Friday, January 21, 2011

Sorry, Wrong Number (Rhoades)

No "Wrong Number" Here
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was first a 1943 “Suspense” radio play starring actress Agnes Moorehead. It was so well received, the live broadcast was restaged seven times, all starring Ms. Moorehead. It was essentially a one-woman show.

But in 1948 when “Sorry, Wrong Number” was turned into a movie, it starred Barbara Stanwyck.
What happened?

Years ago I escorted Agnes Moorehead around my old college campus. She was doing a talk with the school's drama department. Thin and frail, with sharp hawk-like features, she still displayed a feisty spirit. Mostly she talked about her recurring role on TV's “Bewitched” and made references to her early days in radio with Orson Welles. Her movie career didn't seem all that important to her.

But I had to ask. Why didn't she get the lead in the movie version of a role that she'd made famous?
"Ah, it wasn't surprising," she waved away my question. "At the time I was a radio actress. Barbara Stanwyck was a bankable movie star. Besides, she was great in it!"

That she was. Barbara Stanwyck made the character of the terrified bedridden hypochondriac her own. No small feat, for most of her emoting was confined to talking on the telephone while in a singular bedroom setting. Much more challenging than words-only over a radio.

We’ve all experienced “crossed wires” where we’ve picked up an unintended telephone conversation, even more so in this cellular age where signals flitter through the air like errant spirits. Usually it's some guy who thinks he’s talking to his mother or wife. But what if you overheard someone plotting a murder?

That’s what happened to Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) in “Sorry, Wrong Number,” the film noir classic that’s playing Monday night at the Tropic Cinema. It’s the latest entry in Craig Wanous’ Damsels in Distress Month of old-time movie masterpieces.

Craig shares trivia and fascinating background about the movies with his audience, making it a great night out for movie buffs.

Director Anatole Litvak used all the conventions of noir in “Sorry. Wrong Number” – darkness, looming shadows, circling camerawork, a sense of endangerment. The film was adapted by Lucille Fletcher from her radio play. No longer a monologue, the movie version uses flashbacks to build up the story.

Stanwyck’s plight is that of a woman trapped in a lush apartment, waiting for killers to arrive. The suspense mounts as she phones for help – trying to reach her wimpy husband (Burt Lancaster playing against type), the operator, the police. Only to be left on her own as she discovers that she’s in danger.

You’ll love how she pieces the mystery together one telephone call at a time as she tries to convince her doctor (a thin Wendell Corey), her rich daddy (a bloated Ed Begley), and her not-so-bright ne’er-do-well husband (ever-slick Burt Lancaster) that she needs their help.

While “Sorry, Wrong Number” was one of Barbara Stanwyck’s greatest roles, the actress crossed movie genres with ease, moving from melodrama (“Stella Dallas”) to screwball comedy (Preston Sturges’s “The Lady Eve”) to crime (the classic “Double Indemnity”) to romance (“Christmas in Connecticut”) to dusty westerns (“Cattle Queen of Montana”). Babyboomers will remember her as the matriarch of the Barkley cattle spread on TV's “The Big Valley.”

Nominated for an Academy Award four times (including for “Sorry, Wrong Number”) she never won. Later she was awarded honorary lifetime awards from the Motion Picture Academy, the Film Society at Lincoln Center, the Screen Actors Guild, the Los Angeles Film Critics, and the Golden Globes. The American Film Institute ranks Stanwyck as the eleventh greatest female star of all time.

Ironic that one of Barbara Stanwyck’s jobs before breaking into the movies was as a telephone operator at $14 a week. Stanwyck (the former Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn, NY) did much better with wrong numbers in the movies.
[from Solares Hill]

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