Operator! Operator! Operator!

 

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.

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14 thoughts on “Operator! Operator! Operator!

  1. Brandie, your SORRY, WRONG NUMBER blog post is as suspenseful and fascinating as the film itself! Having seen it before, I thought Barbara Stanwyck was great as the not-likable yet somehow sympathetic alleged invalid. Having known a few clingy hypochondriacs like Leona, I always suspected that her “heart attacks” were faked to one degree or another so Leona could make sure she had her husband and father on a short leash. Terrific as Stanwyck always is, I’d love to hear the radio play with Agnes Moorehead to compare and contrast. I also loved your comparisons between Leona and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN’s ill-fated Miriam Joyce Haines, as played so memorably by Kasey Rogers (a.k.a. “Laura Elliot”) — nice coincidence that playwright Lucille Fletcher happened to be married to Bernard Herrmann at the time! Awesome blog post, Brandie, as always; we’re so glad you’re part of our Blogathon!

  2. Great choice for this blogathon. I have always found this to be one of the most suspenseful movies ever made. I haven’t seen this movie in a while, but I hopefully will be able to revisit it soon. Great writing and a wonderful choice. Thanks for another awesome post.

  3. Wow I need to watch this! All the films you compared it to are favorites of mine (expect Spellbound, maybe I need to re-watch it), and I really must catch up on Stanwyck’s work. Good post, very engaging writing!

  4. Brandie, this movie is sure a great thriller and, yes, very claustrophobic. I came to know it through The Essentials and it was the very first Barbara Stanwyck film I’ve watched.
    Nice to know that it was staged by the Mercury Theatre and its amazing cast. And also all the connection to Hitch’s works!
    Greetings,
    Le

  5. I haven’t seen this film in years! I remember watching it when I was a kid and hoping that my friends would think I was cool for watching a scary movie. As it turns out, my friends were growing up watching scary movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and had never heard of this film. Sigh. Nonetheless, I remember really enjoying it, and I will have to go back and watch it again soon! 🙂

  6. This film is priceless just to see Burt Lancaster as a henpecked husband! Stanwyck is always a joy here though as you say her character is not very likable. Litvak does a terrific job of escalating up the tension. The viewer as well as Stanwyck really sweat it out. It never lets up. Terrific choice and the usual great review.

  7. Great piece, Brandie! This was one of the first Golden Age movies I ever bought on VHS, and it was specifically because of the Agnes Moorehead radio show (now available for FREE on iTunes!), which I owned on cassette. (Can I reference any more outdated methods of entertainment?) So glad you chose this!

  8. Loved your insightful and well-written post, Brandie, about one of the first old movies I remember seeing as a child — and having the poop scared out of me. I used to want to hide my head under a blanket when the guy says, “Sorry, wrong number” at the end. Still do. Great choice!

  9. Brandie, your reviews are always first rate and this one is no exception. I love that you focused on a single element–the confined setting–essential to many of Hitchcock’s best. That part works very well in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER, but I think the film would have been even more effective with a tighter running time. I understand the need to expand it from the radio version, but a crisp 80 minutes might have upped the tension even more.

  10. Great review, Brandie. At first viewing it is a real nail biter. It’s fun to imagine what Hitchcock could have done with it – and with the great Stanwyck.

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