by Paul Batters
‘I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live!’ Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster)
Of the many great actresses from the Golden Years Of Hollywood, few could boast the career of Barbara Stanwyck. An actress with incredible range, screen presence and charisma, Barbara showed talent, which emerged during the Pre-Code Era. She would appear and make her mark in drama, comedy, the western – and of course, film noir.
With the opportunity to write for the this blogathon, it seemed fitting that I write about the first film I saw Barbara in, which left an indelible mark on me and started my interest in film noir – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). I have written about this film in a previous article on the themes of Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir.
Film noir would first make its’ powerful mark on cinema emerging in the early days of World War Two, drawing on the pulp fiction tales of private detectives, mean streets and dangerous women. But the post-war period saw a shift in the direction that film noir took, examining a greater variety of themes and reflecting the changes that emerged in American society brought on in part by the Cold War and communist phobia, as well as a growing sophistication in the expectations of cinema audiences. What became interesting was the incorporation of psychological themes and concerns, which gave greater depth and meaning. These shifts were certainly reflected in Sorry, Wrong Number.
Directed by Anatole Litvak, Sorry, Wrong Number was one of three films which Barbara had signed on to complete for producer Hal Wallis. is a story told in real time with copious use of flashbacks. Wallis had been impressed by the original radio play script and hired the original writer, Lucille Fletcher to adapt it for the screen. This meant additional characters had to be created and the use of flashbacks to enhance and flesh out the story was necessitated. The use of flashbacks (along with narration), as pointed out by Frank Krutnik, had become a commonplace technique in film noir but would be employed in a far more complex fashion by Litvak.
The story tells of Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), the spoiled heiress to the fortune and pharmaceutical empire of her father James Cotterell (Ed Begley). As the camera moves through a large, empty and lonely house, the audience discovers that she is bedridden and unable to move from her bed. Her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) is away on a business trip and all she has to connect her with the outside world is the telephone. As she makes a phone-call, she overhears a crossed line with two men detailing a plan to murder a woman that very night. What will follow is a descent into a night of revelation and terror, which unfolds as Leona becomes more desperate with every phone call.
The use of the telephone as a carriage service to tell the story instead of a narrator is a clever if sometimes confusing device used by Litvak. Yet it is effective in discovering the characters and in particular, Leona. Her powerful sense of entitlement has seen her get whatever she wants, including her husband Henry, whom she has enticed from a friend Sally Hunt (Ann Richards) after the two meet at a dance. Stephen Farber makes the excellent point that when Leona makes the vow “I, Leona, take thee Henry…”, it is a declaration of brutal possession rather than one of love. Leona is sexually aggressive but she uses it as a form of managing a business transaction and the link with materialism is quite clear. The montage following their marriage shows them happy as they travel the world and enjoy their honeymoon but there are hints of what is to come and an overshadowing of the disintegration of their marriage.
At Leona’s core, which she declares to Sally, is the desire to get whatever she wants and the will to use whatever she can to get it. In the case of Henry, she uses money to draw Henry in. What is fascinating is Leona’s ability to read Henry and his desire to not only escape the dull, dreary working-class life he has in his hometown but to find success, wealth and power. Greed is Henry’s weakness and Leona as predator can pick this a mile away, although that same greed will be both their undoing.
But Leona’s confidence, arrogance and seeming unbridled power are shaken by the underpinning of a serious psychological problem. Whenever that power is challenged, her response is to become violently ill to the point that she becomes incapacitated. Despite Henry’s folding to the demands of his wife, and by extension his father-in-law for whom he now works, he wants more and plans to stand on his own two feet. He tries to find work with another company but this is stymied both by his father-in-law’s power and Leona’s reactions. Later, he tries to buy an apartment for the two of them and move out of her father’s house. However, the almost Oedipal fixation on staying with her father frustrates and confuses Henry to the point of anger and defiance. Leona’s struggle with his rebellion results in a collapse, which finally sees her bed-ridden with the serious heart condition that she will later discover is purely psychosomatic.
Leona is a tough character. Yet the confidence and toughness that she seems to exude tends to crumble when her dominance is truly challenged. Leona dominates Henry, who seems to be a willing victim as the trappings of wealth and privilege are to good to abandon. When Leona first shows symptoms of illness, Henry is chastised by his father-in-law in an emasculating fashion but even Henry admits that he can’t go back to his former life. Leona is ruthless in her dominance but Henry wants to be dominant as well and he enjoys the power and position he has, admitting this openly to Leona when they clash over the apartment he wants to purchase. Both Leona and Henry represent a fascinating aspect of American society in the post-war period which film noir commented on – the frustrations of a society that won the war and was heading into economic boom yet it didn’t seem to be enough. As suburbs grew and the inner cities decayed and were neglected, there still seemed to be something missing. Like Leona and Henry, paranoia and the frustrations of greed respectively are key concerns in the film.
Which leads the audience to connect with Henry and our sympathies lie with his desire to break Leona’s mistreatment of him. Indeed, he pleads with Leona that he could still love her if only she would be reasonable with him. But it is to no avail. Henry feels trapped and his greed sets him on a dangerous path where he will start stealing drugs from his father-in-law’s company and corrupt a meek chemist to assist him in his criminal endeavours. Whilst the code placed limits on the nature of Henry’s crime venture, it is obvious that he is dabbling in drugs and working with serious gangsters. His greed will not only place against his wife but ultimately against the gangsters Henry was working with, which will lead him to a terrible decision that he is forced to make.
All this will come to a head, as the fatal phone call is pieced together by Leona with each phone call and each revelation. The audience witnesses Leona’s arrogance deteriorates into terror, as Leona disintegrates into an emotional mess, crippled by her own psychological dysfunction. Such is the force of Barbara’s talent that the audience spends the bulk of the film waiting for Leona’s come-uppance only to feel sympathy for her. Not many actresses can turn an audience in such a way and the tension is palpable as we wait to see if Leona will survive the terror she is facing.
Hal Wallis had always been an astute producer who had been at the helm of production at Warners for some of their most prestigious films. He also had a keen eye for talent and when producing his own films after his time at Warners, Wallis would help start off the careers of actors such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Incidentally both would flourish when working with Barbara whose professionalism and patience was beyond measure.
For the role of Leona Cotrell, the likes of Claudette Colbert and even Jennifer Jones were considered. However, Wallis knew that Barbara was ideal for the role, allowing for an actress of great calibre to work through the full gamut of emotion. Barbara also saw the possibilities of the role and according to her biographer, Axel Madsen, was even more pleased when Litvak gave both her and Lancaster all the scope and space they needed to build and develop their characters. According to biographer, Gary Fishgall, Lancaster had pushed hard for the role of Henry, as he was interested in the concept of the ‘moral weakling’ corrupted by his wife’s wealth, as well as his own greed. Like Barbara, Lancaster was excited by the prospect of having freedom to develop the character through his own interpretation via the scope that Litvak allowed. Both were able to look for the darker impulses and natures of their respective characters.
Yet with respect to Lancaster, Barbara had a greater challenge with Leona – having to traverse an extreme emotional spectrum in terms of her character arc. Not only was Leona in bed for much of the film but, as biographer Axel Madsen explains, Barbara had 12 days scheduled to complete the bedroom scenes. Barbara herself felt she needed to delve right into the emotional height of the character and was able to sustain it until Friday when shooting took a weekend break. She says that she found it difficult to pick up Leona’s desperate tension on the Monday yet I challenge anyone to see where there is any break in concentration.
Litvak would further emphasise Leona’s bed-ridden isolation through the use of a circling camera and expressionistic techniques to heighten the tension and Leona’s growing and eventual emotional disintegration. Some critics, including the acerbic Bosley Crowther were not overly fond of the film and Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid suggests that Barbara was too strong to play such a ‘simpering role’. However, Barbara was never one to limit her abilities and her career is evidence of the varied and interesting roles and her performance as Leona Stevenson was strong enough to garner her the nomination of Best Actress Oscar. According to Madsen, she never thought she had a chance against her friend Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda or the other performances by Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne or Olivia de Havilland in that year.
Barbara was assisted by a solid cast with the young Burt Lancaster solid and dependable in his role as the frustrated and dominated husband. Ed Begley’s time on screen was minimal yet his turn as the dominant father and hard father-in-law was memorable. William Conrad reflects the new corporate criminal-type, which emerged during the 1940s and broke away from the earlier sole gangster who solved his problems with a gun. Perhaps most interesting was Harold Vermilyea as the meek and mild-mannered Waldo Evans, who showed that anyone can be corrupted and his acceptance of his fate, as he is enveloped in darkness, is as film noir as it gets. Ann Richards plays the sympathetic wife of the D.A and former girlfriend of Henry Stevenson.
But there is not doubt that Barbara Stanwyck is the star of Sorry, Wrong Number and it was a perfect vehicle to showcase her talent and a role that needed an actress of her caliber and ability. A number of critics have hailed Barbara as the first lady of film noir and whilst this reviewer feels such a title to be limiting, her tour de force turn as Leona Stevenson certainly warrants such an accolade. Sorry, Wrong Number is 89 minutes of solid thriller/film noir with Barbara Stanwyck giving a memorable performance.
This article has been submitted for the Second Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal at In The Good Old Days Of Hollywood – thank you for hosting! Please visit for more great articles on the amazing Barbara Stanwyck.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.