I’ll start off by saying that I like films that employ flashbacks in the telling of the story. Of course, if this technique is going to be used it needs to be done well. An example of its misuse/abuse would be Passage to Marseille; where there are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks to the point that the viewer is driven half crazy and loses all sense of time and place. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) avoids falling into this trap. Here, those trips down memory lane are necessary to drive the story forward and they work perfectly.
The film was adapted from a radio play and summarising the plot is not so easy without giving away too much, and thus ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Almost all of the action is played out via a series of telephone conversations involving Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck). Leona is introduced as a rich, pampered invalid who lives in luxury in Manhattan and, alone and bed-ridden, has only her telephone as a means of communicating with the outside world. As a result of a crossed line, she overhears a conversation between two unknown men as they finalise the details of a murder soon to be committed. Naturally alarmed, Leona first tries to tip off the police but they profess an inability to act given the sketchy information available. Her next thought is to get in touch with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), but that proves more difficult. Her attempt to contact him results in a series phone calls (and accompanying flashbacks) which gradually build up a complete picture of Leona, Henry and their life together. With each call another piece of the puzzle falls into place, and Leona slowly arrives at a horrifying realization.
Barbara Stanwyck has come to be regarded as something of a noir icon, largely through her icy portrayal of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Where that film cast her as the archetypal femme fatale, Sorry, Wrong Number has her play the helpless woman in distress. She does well here with a character that starts off as an unsympathetic figure. As Leona moves from an initial petulance, through frustration to panicked terror, she manages to avoid the temptation to overact. All the emotions on display fit in with the type of woman revealed over the course of the film. Burt Lancaster was in the middle of a series of noirs, or noir tinged movies, at this point and he’s pretty convincing in the role of Henry. He begins as a blue-collar bit of rough who catches Leona’s fancy, becomes her pet plaything, and finally allows his simmering frustration and innate greed to draw him into criminality. There are also plenty of good turns from a support cast which boasts Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson and William Conrad. While this is a movie full of flawed and unsavoury characters, the one sympathetic figure is Harold Vermilyea’s Waldo Evans. He’s the soft-spoken little chemist who dreams and saves in the hope of owning a farm where horses can roam free. When Henry spins him a tale that promises enough cash to realise this dream, the poor sap falls for it and his fate is sealed.
Sorry, Wrong Number fits the noir bill by delivering a story where there are no winners and no happy endings. We have a roster of characters whose greed, selfishness and weakness set them on a path towards their own self-destruction. The moody photography of Sol Polito is another essential ingredient, and it’s at its most effective in the scenes on Staten Island. This desolate setting, especially the decrepit 20 Dunstan Terrace, is a place where you just know darkness lurks.
The film has long been available on DVD in R1 from Paramount, and it’s a pretty good transfer. The print used is clean but it does display very heavy grain, particularly in the darker scenes. As usual from Paramount there’s not much in the way of extras, just a theatrical trailer. Still, the disc can be picked up for very little and the quality of the movie alone is more than enough reason to justify a purchase.