A few days ago, I was casting around for a film to watch, a little fruitlessly. I wanted to wind down, not be hugely intellectually challenged, just really entertained. I also wanted guaranteed quality plot, excellent filmmaking, and some fantastic acting. Not much then.
It's this kind of mood that drives me to go further back in time with my film choices.
I did my PhD on 1930s American cinema, and have always enjoyed escaped into the 1940s, working my way through all the women's film, film noir, horror and melodrama going on in that decade (Gaslight, 1944, The Spiral Staircase, 1946 and Possessed, 1947 are three of my all-time favourites). Watching Mank recently reminded me why I loved this period of cinema so much.
So when I came across this - Barbara Stanwyck (GODDESS), and this synopsis -
Leona Stevenson is sick and confined to her bed. One night, whilst waiting for her husband to return home, she picks up the phone and accidentally overhears a conversation between two men planning a murder. She becomes increasingly desperate as she tries to work out who the victim is so the crime can be prevented
- I was in.
The pitch suggested it was going to be my kind of plot - tight, minimal locations, all about Stanwyck, short period of time (I'm not one for rangy films, as a rule).
But why should you care?
Lucille Fletcher is the screenwriter, adapting her own radio play, which Orson Welles describes as 'the greatest single radio script ever written'.
Then, these are the opening titles: a telephone exchange! As you'll know from my Black Christmas review, I am very big on telephone exchanges.
Horror, Loneliness and Death superimposed over the telephone operator! Hurrah!
We begin in earnest with Barbara Stanwyck as the bedridden and entirely spoiled heiress Leona, smoking a cigarette, wielding a rotary phone and being absolutely vile to everyone she speaks to. She is also wearing a fabulous lacy transparent bed gown (excellent costume design from Edith Head)
This is Leona's beside table. It's this kind of detail in the filmmaking that I love about classical Hollywood: this is one of the first shots in Leona's room, and it gives us everything we need to know about the whole film in a single image. For now, I'm just going to say, take note of the time - the story begins just before 9.30pm.
Leona is trying to get hold of her husband, who should have been home by now. She's alone in the house and bored. His work number has a permanent busy signal. Not one to be put off, she dials the operator and demands to be put through - but the operator inadvertently puts her through to a different line.
She hears two men discussing the murder of a woman. And it's going to happen at 11.15pm that night. She's straight back on the phone but no-one takes her seriously. The operators at the exchange, the police. Then she gets a telegram from her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster). He's not coming home that night.
This is when Leona really takes action. She rings Henry's secretary, Mrs Jennings, who owns an excellent black cat, and looks like she'd be a good stand in for Mrs Danvers in Rebecca.
Mrs Jennings tells her about Sally Hunt (Ann Richards), a beautiful blonde woman who turned up unexpectedly at Henry's office. Leona is STRAIGHT ON THE PHONE to Sally, who she already knows.
Sally isn't too happy about the phone call. Check those lips! She looks like Carmella Soprano when she's pretending to be happy.
It turns out Leona and Sally have history. Sally was also sweet on Henry, but Leona soon put a stop to that. I love this flashback sequence below so much - Leona, what a woman!
And in another flashback, we discover what a weak little weasel Henry is. Henry and Leona used to live together, with her father, in his mansion, and Henry just got walked all over by both of them.
Check when he goes into his father's sitting room - absolutely dwarfed in the landscape, while the taxidermy fox in the foreground bares its teeth.
Even when he tries to stand his ground with his father in law, Leona's picture hangs between them, and Leona's dad basically says, 'just do what she wants OK'.
Despite the fact Leona is a truly awful person, and has stolen her old boyfriend, Sally starts doing some sleuthing. She's now married to Fred, a hotshot lawyer, who is on a case that implicates Henry. Sally puts on a trenchcoat and listens in on Fred's phone calls while preparing dinner.
Then she sneaks out to a bar to ring Leona back, on the QT.... and when the bar closes, she busts out onto the subway, and narrowly avoids being caught by her husband. I *ADORE* this second shot, below and now have it as my desktop image.
Sally on the subway was when I fell in love with this film.
A woman's story, by women, about women characters driving forward the plot, almost in real time, all communicating on the phone. I can see why it started out as a radio play, but they've made it dynamic enough to work for film here.
But this real time - women's stories - forward progression is only really the first half of the film.
We get to 11pm (and almost murdering time) really quickly, and the second half of the film is predominantly flashbacks by men, about men. It's essentially the backstory of Leona, of Henry, of the circumstances leading up to this fateful evening, of what, how and why Sally, Leona and Henry's lives have become entangled once more, and how this involves police, lawyers, drug dealing and murder.
Turns out there is a 1948 version of Breaking Bad going on....
The second half dissipates in terms of tension, and uniqueness. The women talking and driving forward the plot is lost in favour of men remembering and revealing; the men literally roll the time backwards. I understand why - we can't watch a feature-length screen story at Leona's breakneck pace - it would only be about 45 minutes long. But there could've been a better interweave. We move from women, on the phone, in mostly domestic spaces, to men in public places, in their work offices, in drop houses for drug deals, at the doctors, forever pulling away from the black hole at the centre of the story, that of imperious Leona, in bed, trying to prevent a murder.
Eventually, we return to the present, for the final act.
Back to real time.
We began the film with a close up of Leona in bed, her dominance of the frame reflecting her dominance over others. But by now, the framing has changed.
The camera tracks out to a long, wide shot, as Henry was dwarfed by her family's home, she's now insignificant among her bedroom paraphernalia. Leona's world might be her bed, and her phone, but the shot reveals that this is a very small world indeed.
She's on to the city morgue, when she realises that danger is closer than she thinks.
Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for this film and I can see why. Leona is not a nice person at all, and has some very twisted ideas about what love is, and yet you still feel for her, so resolutely and deeply.
This is one of the reasons I enjoy watching so much film noir / crime, there is direct crossover in audience engagement and character emotion with horror. They both work in the same way - if you don't care about the person in peril, the film is not going to work.
This crossover was understood by the film critics at the time of Sorry, Wrong Number's release. In October 1948, Richard L. Coe writes for the Washington Post, that the film 'turns out to be a chiller-diller of the iceiest first water [I don't know what this actually means but at the same time I totally get what he means]. If your blood craves violence, this one's for you'
And then, the final shot. It's 11.15pm. We are back to Leona's bedside table. A mysterious stranger clad in white gloves carefully puts down the receiver.
It is time for Leona to be silenced.