“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!!!” ~ Opening Prologue
Sorry, Wrong Number is a fairly unique adaptation in that it came into being from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, successfully realized for audiences as essentially a one-woman production by Agnes Moorehead — a fine actress in her own right. Director Anatole Litvak does an extraordinary job of making this film version tense and certainly cinematic, as it cannot function in the same ways as a radio show if it is to be similarly effective.
Like Rear Window (1954) or Wait Until Dark (1967), the suspense in the film comes with being constrained in a space with no way of escape from an impending intruder. It’s little surprise Barbara Stanwyck is divine offering her typically captivating performance even if, given her usual predispositions, she hardly fits the helpless wife archetype. Being the professional that she is, there’s no doubting the ferocity of emotion within her. To use a hopelessly corny pun, she hardly phones in her role as Mrs. Stevenson, the bedridden wife of a husband who just cannot seem to be located.
Though still young, Burt Lancaster brings the screen presence that made him a mainstay of early film noir. Still, he and Stanwyck somehow seem ill-paired as husband and wife. One could contend that works nicely into the plot as their marriage is essentially one-way, becoming increasingly loveless as more of the picture is revealed. She wants him and her daddy has the money to make the world spin. It’s not romance. It’s a business transaction.
So although Harry Stevenson (Lancaster) is initially going with another gal (Ann Richards), soon enough Leona’s got him. They get married and he gets a job working under the father-in-law but he feels his hands are tied with no real prospects of making anything of himself. He’s not content with this kind of lifestyle. He has ambitions of his own.
One might suspect he’s finally had enough and left his wife for good. Of course, part of the fun is that the story is pieced together through different characters recounting events, done through voiceover fragments. It becomes a kind of compulsory game we must play along with.
First, it’s Mr. Stevenson’s secretary who recounts the woman who came to his office with something urgent to talk about and it piques Mrs. Stevenson’s suspicions. Then, she gets in contact with the old flame named Sally Hunt Lord who is now happily married to a District Attorney. Nevertheless, she was worried that Henry might have been mixed in something awful, even tailing her husband and trying to get at her old beau to uncover what might be the matter. It’s all very mysterious.
Next Leona breaks up her Doctor’s (Wendell Corey) dinner engagement only to hear more of the story and how her husband kept the doctor’s prognosis from her. By this point, we’ve gotten in so deep that we have layered flashbacks. Only in noir, and we still have yet to stitch the entire convoluted mess together.
The last crucial figure is a specter of a caller named Waldo Evans who actually turns out to be a kindly old man caught up in the racket that Stevenson’s been promoting. The script doesn’t give us much to go on based on the restrictions of the production code but it has to do drug trafficking. That much is almost certain.
By this juncture, we’ve almost forgotten William Conrad was in the picture but he shows up right where you would expect him in the thick of something big. As she’s put through the ringer of psychological duress, trapped in her ominously vacant home, Stanwyck’s absolutely maxed out on the intensity.
Admittedly it does feel like two pictures told in tandem and spliced together. Stanwyck headlines what we might term the “woman’s drama” while her husband is embroiled in a shifty noir replete with the murky shadings of a criminal underworld. Of course, Lancaster is remembered for his early pictures like The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and Criss Cross (1949) which share some nominal similarities.
Sorry, Wrong Number showcases an icy ending that was nearly unexpected for not only how abrupt it is but also how very unsentimental. To say more would give it away outright. Flaws readily acknowledged, Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir worth making time for as it builds tension to a fever pitch and obscures its hand behind minute after minute of methodical voiceover. When we’ve finally caught up with the events rumbling forward in real time, it’s too late to do anything and before we know it, everything’s already come to fruition. One might call that an adequate success in the storytelling department.
Due to its histrionics, the picture was ripe for parody. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was featured on a segment of The Jack Benny Program in 1948 using extensive recordings from the film only to have Benny wind up in much the same mess. And of course, there’s Carl Reiner’s noir sendup/clip show starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It’s all in good fun.