Sorry Wrong Number (1948)

This is the last of the films I watched in the past fortnight and it certainly ended things on a high note. Sorry Wrong Number is one of those classics that I have known about for a while but had yet to see. However, for those you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the synopsis:

‘Leona Stevenson is sick and confined to her bed. One night, whilst waiting for her husband to return home, she picks up the phone and accidentally overhears a conversation between two men planning a murder. She becomes increasingly desperate as she tries to work out who the victim is so the crime can be prevented.’

Something I noticed about a lot of the synopses for this film online is, how they obscure two parts to the story. One part is definitely for good reasons, as it would perhaps give you too much of an idea of what is going to happen, but the other concerns Leona herself. Plot outlines like the one shown above sort of present her in a far more sympathetic light, which does not match her character. In a way it makes her come across more like an innocent do-gooding heroine like Helen out of The Spiral Staircase (1946), when Leona is much more ambiguous and who definitely has more bite to her.

Given how much of the story takes place in Leona’s bedroom and in flashbacks, the story is still an impressively on the edge of your seat watch. Barbara Starwyck who plays the protagonist, embodies the complex personality of Leona expertly, holding the whole story together and keeping the audience in her grip. Far from being a golden innocent, Leona is forthright, blunt and keen to have things her own way, perhaps even pathologically so. In fact, the reason for her ill health is one of threads of this plot’s mystery, as the audience is left trying to figure out what is really wrong with her. Your sympathy tends to rise and fall for this character, as she is not someone you can outright love or loathe. Her disintegration as a character is captivating and it worked well that this process was evidenced in her hair style which became more and more deranged the worse things got for her.

The tension is well-executed throughout the film, running initially quite a high feeling of danger through a selection of interior camera shots in conjunction with eerie music. Yet this moment is allowed to recede, and the audience is quickly lulled into a false sense of security; their attention directed elsewhere.

The phone component of the story may not be original, but I think a strength of this film is that the initial phone call is only the start of a much more intricate and engrossing mystery. There might be slightly too much of a leaning towards the use of flashbacks within the piece, but the time pressure of the plot, i.e. the murder is meant to happen that night, ensures that the pace is kept appropriately fast. One element I did find quite amusing was the exposition in which it has rolling words on screen, which for me produced a bathetic sense of tension, such as in these lines about the telephone: ‘It is the servant of our common needs – the confidante of our inmost secrets… life and happiness wait upon its ring… and horror… and loneliness… and… death!!!’

All in all I would highly recommend this film and I would be interested in receiving further film recommendations which are of a similar ilk and/or star Starwyck.

SPOILERS

Given the complicated position Leona holds in the story, I think she fits much more comfortably as an anti-heroine. I imagine this has been said many times before, but this is a film which would make for a good feminist/gender reading. Through the many flashbacks Leona is shown in her youth to be a determined woman who is happy to operate beyond prescribed notions of respectable femininity. We see this intently in her courtship of her husband where she acts very forwardly, using her money and connections to convince him to marry her and overlook another woman. Such behaviour is not approved of and the ending in a way is a form of punishment for stepping outside of traditional femininity. Interestingly she does use feminine weakness in a malignant manner, as a way of controlling those around her, though you could say it comes back to bite her in a deadly fashion. For most of the film she is active in her phone calling and finding out of the truth, but when she learns it, stereotypical passivity returns her to a heroine in jeopardy role. Yet there is no knight in shining armour to save her. You could say her passivity kills her. Her epiphany and reconciliation with her husband are too late to avert her fate. Although dark, I thought the ending was really good, the way it plays with the audience’s assumptions over whether or not there will be an 11th hour rescue. I know I was certainly fooled in this matter and I am glad that a happy ending was not tagged onto the end, in the way Hitchcock does with his film Suspicion, which veers away from the dark ending of the novel it was based on. I think this is the sort of the film which leaves you wondering who the real victim and villain are, as the story doesn’t make clear cut judgements on this matter.

Rating: 4.5/5

6 comments

  1. Leona is such an ambiguous character, and Barbara Stanwyck plays her perfectly. Her personality can be so off-putting, yet she is also sympathetic at times due to her illness, her efforts to help a stranger, and most of all, the patronizing treatment she receives from men. It would be maddening to never really be listened to or taken seriously, even by those closest to you, and I think it expains a lot about her situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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