Don't Be Sorry, Get This Number

When I was a teenager and completing my rite of passage by spending too much time on the telephone, I'd get crossed lines all the time. Sometimes my friends and I would overhear other people's conversations. Sometimes we could all hear and talk to each other. Call it a chat line, version 1.0. Too bad we never overheard anything really exciting, like phone sex or phone crime. But what if you overheard a murder being planned? That's the intriguing premise of Sorry, Wrong Number, a minor film noir with major suspense that stars Barbara Stanwyck as the eavesdropper.

Stanwyck plays haughty heiress and invalid Leona Stevenson, who's waiting home alone one night for her husband to come home. When she tries to call Henry at the office, she gets a crossed line and overhears a conversation between two men planning to kill a woman. Leona tries to get the authorities to do something, but the operators can't trace the call and the police don't have much evidence to go on from the conversation snippets she overheard. She goes back to trying to locate Henry but finds that his disappearance is just the tip of a much bigger mystery.

The clever plot comes from screenwriter Lucille Fletcher's own radio play, and the film is still very much a radio play. Fletcher is still fixed on engaging the ear, not the eye, when it comes to laying a trail of clues for Leona, and by extension the viewer. That's why certain names and addresses keep getting repeated to Leona but it's a device that works better in radio. In film, the effect falls flat. Too bad director Anatole Litvak can't compensate with arresting noir visuals.

But with a killer premise like that, things are never boring as Leona tries to track down Henry and ends up locating the killer's target. Barbara Stanwyck pulls out all the stops as she melts down from dominant alpha wolf to petrified pussycat when Leona learns that she's the target of the murder she overheard being planned that night. Supporting players are fine, including Burt Lancaster as Leona's emasculated, poor li'l rich husband. William Conrad, who menaced Lancaster memorably in Lancaster's film debut The Killers, does the same thing again as gangster Morano. Ann Richards is amusing as a housewife who gamely moves the plot along, no matter how improbable, by playing Nancy Drew and spying on her own husband.

So here's the 411. You won't be sorry if you get this number.

(December 11, 2001)

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