Monday, November 9, 2009

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

The brilliant Barbara Stanwyck elevates this pretty average thriller into something actually worth watching.

Alright, y'all, here it is, Sorry, Wrong Number. It stars Barbara Stanwyck (obviously) as Leona Stevenson, the invalid wife of Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster). One night, Leona is all alone, her husband is late so Leona tries to find out where he is. Her only means of communication is the telephone, so while waiting for her call to be connected to her husband's office, the wires are crossed and she overhears two men planning the murder of a woman. As the film progresses, we learn that Leona doesn't know quite as much about Henry as she thought, and that the murder being planned may be her own.

Now, that doesn't sound too bad, right? Well it's not, but the main problem with the film arises out of its narrative structure. You see, a great deal of the film consists of flashbacks, as Leona calls person after person hoping to find her husband and we get scenes of what someone observed about Henry the previous day or something like that. Also, we get the story of how Leona and Henry met, as well as the current state of their marriage. We learn that Leona stole Henry from a woman who loved him, and that Leona is a spoiled heiress to her father's prescription drug fortune, we also learn that Henry is frustrated with Leona, having to keep her happy to avoid upsetting her condition, which consists of a heart attack during times of stress.

The flashbacks are a nice way to flesh out the backstory of the film, but it takes away from the suspense, especially since most of the flashbacks concern themselves with the condition of the Stevenson marriage as opposed to the murder plot that Leona overhears, which seemed to be a higher storytelling priority, at least to me.

Luckily, we have Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. She delivers a wonderful performances, making Leona horrible and spoiled in the flashbacks, but adding levels of vulnerability and sorrow during the present, where the life she had constructed for herself falls down around her. She makes the character paranoia and fear totally real, which makes it easy to relate to her and to care about whether or not she survives the film.

Aside from that, the film is a solid thriller with a big hiccup in the story telling department due to the overabuse of flashbacks. But it features one of Barbara Stanwyck's best (and Oscar nominated) performances, which makes it watching simply for that.

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