase and Sorry Wrong Number are mainly classified as thrillers or gothic horror, they still employ many of the same elements as a Film Noir such as the dark shadows and the aspect of crime involved.
The story of Sorry Wrong Number first evolved when Lucille Fletcher garnered critical acclaim for her radio play starring Agnes Moorehead as Leona Stevenson in a one woman show that originally aired on May 25th, 1943 as part of the Suspense radio program. On it’s first broadcast the play was an immediate hit, earning Moorehead a plethora of accolades for her legendary performance. With the shows success, the play was reprised seven times until February 14th, 1960 when Agnes Moorehead delivered her final radio portrayal of Leona, the psychotic woman she had been representing on air for seventeen years.
Following the success of the radio play, it’s no wonder that it was adapted to the screen in 1948 with Ukrainian born Anatole Litvak as director. Barbara Stanwyck who was certainly no stranger to the thriller and Film Noir genre was the perfect candidate for the role as the protagonist, Leona Stevenson, the paranoid and manic-depressive daughter of James Cotterell. Stanwyck with her versatility she displayed as an actress and heightened emotions she exhibited on screen was able to metamorphose herself from indolence to hysteria with effective repute, which was superbly executed, and that is why she attained an Academy Award nomination for her role, but for the fourth time she was unfairly robbed of the Oscar.
In the film version of Sorry Wrong Number, Barbara Stanwyck shines in her role as Leona Stevenson, the spoilt bedridden heiress who is home alone one hot Summers night in what proves to be the house of terror.
Trapped in the upstairs bedroom in the dark and gloomy New York mansion, distraught Leona has no other option than to use to the telephone to try and locate her husband Henry ( Burt Lancaster ). While calling to investigate where Henry is, the lines get crossed and she overhears a proposed murder to take place at 11:15 that night. Alarmed she calls the operator and authorities, but this is to no avail, so Leona continues telephoning around to track down her husband. With each call she makes she starts piecing together the bizarre mystery, and before she knows it, Leona realizes that she’s the murder victim.
Sorry Wrong Number may not have been deemed culturally significant as the radio play, but the film is still a cinematic masterpiece and is now considered to be one of Barbara Stanwyck’s greatest efforts. It’s a huge shame that Stanwyck who was nominated for an Academy Award was robbed for the fourth time.
While the story is derived from the famous radio play by Lucille Fletcher, Sorry Wrong Number manages to stand as a film on it’s own without having to resort to the aired broadcast versions as a backing. For instance the films plot is more built up. After we are introduced to Leona and her anxiety in trying to locate Henry, the story is told in flashbacks for a while and gives the viewer the opportunity to explore the true account of Leona Stevenson and how she met Henry. It is during these flashbacks that we learn that Leona is a vexation to Henry with her father sabotaging any chances of him securing a job on his own without relying on her fathers law business for an income. The already intractable situation exacerbates when Henry discovers that Leona’s heart problems that her and her father insists she’s been plagued with for years turns out to be purely psychosomatic and there is nothing wrong with her physically.
Barbara Stanwyck is the star attraction in Sorry Wrong Number. Only Stanwyck who for years had been showcasing her indelible talents in a diverse range of roles that spotlighted her extreme versatility as an actress could portray the role of Leona Stevenson to a creditable effect. The role of Leona requires a seasoned actress that could play the part of a distressed manic and Stanwyck proved that she could easily express emotion in psychiatric disorders. This is why many cite this as Stanwyck’s best role; in fact it possibly could be as the film shows the evolution of her character by delving into Leona’s development which ranges from a complete nuisance, a frantic wife trying to search for her husband to an hysterical psychotic wreck. Barbara Stanwyck evidently presented all this onscreen, and her metamorphosis from a manipulative house wife to a person who is mentally imbalanced and petrified clearly indicates why Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest actress to ever grace the silver screen.
Apart from Barbara Stanwyck the film gathers an assembled cast of respectable players. Burt Lancaster is excellent as Henry Stevenson, the emasculated husband, but even though he is second billed he really has a supporting role with his character only appearing in the flashbacks, except for the films cessation where on the phone to Leona he implores her to go to the window and scream in order to save her life.
Another main premise of the movie is Sol Polito’s masterful cinematography. The use of dark and looming shadows and a circling camera that pans down the hideous spiral staircase all add to the films high level of suspense while attaining a claustrophobic edge that results in proliferating chills as the film progresses. Abounding the spectacular camera work is the haunting musical score by Franz Waxman.
If you are looking for a movie that contains a myriad of plot twists, a suspenseful thriller that gives you plenty of chills, Sorry Wrong Number with it’s ominous dark and shadowy ambience is the perfect film.
Barbara Stanwyck recreated her screen role for Lux Radio Theatre on Janary 9th, 1950.
On October 17th, 1948, Barbara Stanwyck did a parody of Sorry Wrong Number on the Jack Benny Program.
Where Henry is having lunch with Sally, he asks his waiter if he knows who the gentleman is in the dark glasses at the table behind him. The man is director Anatol Litvak.
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. Anatole 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.”
Leona: “Operator! Operator! Operator.”
Voice of operator: “Your call please?”
Leona: “Operator, I’ve been ringing Murray Hill 35097 for the last half hour and the line is always busy. Will you ring it for me, please?”
Henry: “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: “[to Leona] 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.”
Leona: “Henry! Henry! Save me.”
Leona: “No! Please! don’t! Please, I’ll… I’ll give you anything! Please! Ahhhhhh.”
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82. Cause of death: Congestive heart failure and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Burt Lancaster: Born Burton Stephen Lancaster on November 2nd, 1913 in New York. Died: October 20th, 1994 in Century City, California. Aged 80.