Stretching Out the Suspense: SORRY, WRONG NUMBER

February 14, 2018 - 10:27am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) were written by Lillian Holman, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Sorry, Wrong Number, courtesy of the Library of Congress, will screen on Sunday, February 18 at 2 p.m. in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen series inspired by David Bordwell's new book, Reinventing Hollywood.

Many unanswered questions remain when you finish listening to “Sorry, Wrong Number,” an episode of the CBS radio show Suspense written by Louise Fletcher in 1943. Who is this woman confined to her bed? Who is her husband and why is he not there? Who are the people on the other end of the wrong number? Why is she so rude so quickly to the poor telephone operators? I’m being suitably vague for the uninitiated among us. That being said, the modern concept of spoilers was a significant consideration for the writers of the film version of Sorry, Wrong Number released in 1948. At that point, the episode of Suspense was so popular that general audiences would know the storyline. Therefore the filmmakers had a question that was far more important than the ones listed above: How do you entertain an audience with a story centered around suspense when they already know the end?

David Bordwell answers this question in his book Reinventing Hollywood, explaining how you “stretch out the suspense and multiply mysteries without seeming to pad”. The key to this is what Bordwell refers to as “1940s character shading”. The film takes it upon itself to answer all of the unanswered questions from the radio broadcast, exposing the limits of that particular medium while on the other hand highlighting the radio format’s strengths. Limits do not necessarily mean weaknesses, and in many ways the two media have different goals. We have a significant list of unanswered questions at the end of the radio broadcast, but what is most important is the fact that we don’t care. The title of the show was called Suspense and “Sorry, Wrong Number” delivers. All we need to know is that a woman is confined to her bed, a murder is about to happen, and no one is going to help her. That is enough to fill a half hour of escalating frustration and fear, as Mrs. Stevenson encounters increasing levels of incompetence that render the phone, as a method of protection, mute.

With the extra hour to contend with, the filmmakers cannot follow through on the same strategy. Mrs. Stevenson has to be someone beyond a terrified invalid. Her situation has to have a reason for being so dire. What results is a sort of prequel, made up of the flashbacks Bordwell highlights in his book. Not only do these flashbacks create a drama that will make the whole situation almost plausible, it also creates characters out of placeholders. It speaks to the strengths of Agnes Moorehead as an actress that she takes the radio version of Mrs. Stevenson and elevates her beyond just a distressed voice on the phone, but once again, that characterization is not sustainable for a ninety-minute film. By recasting her with Barbara Stanwyck, the film adds a level of mystery that wasn’t there in the radio show. Stanwyck’s previous roles as a femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) and a hardened comedienne in Ball of Fire (1941) and The Lady Eve (1941) established her persona as woman who is not quite so innocent. Stanwyck’s casting allows the audience to doubt her as a narrator, which comes into play after her conversation with Dr. Alexander.

As Bordwell elaborates, the casting of Burt Lancaster as a partner for Stanwyck is the key element that makes this a feature-length narrative, rather than a setup that merely serves to give everyone a good jump. The two stars transform the story into a complex marriage plot beyond the drama with the phone. To elaborate further would give too much away, but in the end the casting and the flashbacks expand a rather excellent radio play, that expertly manipulates your emotions and gives you a memorable scare, into a complicated and entertaining mystery film centered not just on the phone, but the people on the end of the line.