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SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey
Director: Anatole Litvak
Audio: English, French
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-screen
Studio: Paramount
Features: Trailer
Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: May 28, 2002

"A telephone's a funny thing."

Film ****

Sullen evening descends upon the indifferent metropolitan.  On this moonless night, the clouds have massed into amorphous grey shadows, obscuring what trace star light may peer down upon the weathered city.  From afar, the winds trail in their wake the raucous cackle and clang of a train passing somewhere in the night.

In her upstairs bedroom, an invalid awaits, her nettled features pinched with anxiety borne of an uncustomary solitude.  This evening, the luxurious excesses of the woman's stately home are as but a prison.  The home nurse has departed.  Of the woman's husband, who may say what manner of ill-timed circumstances have delayed his arrival home?  His conspicuous absence merely sends his wife spiraling further into a bitter humor.  In the dark confines of her bedroom, this bedridden woman can only agitate restlessly, turning an inward eye towards thoughts that burden her heart as gravely as does the malady afflicting her surrendered body.

A phone call to her husband's office only yields a puzzling response.  Whether through some ubiquitous artifice of fate or the subterfuge of a vulgar ruse, the lines have somehow been crossed.  Not her husband's voice, but the voices of two utter strangers converse on the line.  Neither man offers a suggestion that he is aware of the horrified eavesdropper.  In stunned bewilderment, the woman listens to a most sepulchral conversation, no idle chat this but the plotting of a murder, a murder to be committed at fifteen past eleven this same evening!

The conversation is short-lived, for the phone line unexpectedly goes dead before further information is divulged.  There has been no mention of an address, a name, not even the city in which this heinous deed is to occur.  Nevertheless, an urgent sense of duty compels the woman to warn someone, anyone.

So commences a terrifying evening of suspense and uncertainty.  The witching hour of midnight approaches.  With every passing second, the fateful moment of death nears, when the night will swallow the terrified screams of the final panicked seconds in someone's life.  The woman places a frantic call to her telephone operator but to no avail.  A subsequent plea to the local police precinct merely draws derisive ridicule.  How are the lawmen to prevent a potential murder of an unknown mark, occurring at some vague hour in some unknown location in possibly this city, or perhaps an entirely different one?

The clock ticks softly, its soft intonations almost imperceptible.  Ten o'clock.  Undeniably, panic begins to seize the woman in a colicky spasm of fretful gazes and cold shudders.  She conceives a dreadful thought, a surely reprehensible glimmer into possibilities that surely must not be.  What if the queer inconvenience of this evening has been no mean coincidence?  What if fate, or worse, the willful corroboration of deviant unknown forces, has targeted her in some way?  What if the very victim whose life the woman has been trying to save is no further than a mirror's glance away?

An anguished mind in solitude can corrupt rational thought.  The inveterate dependency of an invalid may further derange a perception of helplessness.  Is the woman's racing mind merely executing a cruel joke upon her, or is there a trace of truth in this oddly evolving mythology of what-if's and how-so's?  Most unthinkably, has the woman's perfidious husband grown tired of his wife?  Is death even now in some unconscionable guise approaching the doorsteps?

The clock chimes.  The moment of fate is nigh at hand.  A few more minutes, and cold truth will emerge from the shadows, either phantoms of an imagination run amok, to be derided later, or the corporeal grip of no fatuous manifestation, to be dreaded immediately.  And so, the clock marks the waning minutes, and the time of 11:15 approaches...

Video ** ˝

The video quality is a little grainy with the usual dust marks and age blotches to be expected from a film of this age.  Otherwise, the picture is relatively sharp and agreeable with only quick instances of contrasty wash-out in a few rare outdoor sequences.

Audio ** ˝

The audio is monaural and so should not be expected to deliver any aural fireworks.  That said, the soundtrack is perfectly adequate for this film.

Features ˝*

There is a just trailer for the film.  Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) was based on a very famous 1943 Suspense radio broadcast featuring the voice of Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Stevenson, an increasingly frantic housewife who undergoes a slow but certain mental collapse.  The film’s first ten minutes approximate circumstances in the original Lucille Fletcher radio script, but thereafter the film vastly expands upon the urgent plight of Mrs. Stevenson.  To divulge anymore, however, would be to ruin the powerful surprises in this story!

It is a pity that an excerpt of this excellent radio drama has not included on the disc.  However, the Sorry, Wrong Number radio segment is available in the public domain, and I highly recommend tracking down a copy!  It is worth listening to, as it explores the lurid consequences of claustrophobic voyeurism long before Alfred Hitchcock's similar treatment for Rear Window.

Summary:

Sorry, Wrong Number fully delivers in the chills and thrills department, and Barbara Stanwyck has seldom been better.  This classic noir film may leave you hesitant ever to answer a ringing phone again!

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