“Sorry, Wrong Number,” (1948) is an interesting mixture of script dynamics that combine qualities of film, stage, and radio. Lucille Fletcher, who wrote the original radio script on which the film was based, also wrote the screenplay and she carries over the sensibilities of both in this film.
The studio or producers or whoever made the decision to allow Fletcher to adapt her own script herself deserve full marks for not handing the job over to somebody else. She deserved a crack at it, and her film script is complex and multi-faceted. Barbara Stanwyck won her fourth Academy Award nomination for her work in the film as a murder victim, which also starred Burt Lancaster as the desperate, bitter, henpecked husband who lives in her shadow, and who plots to kill her.
Neither Lancaster’s role, nor any of the other roles played in the film existed in Miss Fletcher’s original radio script. It was just the woman and her phone, and a few disembodied voices of nonplused telephone operators and police desk sergeants to whom she spoke, and the voice of her eventual killer.
The telephone is as vivid a character in the radio script as any actor. The sound of the hesitant rotary dial and the ringing, and the busy signal are remarkably suspenseful in the radio script. The phone is her source of hope, her survival tool, her harbinger of doom. If this were a cartoon, it would sprout leering eyes and a monster’s mouth and freak us out. These psychological elements are more difficult to carry over into film, where the moment of a half-hour radio sketch must be stretched into a visual telling of the story of two hours.
This is where the film script departs from radio and becomes standard film noir fare, with lots of flashbacks to tell the story, and history of the characters to tell us who they are. We must build up to the murder with a foundation of wheres and whys. These things are not even hinted at in the radio script. In the radio version, an invalid left alone overhears a murder plot, and frantically tries to warn the police as any good Samaritan should. By the end of the story we realize, and she comes to realize, that the intended victim is herself. It is an almost overwhelmingly suspenseful story on radio, but that is hard to maintain for two hours on film, so we need a full story of who Leona is and who are the people in her life and why they are what they are. In the radio version we don’t know who is out to kill her or why. We have an inkling that the sudden absence of her husband on an out of town trip is too coincidental, and perhaps he is involved in plotting her murder, but we’re not really told. The film gives us the background.
What is stage-like and theatrical about the film is that Stanwyck is trapped in her bed, trying to get help from the outside world on the phone much as on a static stage set. Also, Miss Stanwyck specially requested of the director Anatole Litvak that her scenes as the invalid be shot in order, so that she could properly work up to the crescendo of hysteria that envelops Leona by the end of the film. Usually films are not shot in order, the scenes are shot in a random sequence according to logistics and what equipment is available and what actors are available on any given day. Technical aspects rule the shooting roster, not chronological order of scenes. Shooting Leona’s bedridden scenes in order of the plot on this film is unique.
More on "Sorry, Wrong Number" tomorrow.