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« Inside Out My Mind | Main | HMYBS: Magic Mike (Part Two) »
Saturday
Jun202015

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Please welcome Kyle Stevens to The Film Experience team. You've previously heard him on the podcast, you can pre-order his book on Mike Nichols, and you should follow him on twitter as he is delightful. - Editor

Adapted from the hit radio play by Lucille Fletcher (who also wrote the screenplay), Sorry, Wrong Number follows Leona Stevenson, a headstrong young heiress who aims to one day be the sharpest battleaxe in the armory. She is also an invalid, relegated to her bed. We discover Leona telephoning inquiries into her husband’s whereabouts when the line fatefully clicks. She overhears a conversation between two men plotting a murder that night. For me, the whole movie hangs on the image of her listening to this narrative catalyst. It hovers over the entire film. Its power lets us never forget that this is Leona’s story, even when we get elaborate flashbacks from others. We recall it later when we see Leona disheveled and shining from tears and anxious sweat. Its tightness contrasts with the way the camera later wanders in and around people, tracing the distances between them that the telephone extinguishes. 

The magic here is all down to Barbara Stanwyck, giving one her best performances (and receiving the last of her four Best Actress nominations). We see Leona’s selfishness ebb as she intelligently listens to the heavies on the line. That is, Stanwyck doesn’t play an inner monologue. Her bright brown eyes and horseshoe furrows do not propose “Oh no!” and “What should I do now?”, as though telling us what Leona wants to say. Rather, Leona, in this moment, and for a change, is not about herself at all. She just listens. This remains a thing of beauty, reminding us how much intelligence just listening can demand. I don’t know of a better demonstration of the cliché that listening is one of those feats accomplished by only the best actors.

Written by a woman and showcasing a female character who fights for what she wants, Sorry, Wrong Number would probably be received as a feminist statement were it released today. But in the moment in which Leona hears unheard, I am reminded that it is not just the film’s gender politics that remain relevant. Over the complex lines of a switchboard (where, according to Hollywood, women controlled the flow of information), the epigraph warns:

In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives… It is the servant of our common needs—the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring… and horror…and loneliness… and death.”

The technology behind our phones may have changed, but in an age where we’d rather text than talk, we seem to still fear verbal connections. We worry about who’s listening, and we know, deep down, that the voice can give too much away.

Previously
Vintage 1948 - Best of the Year 
Supporting Actress Smackdown - The Schedule 

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Reader Comments (7)

Nice overview of the film and the great Stanwyck. She is brilliant and the entire reason the movie works as well as it does. Still it's a pity that the piece's originator the equally brilliant Agnes Moorehead wasn't allowed to transfer it to film. Her performance of it on the radio was considered a masterpiece of voice performance. I've never heard it though I did listen to a radio broadcast Stanwyck did apparently in conjunction with the film's release. Pared down of all the extemporaneous filler that the movie used to stretch it to feature length it is a much more tense experience and Barbara gave it her all. After the conclusion the announcer spoke to her briefly and it was obvious that she was done in, she was literally gasping for air.

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Hi, Joel-- Moorehead is indeed wonderful in it! You can hear her performance here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uDmNc8j9gA. I believe there were rumors that Moorehead's Oscar chances for JOHNNY BELINDA that year increased due to sympathy for her after she was passed over for the film role. I'm glad the Academy went with the heartbreaking Claire Trevor for Supporting Actress, though!

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKyle

Thanks Kyle I'll have to check out Aggie's work. Love Moorehead though I do I'm also glad Claire won for her knockout work in Key Largo.

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Stanwyck is excellent in the movie, but unfortunately for her, if you've heard the Moorehead radio version, it would be difficult for any other performer to inhabit the role and match Moorehead's take on it. The 30 minute radioplay version develops a real building tension as it goes along that an extended film version just can't maintain. Up against powerhouse performances by Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda and especially Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, Stanwyck didn't stand a chance in her final Oscar competition, and Moorehead didn't get that really great scene needed to be in serious contention for Supporting Actress. Claire Trevor got her moment in Key Largo, and she made the most of it.

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Great actress... Great performance....

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Love this one. I had a very intense Stanwyck period as a kid, shortly after the Turner explosion, and I saw all her Oscar nominated roles.

June 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Something about this film has never worked for me and while I have liked/loved Stanwyck in other films this film and performance just didn't work for me. The story is just was boring and while I like the conclusion of the film overall in the year 1948 it's one of my least favourite films.

June 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

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