Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sorry, Wrong Number (Paramount, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 1948 film Sorry, Wrong Number on TCM as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Barbara Stanwyck, and afterwards I downloaded the original Sorry, Wrong Number radio show from 1943 and played it for Charles and I. The comparison was fascinating on a number of levels, even though one of the things it showed was that sometimes it’s better to leave a little gem alone than try to inflate it to the size of a feature film. The original Sorry, Wrong Number was written by Lucille Fletcher (who from 1939 to 1948 was also Mrs. Bernard Herrmann) and was a neat little radio suspense piece — in fact the series it was on was called Suspense — and was so popular that it was rerun several times. This being old-time radio, they didn’t simply play a recording of the previous broadcast when they wanted to rerun it: they had to get back either the original cast or a replacement thereof and do another live performance of the original script. So Agnes Moorehead, who had starred in the original radio version, got to remake it several times on the audio-only medium, but when the film rights were acquired by Paramount they decided they wanted someone with a bigger movie “name” than Moorehead and also someone who hadn’t been so thoroughly “typed” as a character actress, and a villainess at that. (Orson Welles and Douglas Sirk cast Moorehead in sympathetic roles, but most of her films for other directors cast her as bitches — leading to her ultimate, and most famous, part as the bitch mother-in-law almost literally from hell in the TV series Bewitched.)

The radio version of Sorry, Wrong Number is almost a monologue for its female star — all we hear of the outside world are various operators and receptionists we hear on the telephone as she makes an increasingly frantic and desperate series of calls, and the two male voices we hear on the wires early on as the wires at the phone company get crossed and the heroine, disabled woman Leona Stevenson, hears them plotting a murder of a woman who will be alone at a home by a bridge. She hears these voices by mistake as she calls her husband, who is (supposedly) working late and whose line is busy. Gradually Leona realizes that the woman the two men have been hired to kill is herself, and she calls first to the operator who got her wires crossed in the first place (and gets a bureaucratic runaround that may have been the inspiration for the Shelley Berman and Nichols and May telephone routines from the early 1960’s), then to the police (who can’t trace the killers from the sketchy information she gives them), then to just about everyone she can think of who might be able to help, until finally the two men get into her house (they’ve been instructed by the mysterious person who hired them how they can get in) and duly knock her off, and after she exits with a scream one of them answers the phone — someone (we don’t know who) is returning one of Leona’s messages — and barks out the famously ironic line, “Sorry, wrong number.” Paramount hired Lucille Fletcher to adapt her radio play for the screen and gave her the task of “opening up” a marvelously constructed suspense exercise so it would stretch to the length of a 90-minute movie, and though she did as well as could be expected it might have been better, if they had to film it at all, to keep it a half-hour short. The main thing Fletcher did to expand her story was to supply a series of flashbacks — narrated either by Leona herself or various people she’s talking to on the phone — giving us the backstory. She also changed the name of Leona’s husband from Elbert to Henry (he’s played by Burt Lancaster as the typically brainless, athletic lout Lancaster usually played in his career — like Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut as the weakling D.A. Stanwyck dominated in the film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which TCM showed just before Sorry, Wrong Number, Lancaster was quite good at playing villains but didn’t have much of a chance to because he became a big star so quickly and got repeatedly cast as heroes) and made her an heiress to a pharmaceutical company fortune, who decides she wants to marry Henry even though he’s nothing but a clerk in a small-town drugstore.

Leona got Henry a job in her father’s company — dad, James Cotterell, is played by Ed Begley in a pretty smarmy performance (one aspect of the film Sorry, Wrong Number that makes it seem modern is that all the principals are actively unpleasant; where in the radio version our sympathies remain with the heroine throughout, in the film she reveals an unscrupulous side that makes us at least partially believe she deserves to be tortured psychologically, if not killed outright). Henry is made a vice-president of Cotterell Drugs but he’s not given anything to do, and when he interviews with another company and tries to get a job Cotterell uses his influence to make sure he’s not hired and he can’t get any other sort of job in Chicago, where the Stevensons live (in Cotterell père’s apartment, since Leona has told her husband she has no intention of spending “unnecessary” money on their own place!). So he makes his own opportunity by getting Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea, in a dotty Cecil Kellaway-ish performance), the company’s British-born research director, to steal drugs from the inventory which Henry then sells on the black market to gangster Morano (a young and surprisingly non-obese William Conrad). When the company transfers Evans to the firm’s New Jersey location, Henry Stevenson uses this as a way to cut Morano out of the loop and sell the stolen drugs directly — only he’s caught, not by the police (they’re drawn as even more totally clueless than usual in a film noir) but by Morano and his men, and Morano tells Stevenson and Evans they need to give him $200,000 to repay him for the ill-gotten gains he thinks they’ve cheated him out of … or else. Thereby Stevenson decides to hire two hit men to murder his wife and collect both her inheritance and her life insurance, with which he’ll be able to pay off Morano — only he has second thoughts just before 11:15 (the appointed hour for the hit) and tries to call Leona and warn her. But, much to my surprise, she blows off the warnings and gets killed as in the radio show — I had expected either Henry or the police to arrive in the nick of time to save her, this being the movies and the Production Code still being in force.

 Sorry, Wrong Number the movie is nowhere near as good as Sorry, Wrong Number the radio show; much of the added material (including the rather odd character of Sally Lord Dodge, played by Ann Richards — a woman who dated Henry before he married Leona, and then herself got married to a man who works in the district attorney’s office, and whom Leona pumps for information about her husband’s activities) is pretty mediocre and only detracts from the power of the central device of a woman at home, confined to her bed (she has a wheelchair but she has parked it all the way on the other side of her bedroom and can’t use it; also her room is on the third floor of a huge house and even when someone does come to the door, the door is on the first floor and there’s no way she can get to it and let the person in), realizing she’s in mortal danger and her only possible way out is to make phone calls and try to convince someone to come to her rescue. Barbara Stanwyck remains my all-time favorite movie actress — I’ve noted over the years that a lot of movies she wasn’t in would have been better if she had been (including the 1941 Maltese Falcon, which has deservedly obtained classic status but would be even more of a masterpiece if Stanwyck had played the female lead instead of Mary Astor, who was good but awfully long in the tooth to be convincing as a femme fatale) — but I’m not all that sure that this film wouldn’t have been better with Moorehead in the role: Stanwyck looks too gloriously glamorous for anyone to believe that the guy lucky enough to be married to her (even with her disability, which in this version we’re told is psychosomatic) would want to knock her off, and as versatile an actress as she was she’s unable to convince anyone that she’s genuinely disabled. (Ironically, Stanwyck was nominated for an Academy Award for this role but lost out to another actress playing a disabled person: Jane Wyman as the deaf-mute heroine of Johnny Belinda).

Director Anatole Litvak doesn’t help her cause much by holding the camera on her walking and standing for awfully long periods of time, though for the most part he stages the action quite well: if you have to have something to look at while you’re watching this story, he gives you a quite remarkable set of a huge house whose very size and isolation adds visibly to the central character’s peril — and being a good European he never holds the camera still when he can figure out an excuse to move it, and never keeps it on one level when he can throw in a vertiginous crane shot that will dramatize the heroine’s helplessness by swooping us up and down those long and winding staircases that separate the crippled Leona from any hope of escape. But what would really have benefited this film is a different male lead — and I thought of who it should have been almost immediately: John Garfield. Lancaster is wrong in two ways: he’s too robust physically to be believable as the helpless weakling he’s portraying, and he’s too limited an actor to suggest his own anguish as his ambitions for money and status on his own have left him on the hot spot to a vicious gangster who intends to kill him if he can’t turn his wife into ready cash by having her killed. A subtler, more nuanced performer like Garfield would have enabled us to believe in all three aspects of Henry Stevenson: the uncomplicated striver he was when he married Leona, the unscrupulous crook he turned into when he found out his wife and father-in-law wouldn’t allow him to make it on his own legitimately, and the final, desperate figure when he tries — too late — to upend his own plot and save his wife’s life. Sorry, Wrong Number is actually a quite good thriller, but it’s also a frustrating example of a movie that’s pretty good as it stands but with a bit more care in casting and scripting could have been a nail-biting masterpiece like the radio play that was its source.