Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Movie: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Apparently it’s Classic Thrillers Involving Telephones That I’ve Seen But My Wife Has Not week, if two movies can be said to constitute a theme.

Sorry, Wrong Number is based on Lucille Fletcher’s famous radio play. I know it’s famous because the credits say so: “Screenplay by Lucille Fletcher, based on her famous radio play.” Barbara Stanwyck is a wealthy, bed-ridden woman who overhears a phone conversation between two men planning a woman’s murder to take place that night. But she can’t get anyone to believe her. Her husband (Burt Lancaster) is for some reason unreachable. And who, she wonders, could this poor targeted woman be?

Fletcher’s play was clearly so famous that the producers were reluctant to change a word. Stanwyck’s character is introduced with a torrent of expository dialogue that might as well be streaming out of a Philco. Dialogue rendered largely unnecessary thanks to director Anatole Litvak; his camera glides through Stanwyck’s luxe digs highlighting details that convey everything Stanwyck insists on relaying to a procession of beleaguered operators. The story that follows, which includes flashbacks within flashbacks, is a daisy chain of contrivance. Stanwyck happens to be patched into a phone call that strikes close to home. The old flame still carrying a torch for Lancaster (Ann Richards) is, by coincidence, married to the D.A. who – can you beat that? – is investigating Lancaster’s business dealings. At one point, Richards tails her own spouse to a desolate stretch of Staten Island beach. There’s not a soul around, yet no one spots her in a scene that stretches credulity to the breaking point.

But, amazingly, not past it. Credit again is due to Litvak, whose direction gives the sequence an ethereal quality making it seem like a dream Richards is relaying to Stanwyck at the other end of a long, long telephone wire. We come to feel for the isolated, neurasthenic Stanwyck, and for Lancaster as a decent man frustrated to discover that marrying above his station means he can’t make his own way in the world.

The movie’s first half, with its labored set-up and on-the-nose speechifying, is dated but fun. Then comes a point when sheer narrative momentum takes over. Tension mounts with a sinister precision throughout the last act. The final three minutes are unbearable, with a denouement enshrined in the thriller hall of fame. Sorry, Wrong Number is like a ride on an ancient wooden roller coaster at some forgotten amusement park; the prospect that the rickety structure may shake itself to pieces is part of the excitement. Or to use another tortured metaphor, sometimes watching those toppling domino artists lay out every piece first only adds to your appreciation when that last one falls into place.