Barbara Stanwyck: Sorry, Wrong Number

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Sorry, Wrong Number(1948) is a film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. Directed by Anatole Litvak with Sol Polito as cinematographer, it was first written as a radio play in 1943 starring Agnes Moorehead, then adapted to the screen by Lucille Fletcher.  The film’s structure and the cinematography maximize suspense. Of course, what makes the film is the performance by Barbara Stanwyck whose Leona starts off bossy and queenly but sinks to a mental state of fragility that commands pity by the story’s end. It’s a meaty role any serious actress would crave and Barbara delivers.

Leona Stevenson is a manipulator. As the pampered daughter of a pharmaceutical magnate from Chicago, she falls for a small town, handsome Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) and manipulates him to marry her. Her health is a form of manipulation, too. If she convinces herself she is an invalid, she can control her husband to be at her side. One night, as she frantically calls looking for her missing husband, she overhears men discussing their murderous plot to kill a woman.  From there, the story weaves back and forth from flashbacks to real-time. The phone is the central object that connects the murderers, her husband, and Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) who reappears after an eight year break up with Henry. The phone is the thread that keeps the narrative alive and progressing. The story feels like a Nancy Drew mystery when Sally Hunt reveals her part in the plot, but otherwise,  we learn what mischief Mr. Henry Stevenson is up to in a compelling way. Barbara’s facial expressions and distress is palpable, and I am biting my nails with expectancy when out of the dark shadows the tension mounts to the apex and end of the story.

Anatole Litvak’s choice to use mirrors on his sets is highly effective for enhancing the mystery. Mirrors in the restaurant to check what’s behind you, mirrors over the bed or strategically placed to highlight the phone or a hand. The phone booths, the three-story spiraling staircase, the marquis rock on Leona’s finger, and Edith Head‘s costume designs make Sorry, Wrong Number a thrilling visual treat.

I only wish I could have heard this on the radio. With the lights off. I bet it was magnificent.

59 thoughts on “Barbara Stanwyck: Sorry, Wrong Number

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  1. I like Barbara Stanwyck and admire her body of work, Cindy. This is a great mystery and holds all sorts of emotional play for Barbara to utilize. I liked Audrey Hepburn in the movie, “Wait Until Dark.” Where she is blind and the dark is how we are more afraid watching this, than she is!
    I really remember Barbara S. best in the western tv show, “Big Valley.” 🙂

    1. I like her spunk and background story. She’s the inspiration of a central character I’m working on. I need to watch “Wait Until Dark”. I’ve heard about it and have not sat down to watch it. Thanks for reminding me, Robin. 🙂

  2. You mentioned Edith Head, who has provided many, many films with such wonderful costumes, without very much apparent reward, as far as I can see. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it.

  3. Cindy after reading this and Bill’s thoughts on The Plough and the Stars yesterday I’ve realised that I’ve never seen a Barbara Stanwyck film. I do plan to break my duck, starting with Double Indemnity, but I will also watch Sorry Wrong Number. Apart from Barbara’s performance, it’ll be interesting to chart the development of Burt Lancaster, a couple of years out from The Killers.

  4. Barbara’s fortitude showed in her work. A strong woman who hold down any lead role. Actresses like this are hard to replace! ‘Sorry Wrong Number’ should be a classic.

      1. In my poor,miserable, misguided opinion, the very best woman-on-the-telephone film is Roberto Rossellini’s The Human Voice starring Anna Magnani, from a play by Jean Cocteau It is the first of two short films included under the title L’Amore, and can be seen here on Youtube:

        you have to fool around a bit with the subtitle option to get the English subtitfrom one to the other. les, but it is worth it. the film is in 3 8 minute segments, which should move automatically form one to the next to the last.

  5. I agree, this was one cool noir, and Barbara played it so well. The ending was just outstanding, in acting, cinematography, framing, tension…everything. I still need to check out that radio play, too.

  6. Loved this film. Such perfect casting. I think Lancaster is good in it too, though it’s clearly Stanwyck’s show. It’s not easy to do so much with just facial expressions & tone–but wow, does she nail it.

  7. A stunningly written post Cindy. I loved Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and I’ve got to see more of her work. It sounds like this is a good place to start.

  8. Not my favourite Stanwyck film, but a strong contender for my favourite role. Her descent into fragility is perfectly pitched (I think it would’ve been very easy to overplay it). Stanwyck wasn’t a great beauty or a glamour puss (although she was both beautiful and glamorous!), but this always played in her favour – it’s impossible to simplify her into a single image.

    1. You are so right. Not a Ava Gardner or Katherine Hepburn, but she was more interesting to watch. And she did wear the clothes well. I lover her expressive face. Her ability to portray a variety of expressions with her body language made her unique.

  9. Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster! No doubt the casting alone would make a good noir.

    Btw, Jack is back! Check out his latest post on a character actor surely you’re familiar with Cindy.

  10. It was nice being reminded of this film. I can’t seem to separate it from my first experience of watching it. It was only about two years ago. I had finals but I couldn’t focus because I had just gotten dumped by my then girlfriend. I decided to lose myself in a film. Actually, I watched three films in a row. The marathon started with this wonderful classic. Unfortunately, my memories of the film are embedded in a rather depressing memory. I managed to pass the exam. That’s something.

    1. Aw, well the best way to replace a sad memory is to substitute the experience with a happy one. When you revisit it, make sure you have champagne and a good friend watch it with you–toast to surviving unrequited love. And look at you–you’ve graduated and the future is bright!

  11. Sorry for the late reply Cindy. I have only just returned to blogging after a long hiatus and am only just getting around to reading all the entries now. “Sorry Wrong Number” is one of my favorite Stanwyck films, and you did it justice with your post. Thanks for much for participating.

    Also, I’ve just announced another blogathon for April, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/announcing-the-bette-davis-blogathon/

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