Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Radio plays were quite popular in the first half of the 20th century, and movies were regularly adapted into radio plays (often with the same actors even), and vice versa. 'Sorry, Wrong Number' was a popular radio play, written by Lucille Fletcher, which starred Agnes Moorehead in what was pretty much a one-woman show. Moorehead performed the radio play several times between 1943 and 1960. It was such an over-night success that Lucille Fletcher turned it into a book as well as a screenplay for a movie. In 1948, the movie was released but not with Moorehead in the lead role even though she was a movie actress in her own right, having already played in movies such as 'Citizen Kane', 'Jane Eyre' and 'Dark Passage'. Paramount Studios felt that Moorehead didn't have enough star power to carry the movie tho, so Barbara Stanwyck took the role and she did so well she was nominated for an Oscar. Fletcher's screenplay added a big additional plot to the movie, which the radio-play didn't have.

Stanwyck plays Leona Stevenson, a spoiled woman who is bedridden due to a weak heart and she has a lot of problems walking or even moving her legs (which, as we learn along the way, is all inside her head). She is the daughter of James Cotterell (Ed Begley) who owns a pharmaceuticals company, and she is married to Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster). Henry and Cotterell don't get along, Cotterell thinks Henry is below Leona's standards and Henry is unhappy with the (pretty cushy) job Cotterell gave him in the company. The fact that they're still living at her father's house doesn't help either. The movie takes place in a single evening, but in true film noir fashion, has plenty of flashbacks, even flashbacks within flashbacks. This particular evening Leona is in her bed waiting for Henry to get back home, the maid had already left for the day, so she is all alone inside the big house because her father's at a party. The telephone rings and naturally Leona answers. However, it seems some lines are crossed as she ends up listening in on another phone conversation between 2 unidentified men. The conversation details the murder of a woman that will happen at 11.15pm that same evening. Before Leona can hear who is the target, the line gets cut off. She tries to frantically get the details of the callers from the operator but is unsuccessful. Calling the police also doesn't do her much good, because she has very little details. Slowly but surely, by calling her husband and various other persons close to her, she becomes more and more convinced that the 2 men she overheard were talking about murdering her. Slowly but surely the hour of 11.15pm approaches...

That is the basic plot of the radio-play. What was added by Fletcher was a story-line that explains how Leona met Henry and Henry's involvement with the telephone conversation Leona accidentally intercepted. Leona finds out from Henry's (nosey!) secretary that Henry had seen his old sweetheart Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) earlier that day, she was his sweetheart right before Leona got her hands on Henry. As it so happens, Sally's current husband Fred Lord (Leif Erickson) is a lawyer working for the district attorney's office on special assignments. He is investigating Henry's involvement in a case he's working on, which Leona overhears parts of as she's calling Sally. Sally later calls Leona back and explains as much as she knows about the investigation, including following her husband and his associates to a remote corner of Staten Island. By following up on new leads given to Leona by the people she talks to, Leona slowly finds out about the case Lord is working on. As it turns out Henry has started a little business on the side, selling stolen pharmaceutical ingredients from her father's company, with the help of Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) who works in one of the company's labs. When Henry decides to cut out the middle-man, Morano (William Conrad), things start to go awry for him and Evans, which leads to the connection between the intercepted call and Henry, and to Leona. At 11.10pm Henry and Leona finally get to talk on the phone and everything comes together in the movie's final few minutes, which are incredibly tense and exhilarating as the clock approaches 11.15pm. Even as I watched the movie for a second time, I was on the edge on my seat. The bombastic & dramatic musical score was also very effective in bringing across the intensity of the scene. A great ending to a pretty good movie.

Barbara Stanwyck does a really good job at portraying Leona. Leona's been spoiled rotten by her father, aided by her health. She has a tendency to fall ill whenever she gets too distressed, so her father pampers her. Because Leona's spoiled and used to getting what she wants, Stanwyck gives her a manic, overly dramatic edge which works great in those scenes when Leona is losing all control and starts to panic. Stanwyck's not an actress I would really watch a movie for, but she is a very good actress nonetheless, and I enjoyed her greatly in this movie. I can see why some people think it's too over-the-top however. This movie is all about Leona/Stanwyck, make no mistake about it, and Stanwyck carries the movie. In 1950, Barbara Stanwyck starred in a radio-play adaptation of the movie adaptation of the original radio-play.

Burt Lancaster's role is much smaller than you'd expect, seeing as he's billed second on the poster.  Lancaster is fairly decent as Henry Stevenson, but also unremarkable. Stevenson's almost a wallflower, but even after he starts up the illegal side-business, he seems sullen. To be fair, most of the other roles are fairly one-dimensional, which might be a consequence of Fletcher having to create all these characters as well a (pretty decent) side-plot for the movie. So Lancaster might have felt too good for the part? Either way, besides Stanwyck, only Harold Vermilyea as Waldo Evans really stands out. I quite enjoyed his characterization of an employee who's worked diligently for many years, trying to save up some money only to lose it in a bad investment, and being given a chance to make up for all of that and make quite some money before his retirement.

The movie was directed by Anatole Litvak with cinematography by Sol Polito and the musical score was done by the great Franz Waxman. They manage to give the movie the right claustrophobic edge that is necessary, both visually as well as aurally/musically. There is a really nice long shot where the camera moves away from Leona's terrified face as she's making a call for a nurse, it then exits her room through a window, and pans down to the first floor where the shadow of a man is moving towards the house. It really exemplifies her solitary confinement and how the walls of her room are closing in on her, as well as creates a lot of tension. Masterful shot. But most of the shots inside Leona's room are effective at showing her claustrophobic surroundings, despite the size of the room, which is also emphasized by the large empty, echo-ey staircase when somebody rings the doorbell and Leona cannot come down to answer it.

One of the recurring themes in film noir is that a lot of the main characters, even if they're 'good' people, aren't 100% good or even likeable. Just like in real life, people are flawed, nobody's perfect. This can certainly be said for 'Sorry, Wrong Number'. None of its characters, apart from Waldo Evans and Sally Hunt maybe, are very likeable. Leona is a spoiled brat who's used to getting what she wants, Henry Stevenson is spineless and spiteful and Leona's father is overbearing and likes to boss people around. For me, it works, I don't need to identify fully with a character or even feel sympathy, or empathy, for a main character to enjoy a movie. In the case of 'Sorry, Wrong Number', it's the story and the way it develops and is shown that keeps me intrigued. It's not a classic film noir, but it is certainly a very enjoyable one, which I intend to re-watch every now and again.

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