“Operator, I’ve been ringing Murray Hill 35097 for the last half hour and the line is always busy.”
While the film noir continues to thrive in the modern day, a stylistic shoot-off, the melodramatic noir, remains frozen in the ember of classic Hollywood. This shoot-off reigned supreme during the 1940s, when actresses like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis doled out performances just as tough and morally knotted as their male counterparts. Through their unapologetically female gaze, however, they provided an empowered alternative to the virility found in most film noirs.
We all remember the classics, from The Letter (1940) and Mildred Pierce (1945) to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), but the inactivity of melodramatic noirs (melo-noirs?) have made it so that some have been unfairly ignored throughout the years. Perhaps the sight of a woman clutching a handkerchief or groveling for love, like so many of her male peers, seems passé by modern standards. Or perhaps, given that it continues to thrive, the femme fatale is thought to be the only role of substance for women in film noir. Either way, there’s absolutely no excuse for a film like Sorry, Wrong Number to get the shaft, seeing as it bears one of the most striking and tragic female characterizations of the period.
The first thing to note about Sorry, Wrong Number, which turns eighty this year, is its tantalizing premise. It is pulp fiction at its most outlandish, the sort that Cornell Woolrich would surely have given a pint of his finest whisky to have written: Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) is a bedridden heiress who’s attempting to call her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster). Fate, being noir’s consummate troublemaker, impedes, and connects Leona to the wrong line, where she overhears two men discussing plans to commit a murder….
Played out in what’s essentially real time, the film squeezes every bit of tension it can from Leona’s horrific discovery. The telephone is her lone connection to the rest of the world, and director Anatole Litvak outwardly fetishizes it, as she does. Nary is there a shot where she isn’t holding the phone, dialing it, or pensively twirling the chord in her hand. The camerawork is restrictive, closed off, so as to suggest that her entire life exists within the space between her bed and the receiver on the nightstand. Posited as a source of domestic comfort, this closed off space quickly becomes an obstruction. Leona’s immobility spoils any chance she has to stop the murder, as neither the police nor her patronizing father (Ed Begley) take her seriously. Stripped of power, she finds herself in the futile position of piecing together a crime that no one cares to stop.
From here, the film plays out in a series of hushed phone conversations. Leona calls, and is called by, a number of Henry’s affiliates, each of whom provide her with a piece of the larger puzzle. These pieces, presented as dreamlike flashbacks (sometimes within other flashbacks), are broken up and narrated by different characters so as to bring their authenticity into question. We accept them on good faith, but we never really know for sure. Litvak was fond of this structured paranoia, as evidenced by its use in films like The Long Night (1947) and The Snake Pit (1948).
We also get flashbacks of Leona and Henry, and it’s here that the dynamic between them, as well as the impending murder, is given perspective. At first Leona is posed as the victim, the pathetic housewife with a careless husband. In the past, however, she’s shown to be something else entirely. The younger Leona is a shrewish daddy’s girl with a deep purse and a desire to steal the lower class Henry from her college chum (Ann Richards). She wills the reluctant Henry into marrying her, then bullies him when he tries to start a career of his own, or suggest they move out of her father’s mansion. It’s only when Henry begins to disobey Leona that their marriage (and her mental health) falls apart.
The screenplay by Lucille Fletcher (adapted from her own radio play) is pleasantly sparse on cliché, as both the Leona and Henry characters are given a fair shake. The former is insufferable until she loosens her domineering grasp, and the latter is relatable until he gets in deep with a gangster (William Conrad), and is forced to come up with $20,000. Neither are overtly virtuous or villainous, but rather the victims of bad timing and circumstance. We’re forced to consider whether Henry would have taken such drastic steps had Leona allowed him a legitimate career path, just as we wonder if Leona would be such a sympathetic heroine in the present had she not taken ill.
Lancaster, in only his third film, projects the wounded masculinity of a man twice his age. It’s remarkable, really, how he’s able to walk the line between breezy sex appeal (he actually sells the line “What does a dame like you want with a guy like me?”) and biting marital strain. He plays Henry as a man in constant conflict, too decent to embrace his homme fatale status yet too weak to confront his wife with the truth. (He too has a kink for phones, as evidenced by the scene when he fumes over Leona and wraps a chord around his fingers.) But, as I alluded to earlier, this is Stanwyck’s show through and through.
The iconic actress is indescribably fierce as the fearful Leona. She carries most of the film single-handedly, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider she’s acting with only her upper torso. Within this limited mobility, she delivers an Oscar-nominated breakdown from beginning to end, from manicured beauty to ragged, perspiring panic. Stanwyck was always reliable when it came to playing ice queens in Double Indemnity (1944) and Martha Ivers, but here, she puts a vulnerability and weakness on display that’s devastating to watch. When she cries out that she’s a sick woman over the phone, you believe her. Stanwyck later cited the role as the cause of her prematurely graying hair.
The final scene, where Leona discovers that she was the intended victim all along, is perhaps the key instance of this devastation. Henry calls and admits that he set her up, but that the murder doesn’t need to go through anymore (tellingly, he regains his conscious out of convenience). He demands that she leave the house before it’s too late. Leona, dumbfounded and heartbroken, tells him that she would have gladly given him the money if it meant keeping him safe. It’s with this simple exchange that the tragedy of Sorry, Wrong Number is made clear. It is the film noir as fable: everything could have been avoided had communication — the hallmark of a good marriage — been put into play. Instead, Leona is viciously strangled, and Henry, the emasculated fool, is forced to listen over the phone. He tries calling back, and a voice on the other line puts an appropriately twisted end to the evening. “Sorry,” he says, “Wrong number.”
It’s a shocking closer given its brutality, but also in how little it deviates from what was stated in the opener. At 11:15 p.m. a woman was set to be murdered, and sure enough, she was. Fate is many things, but sloppy is not one of them. We should have known Leona never stood a chance.
As far as melodramatic noir is concerned, Sorry, Wrong Number sits comfortably near the top. The damsel in distress hook may be misleading to fans of the hardcore stuff, but the points it makes regarding marriage, and the distrust of loved ones, are surprisingly poignant, and lend a lot to the film’s grittier aspects. It has heart, it has fatalistic punch, and best of all, it has Barbara Stanwyck, giving the performance of her career.
TRIVIA: In the scene where Henry is on a lunch date, he asks if the waiter knows the man sitting at the table behind him. The man is director Anatole Litvak.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.