Sorry, Wrong Number

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/21/23;
Shout! Factory!;
Drama;
$29.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Ed Begley, Wendell Corey, William Conrad.

Eighty years ago, telephones and radios were, for many Americans, their only means of in-house entertainment and communication with the outside world. When bed-ridden neurotic socialite Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is left to her own devices — hubby Henry (Burt Lancaster) is away on business and the household staff’s been given the night off — the telephone, and a very vivid imagination combine to become her only means of salvation. Years before Hitchcock transformed the sanitary sanctity of the bathroom into a crime scene, screenwriter Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number did a similar number on a household staple by slyly twisting something as innocuous as a telephone into a harbinger of doom, a clarion drawing one closer to answering the call of death. (Hitch dialed the right number with Rear Window.) This wasn’t the only innovative horror element boldly holding the plot together. At its core, 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number is an ancestor of the most reviled genre of all: the slasher film.

What makes this piece a standout of its period is the author’s unwillingness to expend so much as a drop of pity on a thoroughly unlikeable character just because she happens to be an invalid. Mrs. Stevenson has the impatience of a child and a black belt in kvetching. She thumps away at the phone plunger like a person repeatedly pressing the elevator’s down arrow thinking the doors would open sooner. Perhaps it’s her persistence of clicking that cross the wires that allow her to overhear hoods conversing about a murder set to occur later that night. (The story unravels in real time.) When first we meet, much of Mrs. Stevenson’s backstory is shown through the lens of Sol Polito’s camera. Judging by a rock on her finger that’s the size of the Daily Planet globe, Mrs. Stevenson is a woman of means. The view from her third-floor New York mansion is both her paradise and her tomb. A tray next to her bed is a cornucopia of pharmaceutical delights. It’s when characters begin to talk, and Fletcher confronts the inevitable need to “open up” her play to feature length that the signpost up ahead begins pointing in the direction of trouble.

For Fletcher, the problem of “opening up” a play is solved with flashbacks. Numerous flashbacks, including that surefire plot confounder: the-flashback-within-a-flashback. Anatole Litvak was one of those studio directors who was only as good as his cinematographer. He was fortunate in this case to have been teamed with master chiaroscurist Sol Polito, who lit Mrs. Stevenson’s cavernous bedroom as if it were a jail cell, his 360 degree pans around the set allowing ample time for the narrator to bring us up to speed on past events. But it’s Litvak’s clumsy transitioning in and out of flashbacks — dialog fades as a pan away is answered with a dissolve to another scene — that causes his structure to falter like a needle on cracked vinyl.

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The role of Mrs. Stevenson originated in an episode of the radio drama, “Suspense!” with Agnes Moorehead in the lead. Fletcher’s 22-minute radio broadcast was pretty much a one-hander with Moorehead assigned most of the heavy lifting. When Paramount pegged Stanwyck for the big screen adaptation, the studio offered Moorehead a bit role which she promptly refused with extreme prejudice. With a couple of Oscar nominations to her credit, the suits insisted that Moorehead lacked Stanwyck’s marquee value (and sex appeal). There was no way producer Hal Wallis was going to allow Moorehead the chance to open a picture. Stanwyck suffered well, and while the film earned her a fourth and final Oscar nomination — she never took home a golden booby prize — one can’t help but play “Would’a? Could’a? Didn’t!” over the prospect of Moorehead at the wheel.

Fletcher reasoned that every character in the film lacked sympathy and it was only right to add Sally (Ann Richards), Henry’s college chum who lost his hand to Mrs. Stevenson. Remember the good old days when a guy couldn’t drink beer unless the little woman fetched it from the refrigerator for him? Sally’s that gal. She fails to humanize Henry, and her scenes are strictly standard-issue melodrama. Ditto a subplot involving drug trafficking that was wrestled into submission by the censors. Dorothea Neumann, who made a career playing neighborhood buttinskies has a brief but delightful role as Henry’s moth-eaten secretary, the type who’d plant horrible thoughts in one’s head only to end the conversation with, “But I didn’t want to worry you.” The film’s biggest donut hole is Lancaster in a role too small for his britches. His inevitable comedown isn’t as convincing as his rise, but then again, humble wasn’t a word generally associated with the actor’s choice of characters.

The special features include two audio commentary tracks and a “making of” featurette. But the best of all possible bonuses is the inclusion of the 1950 radio play starring Moorehead. My prescient high school English teacher asked the A.V. monitor to wheel a giant Bell & Howell reel-to-reel tape deck into the classroom so as to treat her students to the original 22-minute radio broadcast. The class knew Moorehead for her work as Endora on “Bewitched,” but even without the name recognition, a radio positioned next to the teacher’s desk signaled a vacation from schoolwork. Do yourself a favor. Give it a listen before watching the feature. I think you’ll be surprised how eye-opening a radio show can be.

The Dunwich Horror

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 1/10/23;
Arrow Video;
Horror;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality/nudity.
Stars Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Talia Shire.

Hold the fright and pass the psilocybin. When 2001: A Space Odyssey’s ballyhoo promised ticket-holders a seat on “The Ultimate Trip,” they weren’t just referring to space travel. All of a sudden, films were endowed with their own psychedelic variations on Kubrick’s Stargate sequence. Even Disney responded by re-releasing Fantasia as a “head” picture meant to lure acid-soaked hippies to view Mickey through the windowpane. What accounts for The Dunwich Horror’s ‘M’-rated sex scenes shot through a dishtowel is anybody’s guess.

If what I read is correct, fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, upon which this was loosely based, despised the American International Picture’s adaptation. The studio had been kicking around an adaptation for almost a decade, first with Mario Bava as director and later with Peter Fonda in the lead. Released hot on the heels of Roger Corman’s acclaimed Poe Cycle and directed by his protege, Daniel Haller, the King of the B’s was looking to spark a successful formula on a new gothic theme. It’s handsomely designed — prior to this, Haller worked as an art director on dozens of films, many of which were signed by Corman. Alas, the shocks are pretty childish; the Vincent Price predecessors never relied on blue-skinned bugaboos to do the horrific heavy lifting.

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The set-up promised a weird blend of horror and psychedelia that it couldn’t keep. With the only copy of the Necromicon aka the Book of the Dead in his possession, student of the occult Dean Stockwell, glassy-eyed, never blinking, hypnotizes career virgin/college student Sandra Dee into playing sacrificial lamb in his mind games. Stockwell looked the part, but his character fails to mesmerize or incite dread. Hollywood old-schoolers Ed Begley and Sam Jaffee were both the victims of haunted hairdos. Begley’s toupee outperforms him at every turn, while Jaffe appears to have colored his beard and Isro (a Yiddish Afro) with a black Sharpie® for the flashback sequences. After a three-year absence from movies, this was to be Dee’s comeback film, her first since parting ways with Universal Studios. Wikipedia notes that Dee, “referred to her past 25 films with Universal as ‘all rotten.’” If Douglas Sirk’s monumental remake of Imitation of Life is rotten, then Sandra Dee is her generation’s answer to Dame Judi Dench.

After a brisk first half-hour, the film kicked the crutch of logic from beneath its underpinnings, setting it limping down a path to hocus-pocus-dominocus. Having missed seeing it on its original release in 1970, it’s taken a lifetime to prove that I could have lived without The Dunwich Horror. Arrow’s Special Edition 2K Blu-ray contains a new commentary track by Guy Adams and Alexandra Benedict, scads of interview material, an image gallery, collector’s booklet, and a trailer that’s so bad it’s good.

The Turning Point

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$14.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Edmond O’Brien, William Holden, Alexis Smith, Tom Tully, Ed Begley, Carolyn Jones, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell.

It was a ratings bonanza. With 30 million Americans tuning in to watch the Kefauver Hearings, the Senate investigating committee on organized crime that stretched between 1951 and 1952, it wasn’t long before Hollywood devised a way to get a cut of the viewership. The Turning Point wasn’t the first feature to use the hearings as a springboard to hard-hitting action, but it remains one of the finest.

The credits roll over a police motorcade whisking John Conroy (Edmund O’Brien) from airport to city hall. The law professor has returned to his hometown to head a special investigative team tasked with breaking up a local crime syndicate headed up by Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley, snarlier than ever). The press knew very little of Conroy’s endeavor other than he’s been endowed with tremendous powers to get the job done. Joining Conroy is girl friday/love interest ​​Amanda Waycross (Alexis Smith). He’s clearly smitten, but if the awkward kisses he planted on her cheek were any indication, their romance is on a dead end course to Nowheresville. Conroy held no political aspirations even though cracking Eichelberger’s syndicate could land him a seat in the Senate.

Enter Jerry McKibbon (William Holden). A cynical reporter assigned to do a color story on his lifelong friend, McKibbon went so far as openly expressing doubt about Conroy being up for the job. He does, however, admire his friend’s taste in secretaries/reformers. McKibbon immediately gave Waycross the onceover and in jig time decided that a dame should stick to the society page, not mussing up her makeup trying to crack a crime wave. He’d soon become the third prong in a love triangle, but luckily the romance never gets in the way of the action. With the exception of Conroy’s surprisingly wimpish acquiescence to being cucked, the film is better off without it.

The men are boyhood friends, so it’s only natural that McKibbon landed an invite to the Conroy family breakfast table, the spot whence the titular juncture began taking on meaning. For all the year’s McKibbon’s known the Conroy’s, this is the first time the crusading reporter had sensed something strange about father Matt (Tom Tully). It’s not that he refused his son’s job offer as chief investigator; McKibbon was in no position to talk seeing how he, too, turned down Conroy’s request to join his team. It was the flustered manner in which Matt declined the offer that seemed so out of character. Following his hunch, McKibbon tailed Matt to Eichelberger’s office, the last spot on Earth one would look for an honest cop. Matt was supplementing his policeman’s salary by keeping the syndicate aware of his son’s every move. Corrupt cops were common in these parts, but listening to Tully tell it, one questioned why he didn’t turn crooked sooner to help pull his family out of debt. His confessional offers Tully one of those moments a character actor works his entire life for. It’s a moment that stands out above all others, a moment to shine and do something extraordinary, a moment Tully took full advantage of.

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The characters move through space with a grace and naturalism that can only come from a director with decades worth of experience both in front of and behind the camera. William Dieterle spent most of the 1920s as an actor before making the permanent move behind the director’s chair in 1931. It’s been said that his inability to speak English caused the insecure German emigre to overcompensate through his visuals. That may explain the visual flourish at play in such sparkling pre-code diversions for Warner as Jewel Robbery, The Crash and Grand Slam. He had no problem making a smooth transition from studio exteriors to taking full advantage of his Downtown Los Angeles locations, including a quick cameo by the original Angel’s Flight funicular railway.

Conroy was tougher to take down than Eichelberger had expected, McKibbon even moreso. McKibbon had every intention of writing up the story, but for Conroy’s sake chose to leave Matt out of it. Warren Duff wrote the script based on a story by hardboiled suspense writer, Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye ). When not delivering dialog that crackles like a cinder block being lobbed into a dumpster filled with neon tubes, McKibbon can be found standing silently in the shadows like any good reporter, observing from a distance, rapt in contemplation. He didn’t want Conroy to find out that “his father has been crossing him every day of the calendar.” Eichelberger reacted as any paranoiac would, by putting the world on alert. “Everybody’s under glass from here on out,” he cautioned. With fear in his corner, Eichelberger was going to work it as hard as possible, starting with Matt. Some of the paranoia can’t help but wash up against Conroy who doesn’t like it when his journalist pal scoops him in more ways than one. And one would be right to question the logic behind killing the father of the lawman determined to stop just short of ridding the world of you.

A key witness (Adele Longmire, giving a nail-biter of a performance) provided Conroy with the evidence needed to bring the mob to its knees, but not before Neville Brand is brought on board as the out-of-town enforcer contracted to perform a hit on our zealous crusader. And look for Carolyn Jones making her screen debut as a wise-cracking floozy testifying before the committee. In the end, crime doesn’t pay, and to prove it, one of the characters “has to pay an exorbitant price to uphold the majesty of the law.” It’s unlikely, more than a bit sensational, and certainly not the type of ending one would find on television, which at the time of its release was precisely the point.