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Sorry, Wrong Number

While it's not hard to find all sorts of scary films nowadays that traffic in blood and gore, it's not so easy to find a turn-out-the-lights creeper that functions by virtue of suspense alone. To say they don't make them like they used to may be a cliché, but in the case of 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number it's true — the stylish thriller wins new fans whenever it turns up on cable TV thanks to its perfect blend of Hitchcockian plotting and bold film noir stylistics. Barbara Stanwyck stars as Leona Stevenson, a bed-ridden socialite traveling with her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), an executive in her father's drug-store chain. Heiress to her father's empire, the press has dubbed Leona the "Cough-Drop Queen," but her health has been failing in the past several years, causing her to visit New York in order to get the advice of a medical expert, Dr. Alexander (Wendell Corey). However, Leona's hubby goes missing one night, and while attempting to reach him on the phone with the help of an operator, she accidentally gets a crossed line and overhears two men plotting a woman's murder, which will take place at 11:15 that very night in a residence somewhere near a railway bridge. The shrill Leona attempts to have the phone company and the police trace the conversation, but when that fails she receives an unexpected call from old friend Sally Lord (Ann Richards), who reveals that Henry may be mixed up in bad business. And before long, it becomes clear that Leona herself may be that evening's intended murder victim. Originally a popular radio play by Lucille Fletcher (with Mercury Theater veteran Anges Moorehead in the leading role), Sorry, Wrong Number proved to be so successful that it had seven on-air performances and a novelization before the inevitable Hollywood film. Fletcher adapted her own radio script for the screenplay, and while it is quite different (utilizing many flashback sequences to flesh out events leading up to the murder plot), the film works well thanks to Russian-born director Anatole Litvak's attentive compositions in locations that range from Leona's claustrophobic bedroom to a desolate backwater village on Staten Island. But Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir exercise in more than just style — the husband-and-wife leads are a disagreeable pair, and some of the supporting players have their own secret vices. Stanwyck — no stranger to noir, having starred in the genre's prototype, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) — delivers a marvelous central performance, slightly mannered even for that era, but deftly shifting from shrill harpie to hysterical invalid. And Lancaster is the perfect noir male, a small-town loser whose ruthless ambition leads him into an opportunistic marriage, but who also is thwarted by the cruel hand of fate. The remainder of the cast is a crackerjack bunch as well, with Ann Richards as concerned friend Sally Lord, Leif Erickson as Sally's investigator husband, Wendell Corey as the dispassionate doctor who diagnoses Leona's malady, Ed Begley as Leona's tycoon dad James Cotterell, and William Conrad as Morano, who gets involved with Henry in a shady deal that's spiraled out of control. Toss in a melodramatic score by Franz Waxman that bristles with suspense cues (just like a radio play, in fact), and this is one to keep viewers glued to the screen — right up to the rocker-shocker ending that defies audience expectations with the film's memorable three last words of dialogue. Paramount's DVD release of Sorry, Wrong Number offers a strong full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a pleasant black-and-white source-print, and audio in the original mono (DD 2.0). The theatrical trailer is included, and it's a shame Paramount couldn't get one of the original radio productions on board as well. Keep-case.

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