Saturday, April 18, 2015
Sorry, Wrong Number
My Dad used to tell me about his love for old-timey radio shows like “Suspense” and “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum.” His claim was that the imagination could create images more horrible than anything special effects could manufacture for the movie or TV screen. He also claimed that there was more of an onus on the actors and actresses of these old shows to really carry their parts, as they had no computerized special effects geniuses to save them from mediocrity with their 21st century legerdemain (or to upstage them, for that matter, I could have said, but I wasn’t in the habit or arguing with my father).
When I saw SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948, Paramount) I got to thinking about his claims. The movie, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster as Leona and Henry Stevens, was based on a radio play written by Lucille Roberts. It was basically a one woman play, and Agnes Moorehead scared the pants off listeners so adroitly that Paramount asked Roberts to expand and rewrite the play for the big screen.
Sure, less is left to the imagination on the screen. With Moorehead, you couldn’t see her surroundings, you couldn’t see her, and in the movie we can see the posh, tony, chic bedroom Leona Stevens inhabits quite well (if in black and white) on the big screen, as well as the scale of emotions she runs up and down on her pretty, spoiled rich girl face. But this is still minimalist film making. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Leona has to carry the film, and it does. Most of the drama takes place in phone conversations. No fires, explosions, no trains disappearing into tunnels, no gun battles, aliens, slow motion Kung Fu Battles, death stars, no grand sets, epic scenes, no burning of Atlanta, nothing. Just a woman who, in trying to call her husband, gets cut into a call (this used to happen, I guess, party lines and all that) which she slowly begins to realize is about her own impending murder.
What a grabber, that first scene. Her own murder! And she’s an invalid to boot, and the servants are out for the night, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Alone in her bed, which is so nicely appointed with all kinds of frilly stuff, Leona sprawls in a nightgown that looks fancy enough to wear to a coronation. Poor woman, she can’t interest the police in her plight, and the phone company can’t trace the call after the party has hung up (I guess things have changed in that regard).
I read a NY Times review written shortly after the opening of this movie, and the critic cracked wise about not leaving women alone with their phones to whip themselves into hysterical frenzies (and run up the bill). That would go down as sexist today, and I think it is really true that men are on the darn cell phone as much as women are now, but it was a funny line. And Leona Stevens is a hysteric, and a hypochondriac, and a spoiled rich girl, so it is a little hard for her to get anyone interested in her case, or for us to care about what happens to her.
But slowly we do. Stevens gamely and doggedly pieces the wildly improbable story together, starting by tracking down her husband’s secretary, who leads her to her old college roommate (Sally Lord, played by Ann Richards), who is married to the DA Fred Lord, who just happens to be investigating Henry Stevens. Good old Sally (from whom Leona stole Henry at a college dance) decides to do an imitation of Nancy Drew and figure out why. Far-fetched coincidences, to be sure, but who cares? Suspend a little disbelief, ignore the minuscule chances you would get cut into a phone conversation about your own murder in a city of 8 million, and this movie is great fun, great thrilling and chilling fun, giving you that old frisson of terrified pleasure that good suspense movies do.
There are stunning revelations every time poor Leona dials that telephone. Leona realizes her husband is not who she thinks he is, and that even she herself is not, when her new doctor reveals to her that all her infirmity is in her head and not her heart. Spoiled rich girl or not, nobody deserves what she is going to get at 11:15 pm, a woman alone, who might as well be tied down to a railroad track with the hoof beats of Snidely Whiplash’s horse growing ever louder, ever closer.
And the way she must overcome herself, her own weakness and self-delusion, to save herself is classic. She must conquer her hysteria, get up and walk to the window, to scream for help, but she can’t. Perhaps she can’t give up the power her weakness has given her over her husband and father. She certainly bats them around with it. And maybe unconsciously she just can’t believe anyone will stay with her unless she stacks the deck in her favor, not only with her beaucoup bucks, but with her china doll fragility, her neurasthenia, and her poor weak heart. Doesn’t everyone leave? Didn’t her Mom? (Who died giving birth to her). Can she find safety, from herself, from heartbreak, from an 11:15 appointment with a murderer? It’s what you wish for, but this is noir, and like in any good noir, you are never safe, not from them and, in the end, not from yourself. The bomb ticks, and 11:15 awaits.
The movie flashes back and forth and sideways to give the back story, and it does a good job. Leona’s maiden name is Cotterell, and her father James has made a pile in pharmaceuticals. She meets Henry Stevens (Lancaster) at a college dance and asks him if he goes to Harvard. This starts her off on the wrong foot, as Lancaster is a hardscrabble guy from Grassville (great name for a down at heels town) who has only gumption and good looks going for him. She tries to cut in on him and Sally and he says no, but Leona doesn’t take no for an answer from anybody, but he’s not anybody, and you figure their back and forth, the sexual tension, will resolve itself into a nice romance, that he will tame the shrew and his real talents will be rewarded, a la Horatio Alger, and they will live happily ever after. HA.
They get married, but none of the above happens. He works for her father, in a kind of sinecure, and he calls himself the invoice king, the emperor of paperwork. With the help of the old man, Leona keeps Henry on a short leash, keeps him from taking a job anywhere else, and when Henry insists they move out of her father’s house, she has an “episode” and begins to manipulate him with her ailment as much as her money.
It’s classic. She doesn’t believe he could really love her, and so acts in a way that guarantees he won’t. And he, finding the yellow brick road to American success blocked off, decides to take a very illegal detour, which involves him with some very bad guys, who blackmail him for big bucks, which he can only get by knocking off his wife for the insurance money (and you wonder if he really minds knocking her off anyway—the moral ambiguity is great, classic noir stuff). And so he plans his lovely wife’s murder, but is nice enough to request that they make it quick and painless. If he can’t get by on a smile and a shoeshine, murder will do, especially for a kid from Grassville, from hunger.
Great tension, without any over the top FX type stuff. Could Arnold Schwarzenegger carry a film like this? Carry the whole movie with tone of voice and body language and facial expressions? I don’t think so.
And the great twist is that Henry Stevens has a change of heart, and confesses to Leona, from a pay phone, no less (she already knows, but he doesn’t know she does). He tells her to run to the window and to scream out, do it now (at 11:15 the El comes by and will drown out her screams) but can she overcome her psychological affliction, give up her whole flimsy persona, will she be able to lose her old self to save the new one? Nah. This is noir. Nobody saves themselves.
The movie gleefully fakes us out in two ways: As a thriller, where we think that the doughty Leona and her old college friend/rival will solve the crime and live happily ever after (they solve it, but no one finds happiness) and then with the standard romantic expectation that the lovers will be reunited, reconciled. She will save herself, won’t she? She must. She doesn’t deserve to die, we have found a kind of grudging sympathy for both of them in our hearts, there has to be a happy ending. Doesn’t there have to be a happy ending?
© 2015 Mike Welch