Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Sorry, Wrong Number
Sorry, Wrong Number is an over-the-top chamber melodrama in noir drag, an adaptation of a popular radio play that frequently betrays its origins with its talky exposition and woefully overwritten dialogue. It's a potentially interesting story, with the germs of some great ideas (and great images) scattered throughout, but on the whole it only disappoints. The film centers around Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wealthy but nearly invalid daughter of a pharmaceutical company owner. She's home alone one night, waiting for her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) to get home, when she accidentally hears a phone conversation that she shouldn't have: the wires get crossed and for a few tense minutes she listens in as two men plan to kill an unnamed woman and make it look like a robbery. In the aftermath of this call, Leona's paranoia and angst begin intensifying, as she tries in vain to get the police or anyone else to do anything about the horrifying snippet of conversation she's heard. And as the night progresses and she receives more and more distressing news from voices on the phone, she begins to suspect that her now chronically late husband is somehow involved in a sinister plot of some kind, and that he may even be plotting to kill her. She begins to suspect that she overheard a premonition of her own murder.
The raw story has the makings of a fantastic chamber piece, centering on the growing fear and desperation of this woman who can barely walk a few paces from her bed, and who is increasingly overcome with terror. Instead, the film's structure sabotages the story's inherent tension and drama by frequently diverting from its naturally claustrophobic setting. It's obvious that no one involved had any faith in the commercial possibilities of a film set entirely in a single room and focused on the horror of an isolated woman as she talks on the phone. But in opening up the mise en scène, the script sacrifices its tense momentum for a self-devouring circularity that keeps pulling away from the forward drive of the present tense. This is a film overwhelmed by flashbacks, propelled by them, but propelled only backwards. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, including multiple ones from different perspectives, where someone will start telling a story only to switch over to someone else telling a story within the story. Because Leona is isolated, the script is forced to come up with some pretty outrageous contrivances to give her (and the audience) some information about what's happening in the outside world. So she speaks, for example, to her old college rival Sally (Ann Richards), who just so happens to be married to the D.A. (Leif Erickson) who's investigating Leona's husband.
The conversations between Sally and Leona, improbably spread out across several phone calls, unleash a string of complex interlocking flashbacks, some of them so long and involved that the supposed real story is almost entirely forgotten for the duration. Remembrances of the early days of Leona and Henry's romance reveal Leona as manipulative, casually cruel, and demanding. She steals Henry away from Sally and then takes charge of his life completely. One of the film's most interesting aspects is the tension between the Leona depicted in flashbacks — nasty, arrogant, controlling, and cold — and the terrified, ailing, sweating, desperate woman at the center of the film's present-day narrative. Leona is clearly meant to earn the audience's sympathy for her anguish, and yet the flashbacks to the rest of her life often reveal her as the villainess of the story, suppressing her husband's earnest attempts to make a life for them free of her father's influence. Sally also relates to Leona a strange tale about how she trailed her husband the D.A. in order to find out why he was investigating Henry. This flashback reveals little in terms of concrete information, but it does yield a wonderfully staged set piece on a foggy, hazy beach, where shadowy men in trenchcoats meet in secret, exchanging suitcases and passing codes back and forth. This quietly thrilling sequence, staged in near-silence with only occasional voiceover comments from Sally, translates the noir sensibility to an unlikely locale in the abandoned wharfs of Staten Island.
Director Anatole Litvak shows a flair for memorable images like this, even in the midst of this cramped, ungainly scenario. A scene where Leona speaks to the shadowy, mysterious Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea) provides a hint of what the film might've been like if it had resisted the impulse to expand its milieu with its clunky flashback device. While Leona grows frazzled, her voice cracking as she cries into the phone for answers, Evans (who has some undisclosed relationship to her husband) remains eerily composed, shown in silhouette as his clipped, businesslike tone relates a precise series of messages to the distraught woman on the other end. Of course, even Evans soon enough can't resist puncturing the mystery, letting the whole sordid story spill out in the most rambling flashback of all. The film is sabotaged by its talkiness and compulsive need to explain, and by its melodrama. Stanwyck is excellent at capturing the terror her character feels, the claustrophobic sensation of being trapped and alone, but in some of the more melodramatic flashback sequences, she explodes over the top, saddled with material too lurid even for her naturally expressive talents.
The film is nearly redeemed, however, in its final sequence, an admirable suspense showcase that finally fulfills the promise of the scenario. As Litvak's camera wheels around Leona's room, turning slow spirals that move progressively further and further away from the bed where she's trapped, she is increasingly isolated in the center of the room, looking profoundly alone in the middle of all that empty space. Meanwhile, downstairs, a man's shadow falls against the outside wall, and a man's gloved hand opens the window, allowing him to step inside. The finale is a masterpiece of tension and building terror; if only it had been attached to a more worthwhile movie.