' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Friday, February 28, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was based on a radio play that, by all accounts, was essentially a one-woman show intended to tell a story virtually through nothing but a series of phone calls. If initially Anatole Litvak’s cinematic version appears intent to honor the play’s inherent over-the-phone storytelling, like a precursor to “Phone Booth”, just with an old rotary phone and a New York bedroom where Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) as opposed to a New York phone booth, eventually the film admits it can’t quite sustain that ambitious aesthetic for a full 90 minutes and breaks away from the phone by having events recounted in those conversations by wire shown in flashback. These, though, and, even more, the flashbacks within those flashbacks honor the deliberately involuted storytelling, like so many switchboard operators inserting so many plugs into so many jacks, a dizzying array of information that despite reaching far and wide eventually leads directly back to that bedroom and that phone as the conversation Leona overhears as the movie begins when the phone lines are crossed about a murder being plotted turns out to be her own.

At first, when we meet Leona, sitting in bed, chattering away on the phone, her spoiled nature is clear. She’s bedridden but it almost took me a minute to notice it, her tone of voice and the very she emits seeming to suggest that having everything she needs right there in front of her, cigarettes and booze and lipstick, like Costanza and the recliner, is the result of significant swollen headedness. How she got to this point, however, becomes clear in the flashbacks, not a victim of any kind of illness but of her own psychosomatic disorder, brought on by her theatrical tendencies toward fainting spells and phony heart problems to manipulate the men - her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) and her wealthy father (Ed Begley) – in her orbit. In the movie’s twisted web of logic, then, her winding up in this place and putting her in the position of her own murder, is her own doing. It’s the kind of self-inflicted egomania that almost makes you liable to root for Henry, if he didn’t turn out to be a vain, hapless narcissist himself, plotting his wife’s murder to not only get out from under her thumb but her father’s, conscripted into his company and then wanting to make it on his own even though making it on his own entails pilfering his father-in-law. Classic.

Lancaster, though, in a crucial part, frequently comes across out of place. His cold cynicism in the early scenes is on point, but he can’t make the turn to something of a put-upon sod, utterly out of his depth when he crosses the mob, never able to unmask the all-encompassing desire to be His Own Man as nothing more than a little boy’s nursery rhyme. I kept wondering what this role might have looked like with his sometime “From Here to Eternity” scene partner, Montgomery Clift, who might have aced the indignant temper tantrums. Stanwyck, on the other hand, begins stuck-up and manipulative and then, as her own manipulations circle back around to do her in, turns the hysterics up to 11, incapacitated but simultaneously completely undone.

That’s why “Sorry, Wrong Number” comes off even if there is no one, to use the parlance of our times, to root for, building to a moment of unbearable tension that defies release, both people These are bad people, yes, all the way around, and the unwinding of the mystery becomes a realization, for both wife and husband, where they have gone wrong. They are not repenting, exactly, in the moment but seeing, even if subconsciously, as in the case of Leona, how they have wronged themselves and one another. And in the frantic denouement, as Henry, knowing the murder he has set into motion is about to be carried about, bellows to ignore her manufactured illness and get up and use her legs and escape, the phone booth in which he’s standing becomes a self-made prison as much as the bedroom is for Leona, seeing the light just in time for the darkness to swallow them up.

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