Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Good times with the paranoia on full-beam. That's film noir and this is Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), one of the most eminently exemplary portrayals of the 1940s housewife.

The film noir style presented this to perfection and in its highest form in the 1940s.

Paranoia is central to the film noir style. The urban jungle is fraught with dangers, and some are human, and some are technological. 

Some are criminal and others are political, and any old way you look at it, when you're in film noir, you're in the land of doubt, deceit and usually murder to boot.

There'd be no film noir without paranoia, and one of the stand-out examples of this is the 1948 film noir Sorry, Wrong Number, with Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster ... and tucked away there, along with Ed Begley, is Wendell Corey.

Of all the significant innovations the film noir style introduced to the popular imagination, paranoia may be among the best. First there’s the political paranoia, whether it is down to Nazis or Communists, or later in the cycle, your own government.

Then there’s the paranoia that the veterans feel when exiting the theatres of war in the early to mid 1940s, to return to the cities, with their uncomfortable commingling of middle class values and what appears to be a near constantly rolling crimewave.

There’s organised crime, and there are dark shadowed foggy unclear vague and effectively lit corners and clubs, and there is the greatest swindler of them all ― love. 

And still, there are two further paranoias evoked in 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number ― the first being a common film noir staple ― the paranoia of a woman trapped in a domestic situation, as brilliantly evidenced in a huge amount of films: Woman in Hiding (1949); The Seventh Veil (1945); Jennifer (1953); and the immortal Secret Beyond the Door (1947).

And then there is the telephone - still causing trouble today.

There are a plethora of paranoid women in film noir. Domesticity may have been the American Dream, but it came at a price, and the film noir style is the place where that can be seen to be paid. On top of the captivity, are the questions about violence ― in and out of the home. On the streets and as amazingly evidenced here ― in your mind.

Paranoid women are always filmed in bed

Cityscape / film noir dreams

Exactly as with Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), these paranoid women are often pictured in bed. This trope somehow expresses domesticity, along with vulnerability, and of course a lack of good mental health. Dark Waters (1944), with Merle Oberon, is probably one of the most persistent films in this department; although Sorry, Wrong Number is probably better known.

All cineastes will know the image of Barbara Stanwyck, pressed up against the pillow with a look of terror on her face, as she pins a Bakelite receiver to her ear, wondering what next. The bed removes agency, it further victimises and traps the target, just as the prison cell does to so many of the film noir men.

Burt Lancaster, film noir, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

And this brings us to the other form of paranoia evident in Sorry, Wrong Number. Yes ― it appears that somebody is out to kill this woman, and she cowers and moans and jumps at every noise, much like many of her film noir cohorts. 

But Barbara Stanwyck’s character (meet “Leona Stevenson”) is also trapped within a new communication system, which is a fascinating twist, and quite novel. 

There is in fact, plenty to say about telephones and film noir. Film Noir is filled with telephones of all varieties in fact ― there’s pay phones, office phones, bedside phones, restaurant and diner phones and of course, or favourite method of communication ― nightclub phones that are brought to one’s table. 

Telephones are in film noir, more just plot devices, helping speed up some action, or relay an important warning or other item of vital information. That is of course pivotal to great storytelling, but at the same time, on a more emotional level, telephones are connected to secrets. 

The telephone is usually in film noir, a private method of communication, although there are often other people listening in. At the same time, the telephone is a symbol ― it represents the very best of modern communication and at the same time, a level of quiet communication in a world noisy with gunshots and screams ― and sometimes a world that is dangerously silent.

Trapped on the line!

Reaching for help!

Weaopnised communications technology!

Telephonic fear!

Network Hell!

Film Noir phone home!

On top of that, the phone is its own herald ― a sudden and shrill sound as the bell rings on a desk or in this case, on the beside the bed of a doomed heiress.

In Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948) the daughter of the owner of a massive pharmaceutical company, accidentally overhears a conversation on the phone of two men planning a murder for that evening. 

What she doesn’t know quite then, but begins to suspect, is that the murder being planned is actually her own.

What follows is a fascinating selection of film noir flashbacks, often through phone calls, building a telegrammatic web of ill, as the bed-bound heiress finds out that her husband ― played by Burt Lancaster ― a formerly poor man who is now vice-president of her father’s company ― has become dissatisfied with his life due to a lack of freedom and challenges. 

It’s a double whammy. The wife trapped in bed ― the husband, trapped in a boring job. This is the very worst expression of the bourgeois ideals that the film noir style often gleefully pulls apart. 

Sorry, Wrong Number employs quite a wife range of competing narrative voices, and is surprisingly up-to-date for its age. The confusion and the paranoia are absolutely perfect examples of the film noir style, and the deadly story unwraps slowly, and surely, and all around the struggling heroine.

Stanwyck - victim!

Corey - mansplainer!

Lancaster - confused!

Barbara Stanwyck has a hard job here, as she holds the tension of the entire film at times, from her bed. She does great and the image of her on the phone, backed up against a pillow, fear and doubt on her face, is actually fairly iconic.

Stanwyck however does not, however, dominate the narrative. Aside from the character of Leona, the story is told through her husband Henry, his secretary Miss Jennings, Leona’s college friend Sally Hunt Lord, Leona’s physician Dr. Alexander, and Henry’s accomplice Waldo Evans.

There are sixteen phone calls in the film and a half of them are from Leona as she lies ill, yet still most elegantly dressed and smoking her head off in a bed in her large New York apartment. She is suffering from a heart disease although, her placement in the bed as a dramatic trope has more to do with her film noir as a paranoid woman.

Shadows and Threats

Towards the start of the film, Leona seems to enjoy using her illness and the telephone to get what she wants, but as the tale progresses, she becomes more a victim of the technology. Rather than Leona plaguing the operator and her acquaintances with the phone, the apparatus itself becomes that which terrorises her with its fearful ringing and its messages of death.

Leona’s heart problem is of course psychosomatic, a revelation which is typical of the pinpoint acuity of 1940s film noir ― able to tell the truth like no other film style in no other decade. What film noir does in the 1940s is finally assemble Freud, and the cycle performs this wonderful feat, again and again. The quackery of the 1930s is actually replaced with some truly terrifying modernity, and this is one of film noir’s greatest gifts. 

Here, Leona only has heart-attacks only when she doesn’t get what she wants from her father or when her husband shows any signs of independence.

You are on firm ground with this excellent film noir ―  and a strong cast too, a classic cast in some respects. After all, where else do you get a guarantee of a solid 90 minutes with Wendell Corey?

Sorry, Wrong Number visits Wikipedia

Sorry, Wrong Number is a 1948 American thriller film noir directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster, and adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her 1943 radio play.


1 comment:

  1. I just saw this film for the first time and was enthralled. Sure, it's got the heavy handed exposition and acting of the day, but taking that into consideration, it is a fantastic film noir ride that has you glued to see the outcome. Written by a woman, seems to illustrate the problems associated by the traditions of 40s America, where men control everything, or try to and woman take a back seat. Here, the writer both spotlights the women's plight of subjugation, while warning she should not be overbearing either. As Disclosure, a film about reverse sexual harassment, heralds, "Women in positions of power are just as capable to abuse and men." This film was ahead of it's time despite some NY Times columnist's criticism.