Many of director Alfred Hitchcock’s films take place in a single setting, restricting the movement of the characters to a central locale. Movies such as Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), and Rear Window and Dial M for Murder (both 1954) are claustrophobic and unnerving, filled to the brim with tension and unbearable suspense. The characters cannot get away from one another, and so the action is reduced to a psychological cat-and-mouse game with potentially deadly consequences. It is, to say the least, a highly effective means of establishing the scene from the very start.
In staging his 1948 suspenseful noir Sorry, Wrong Number, director Anatole Litvak borrows heavily from this particular element of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Though the film features several flashbacks that take the action outside of its given setting, Number largely takes place inside the bedroom of spoiled heiress Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bedridden invalid whose only outlet to the outside world–a telephone–becomes a source of fear and growing hysteria.
Having suffered a series of debilitating heart attacks, Leona remains trapped inside the third-floor bedroom of her mansion in New York City. One day, Leona tries to reach her unhappy, henpecked husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), on the telephone, but receives no answer. When she asks the operator to connect the call, Leona ends up overhearing another call instead, in which two men are plotting the upcoming murder of an unnamed woman. Though Leona tries to report what she’s heard, her claims are dismissed. But piecing together bits of the conversation she’s just heard leads Leona to think that the target of the planned assassination may just be her.
Sorry, Wrong Number began life as a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, who (to continue the thread of Hitchcock connections in this film) was in the process of divorcing Hitch’s go-to film composer, Bernard Herrmann, the year this film was produced. The thirty-minute play was beefed up to ninety minutes for the film version by adding a series of flashbacks to establish the links between the characters and the history of Leona and Henry’s marriage. On the air, the role of Leona was originated by the great character actress Agnes Moorehead, who had found movie stardom as a supporting player in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre (alongside other stars such as Joseph Cotten and Vincent Price). But when it came time to transfer the action to the big screen, Moorehead was deemed not a big enough star to carry the film, and so the part was given to Stanwyck. Cast as her weak-willed husband was Lancaster, who fought for the role to prove that he could play other parts besides the “pretty-boy” roles that had populated his career up until that point.
Leona is a shallow, unlikable woman who slowly slips into paranoia, fear, and regret, and Stanwyck (in her own inimitable way) is adept at making us feel for the character despite her less-than-sympathetic qualities (in fact, her skill in the part landed her a fourth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress). Stanwyck likely wouldn’t qualify by anyone’s definition of the stereotypical “cool Hitchcock blonde”–she’s much too vital and dynamic a personality for that in the majority of her roles. Leona is more akin to a figure such as Miriam in Strangers on a Train (1951), in that both women are essentially done in by their own selfishness.
The Hitchcockian elements abound in this production: the claustrophobic setting; the dark and shadowy appearance of the film, filled with tight framing shots that highlight Leona’s paranoia and terror; the elements of voyeurism inherent in the audience’s witnessing of Leona’s terrified final moments. Even the soundtrack contributes to the Hitchcockian feel of the movie–the score, by Franz Waxman, relies on sudden, startling. ominous notes that accompany impending danger, reminiscent at times of Herrmann’s brilliantly-crafted score for 1960’s Psycho, with the screeching violins that accompany the murders (though Sorry predates this film by more than a decade).
By the final scenes of the movie, the tension has built to almost insufferable levels. It is, in many ways, similar to the feeling aroused by the ending of several Hitchcock films–some of which came before Sorry (1941’s Suspicion, 1945’s Spellbound) and some of which came after (1959’s North by Northwest)–in that the central character’s fate is left in the hands of a would-be attacker, with rescue or redemption never completely certain. This trope is particularly evident in Rear Window, as L.B. Jeffries’ (James Stewart) life hangs in the balance–the attack on Leona is, in many ways similar to Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) attack on Jeff, as both characters are forced to wait helplessly while their attacker approaches, unable to physically defend themselves. The ending is quite different for Stewart’s hero, who manages to survive thanks to the timely arrival of the police. Leona isn’t quite so lucky. The audience, the voyeur that has witnessed every minute of Leona’s final moments, is just as helpless as she is–as helpless as Henry, holding the other end of the telephone line, is–and all we are left to feel is fear and regret. And if the hand of Hitchcock wasn’t guiding the camera in person in these final moments, its suspenseful spirit most certainly was.
This post is a contribution to the “Best Hitchcock Films Hitchcock Never Made” blogathon hosted by Dorian from Tales of the Easily Distracted and Becky of ClassicBecky’s Brain Food. Make sure to check out the other compelling entries throughout the week.