Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) is engrossing for the work of its cast, the sensitive and shrewd viewpoint of the director, and mostly for being a fine example of what was most entertaining about classic films: They were almost always character studies, and the characters were not so very different from us. Also, they were quite bold and courageous about playing the ball where it lies.
When a child reads Cinderella, there is no questioning the logic of how there could be such a thing as a glass slipper and that there’s only one person in the whole kingdom whom it will fit. That's just the way it is. The child accepts those terms in order to enjoy the story.
In Phone Call from a Stranger, we are expected to accept a series of unusual or even unlikely scenarios as a matter of course. Therein do we find the magic of storytelling.
Many critics and fans alike will point to classic films as examples of entertainment that were escapist. For many films, this was true, but even in the most fantastical adventure what I find most compelling in classic films is not their escapism but their relevance. Time and again, I find relevance more than escape.
What I also admire about the people who made classic films is that they had the guts to focus on the most mundane lives and circumstances to launch an adventure. In many respects we've gotten away from that in our modern films and television entertainment, where to be competitive in the marketplace where there is so much competition, the film's story must have some sort of special hook to it, either the characters must be unusual or their experiences must be, or they must be seen as representing a segment of society which is currently marketable.
But old movies, in an era where they churned them out by the dozens by the week, there was little self-conscious need to market the story right from the script. That was the purview of the publicity men; directors and writers and actors could be more playful with an idea. It didn’t always necessarily need to be considered logical.
Phone Call from a Stranger is a mystery, a character study, a moralistic fable, that is also quite funny at times, and often unflinching at the foibles and inconsistencies of not only its characters but of us. It also manages to be inspirational.
Gary Merrill stars as a lawyer who is leaving his wife because she has been unfaithful to him. Like a noir film there are flashbacks and it will take almost until the very end of the film until we understand his whole story and his motivations. At first, we only know that he is angry and resentful, that he loves his wife and two daughters, but he cannot reconcile himself to living with her anymore. He leaves his Midwest home to take a flight to California to start a new life.
The film begins as a noir, at midnight, in a rainstorm, with ominous music flooding over the title and credits.
By the way, there’s going to be enough spoilers in here to choke a horse. You love spoilers? Oh, that's fine, then.
He takes a cab to the airport and books his one-way flight by an assumed name so that she cannot track him down, yet he calls her from a phone booth so that she will not worry. We see from the very first moment of the film that despite his need to escape his life, which has become bitter and disappointing, he still has enough sympathy for his wife not to put her through the agony of wondering where he went. He tells her he will be in touch. The rain drips off the brim of his fedora.
He will spend the next couple of days on a long-distance journey full of layovers and delays in the company of three other passengers. They are Michael Rennie, a doctor; Keenan Wynn, a traveling salesman; and Shelley Winters, a second-rate actress. Director Jean Negulesco allows their stories to unfold in a leisurely way that is interesting and easily keeps the audience's attention with a kind of sleight-of-hand that is as effective as Hitchcock's but much more subtle. There are mysteries all around us, and sudden tragic scenes of violence, but it is the deceptively normal, innocent moments of seeming irrelevance that keep us off balance the most.
Michael Rennie, who we last saw in I'll Never Forget You (1951) here, plays a reserved, gentlemanly, and somewhat anxious man. Like Merrill, he seems to have some secret trouble.
Keenan Wynn is a joker and a constant motormouth, pulling out novelty items like clattering teeth and funny glasses and letting rip off high, maniacal laugh that echoes in the lunch room, in a waiting room, on the plane. He is a little annoying for his over-the-top extroverted character. We haven't an inkling what his story really is, not because he is more clever at hiding his emotions than the other three, but because he is less burdened by them, and that will be the most amazing thing of all.
Shelley Winters, who played goodhearted but common-as-dirt dames, is very likable as a small-time performer who wants to be a big-time actress but has failed to gain any traction in New York. She is flying home to California to rejoin her husband and his overbearing mother because she misses him and she has learned that the bright lights of Broadway are probably not going to shine on her. Rather than being despondent about that, she has decided to focus herself on her marriage, what she realizes means more to her. Because she is so gregarious, she draws out the back stories of the three men. She guesses before anyone, with common sense and razor-sharp astuteness, that Rennie is a doctor and that Keenan Wynn is a traveling salesman, and she has guessed that all the men are married. She freely discusses her own problems and we can commiserate with her about her fear of flying on her very first plane trip.
It's fun to see the trappings of the era: walking out to the plane on the tarmac; the plane, a prop job with a small cabin; the smoking and no smoking and fasten seatbelt lights going on and off in the days before jets when a transcontinental flight would actually have to make stops to refuel at certain points along the way. It is on the stops that they get to know each other.
Gary Merrill, despite his troubles at home, has the easiest manner of the bunch, is the most level-headed and patient with them. He is a lawyer. It is his calm nature that makes Shelley Winters want to sit next to him on the plane. At one point, in their chumminess, when he puts his seat back to sleep, she does the same and jokes about their spending the night together. For those who find it difficult to sleep on planes, one has to envy them in the shot at night when most of the people on the plane are asleep even during a violent thunderstorm. When the storm forces them to land in an out of the way spot, they sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” as the plane lurches in the descent. (Quick, what other road movie has the characters singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze?” Yeah, I know you know. It Happened One Night -1932, which we discussed here.) In a panic, Shelley Winters clutches Merrill’s hand, and lurches forward with what looks like a stomach-churning lift of the plane.
Gary Merrill, with that craggy face had a wonderful knack for playing unassuming characters of quiet strength that were somehow heroic simply for being unassuming. During one point in the trip, the plane has come to a difficult landing and in a layover waiting for the storm to pass he and Michael Rennie discuss Rennie’s troubles. He wants Merrill's help and his professional judgment as an attorney.
Five years earlier, when at a dinner dance at a country club, Rennie had too much to drink and was called away to perform surgery on a patient. His fellow physician, played by our friend Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont went with him. In a childish bit of drunken bravado, in spite Beaumont's protests and perhaps because of them, Rennie drove very recklessly and they got into an accident. Beaumont was killed, as were two others in a car with which they collided. Rennie lied to the police, telling them Beaumont was driving, and his wife, played by Beatrice Straight, stoically and with disgust, did not contradict her husband, lying as well to protect him. Their son never knew the truth, but he did observe the break in his parents’ marriage after this incident where his father drank more and his mother seemed to shut him out. This is told in flashback scene.
Now Rennie is coming home to California to face the music and he wants Gary Merrill to go with him to the DA’s office to tell them the truth. He had already gotten away with it, but he can no longer live with his guilt and needs to regain his wife's respect. Rennie is brittle, bitter, good with the conflict.
Shelley Winters is charming in her effortless and natural friendly if outspoken dame who’s been around the block, not playing it at all like a stereotype. There is something sweet and childlike about her. She confesses to Merrill about her failure to hit it big in New York and her desire to go home to be with her husband.Her biggest problem was the conflict she had with her mother-in-law, an ex-vaudevillian, played with venomous panache by Evelyn Warden, who owns a supper club in Los Angeles where her son, Shelley's husband, performs with her. Mama rules the roost, and she disliked Shelley from the beginning. But Shelley is willing to go home and even brave her mother-in-law just to be with her husband again. She’s a people person, and it’s fun to watch her figure out what makes everyone tick. We realize, later on, that she has given Merrill a lot to think about.
Keenan Wynn seems such a shallow and trite man that we don't imagine there is anything below the surface, and others refer to him, among other things, as a jerk. We never get a chance to get his story – the plane crashes.
It happens on the second leg of the journey, the next morning, when the day is fine and there is no hint of the noirishness of the night before. It is shocking when, in an instant, the pilots notice ice on the wings, and Shelley Winters’ body is thrown over Gary Merrill, on top of us, and the whole plane lurches, and then we see the plane flailing through the trees and upending. We see the inevitable headlines about the plane crash – most of the people on board are dead, except for three who survive.
We wonder which three of the four lived?
We’re next brought to a hotel room in Los Angeles and – Gary Merrill walks through the door.
He has facial bruises, his arm in a sling, his torn suit a mess and we see he has just gotten out of the hospital. He dictates a telegram to his wife telling her where he's going to be staying for a few days but mentioning nothing about the plane crash. She would not have been alerted to it, because he had checked in under a phony name anyway. He could have gotten away with disappearing.
Absentmindedly, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the business cards of the two men and a piece of paper with Shelley's address info on it. The four musketeers, as they called themselves, decided that they would keep in touch.
We realize now that the other three have all been killed.
Merrill seems to be making up his mind about something, and his character suddenly takes the movie one step further, one step beyond a typical plane crash movie. What happens next isn’t about the crash, but about the families of these three characters and what happens next for them.
Merrill does the very noble thing of contacting their loved ones, not only to bring them comfort to share with them the last moments, but to right some wrongs and to repair the damage in the lives of the deceased so that at least the living can go on.
In the case of Michael Rennie, Merrill visits his wife who laments that their teenage son has run away. He does not know the truth about his father. Gary Merrill tracks him down, brings him home and tells the boy, played by Ted Donaldson (whom we saw here in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – 1945) the truth about his father's guilt in the accident and reminds him that an indecent man would've taken pleasure to have gotten away with something; a decent man is horrified by the guilt. He also learns that his mother has protected him. The son grows up quite a bit in those few minutes. The family is restored even though Rennie will never come home to them, and his memory will be sweeter for them. In a sense, he has come home.
Next Merrill tackles Shelley Winters’ story. He goes to the supper club where her mother-in-law is onstage, the next to the last of the big hot mamas, and a cute, if well-worn, club routine with her son, who is played by Craig Stevens. It's not a large role but Craig Stevens always acquits himself very well and it is a pleasure to see him in anything. He jokes on stage with mom and gets to sing a song, although I'm not sure that's really his voice on “Again”, though he was a singer and clearly sings the preceding “The Old Gray Mare.”
Merrill gets to see just how overbearing mom really is. She is rude, selfish and bad-mouths Shelley Winters and has tried to break up the marriage, wanting to keep sonny boy to herself. She tells her side of the story in a wholly made-up flashback that seems to parody noir movie flashbacks, but Merrill sets the path straight by throwing in a cute flashback of his own imagining where Shelley Winters has been a big hit on Broadway taking over for Mary Martin in South Pacific. It’s a clever and really funny bit where we see Shelley pantomiming the stage bits of Nellie Forbush including washing that man out of her hair, and he tells her that Shelley wanted to have her mother-in-law join the cast as Bloody Mary, had she not been killed in the plane crash. Mother-in-law, who would have killed for the part, is finally put in her place and her big mouth is finally shut once and for all. Craig Stevens is not fooled, but what is more important to him is Merrill's telling him that Shelley was coming home of her own will, not to battle him in a divorce case, but because she missed him and wanted to give up entertaining for him.
As the days progress, Merrill seems to heal a little from his injuries. He's got a new suit, he loses the sling, the Band-Aid on his head is removed to reveal a thin scar. He finally makes his way to the last stop: Keenan Wynn's house. Now his last duty is to comfort his widow. We wonder what he will say about Keenan Wynn. He had no heart to hearts with Wynn, no one really got to know him that well; it is hard to know someone who shines such a bright light on himself, a jokester who always goes too far. At one point, Keenan Wynn had passed around a photograph he carried of his wife in a bathing suit on a beach. And everyone is surprised, partly because showing cheesecake photos of one’s wife is a rather tasteless thing to do, and partly because she is such a good-looking young woman, everyone wonders how someone so smashing could've ended up with a schmuck like Keenan Wynn?
But the mystery grows even greater when Gary Merrill goes to his widow's home and finds Bette Davis, Keenan’s widow, lying in bed, hoisting herself up with the handgrips of medical frame. She is paralyzed from the waist down. She is not the sexy young woman in the photo; that was years ago. She knits industriously and seems matter-of-fact in her discussion with Gary Merrill. She does not seem to grieve. When she acknowledges to Merrill that her husband was a loudmouth and crude and uninteresting and that people tended to avoid him, Merrill is at a loss for words. He has come to comfort this woman who seems to want no comforting.
Then she tells him her story and we fall into another flashback. She tells Merrill that very early in their marriage she became tired of him and had an affair. She ran away with another man and on a cross-country trip to Chicago, she was injured in a swimming accident and became partially paralyzed. Her lover abandoned her. In the most touching scene in the film, and ironically, one of the most shocking, we see Bette Davis lying in an iron lung and we hear the ghastly wheezing sound made by the machine that will keep her alive. Her head is completely bandaged after brain surgery. There is that the mirror positioned above the iron lung, which was common so that people who were in them could see visitors above and behind them without having to turn their heads. Over Bette's shoulder we look into her mirror and we see her and then we see the reflection of someone who visits her. Keenan Wynn puts his face close to hers and looks at her through the mirror and smiling with a great twinkle in his eye, he says in his great booming voice, “Hello, beautiful!" It is a stunning moment of love and forgiveness and the heroism that is involved in both.
The flashback completed, Bette sits in her bed knitting and looks over at Gary Merrill with tears in her eyes and says that she never knew what love was until that moment.
I love that the director focuses not just on Bette’s delivery, which is quite moving, but on Gary Merrill watching her. There is a marvelous gleam of admiration and pride in his eyes as he watches her. We know, of course, that at that time Gary Merrill and Bette Davis were married and maybe he was just getting a kick out of watching his wife hit one out of the park, but it fits so well with his character, for a wonderful everyman sort of empathy in the admiration he feels not only for her for accepting her husband's forgiveness and for being grateful to him staying by her when she was injured, but for this great tribute to Keenan Wynn who really wasn't such a schmuck after all. Gary Merrill will learn that Wynn was the better man of all of them. It teaches Merrill something about forgiveness and about the guts it takes to do that.
She tells him of her husband, “Nothing could shake his love. It was from him that I learned what love really was – not a frail little fancy to be smashed and broken by pride and vanity and self-pity. That’s for children. That’s for high school kids.”
Merrill immediately sees a parallel with his own situation and wants to go back to his wife, and we see that his experience in helping resolve the loose ends in the lives of these other people has done something far greater for himself. He is the lucky one after all, not just because he is alive, but because he will get to mend fences, theirs and his, and he will always have them as an example and a memory to walk with him.
Some might say escapist, or schmaltz, but I say relevance. It's a gutsy movie that tries to tell a story for the story’s own sake—Cinderella was the only one that the glass slipper would fit, so deal with it—and allows us and gives us permission to be entertained by something that is so simple.
An acquaintance, who knows nothing about this blog but who has discussed his love of old movies with me, loaned me the DVD of Phone Call from a Stranger because he loves this movie. He had to pass it along. That’s another thing I like about classic films; they inspire old movie lovers to do things like that. Thanks, Jean-Paul.
Somebody else passed it on, too: it's here on YouTube, at least for now.