Sorry, Wrong Number


Street Date 3/21/23;
Shout! Factory!;
$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 Rainmaker (1956)


Kino Lorber;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Katharine Hepburn, Wendell Corey, Lloyd Bridges, Cameron Prud’Homme, Earl Holliman, Wallace Ford, Yvonne Lime.

For a long time, it appeared as though The Rainmaker would remain unchecked on my list of films to see before dying. But if a studio is savvy enough to send me a Blu-ray, I’m sappy enough to review it. Why the decades of avoidance? I tend to favor movies told through the lens of a camera, not a typewriter or, worse, a proscenium arch. As a filmmaker, Joseph Anthony was an accomplished stage director. This was to be his first foray into motion pictures, and if the midnight blue construction paper sky that opens the picture is any indication, be on the lookout for a stagebound western that leaves one wishing male lead Burt Lancaster had thrown a chair through a painted flat to let in a breath of fresh air.

Lancaster delivers a one-note performance as Bill Starbuck, a charismatic traveling snake oil salesman working a drought-driven part of the Southwest who, in exchange for $100, promises the Curry family he’ll devote the next 24 hours to conjuring up a cats-and-dogs downpour of biblical proportions. Katherine Hepburn co-stars as Lizzie Curry, the town spinster whose father H.C. (Cameron Prud’Homme) and two brothers, Noah (Lloyd Bridges) and Jim (Earl Holliman), work overtime to marry her off to the best breeding stock their burgh has to offer. Deputy Sheriff J.S. File (Wendell Corey) is the pick of the litter, but there’s a problem: Rather than admitting that his first marriage ended in divorce, he tells the locals his ex is dead.

Lancaster preens while Hepburn burns. If I was uncertain of Anthony’s ability to command a feature, one thing was for sure: A little Hepburn in her ultra-virginal mode goes a long way. With the back of her wrist dramatically pressed to her forehead, she delivers a noisy “pay attention to me” performance, her pearl-clutching bursts of Bryn Mawr rah-rah spiked with enough “gollys” and “jeepers” to thicken (and sicken) the proceedings. Starchy spinsters like Lizzie and The African Queen’s Rose Sayer would eventually lead Hepburn down the decrepit path to Grace Quigley and Eula, the prig who put the “cog” in Rooster Cogburn.

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Working from his play, screenwriter N. Richard Nash whipped up a tsunami of obvious symbolism, starting with equating the drought and Lizzie’s barren lovelife. Lizzie can cook and sew, but there’s more to being a woman than that, something extra that doesn’t necessarily involve using the brain God gave her. The worst performances are those that allow an actor to draw attention to her/himself, and Hepburn’s Lizzie is more inflated than a self-basting turkey. Symbols begin clashing with clichés, and in quick time, Starbuck is letting the virgin’s hair down for her. Not surprisingly, the film’s most memorable moment takes place far outside Paramount’s Bronson Gate. It’s in a grassy field where Jim and his cute-as-a-button honey Snookie (Yvonne Lime) rig her red roadster to drive in circles while the young lovers partake in a brief but inventive backseat make out session. Of all the trips the film tried to take us on, this was the only one that proved necessary.

The special features include the trailer and a commentary track by Julie Kirgo that, like Anthony’s direction, devotes more time to the performances than visual storytelling.


Desert Fury


Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lizbeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, Mary Astor.

Sometime in the past month (on a Facebook posting, pretty sure), the Hal Wallis-produced Desert Fury got categorized as “the gayest” of all film noir. Of course, I’d be derelict in duty overlooking those joy-boy hitmen that Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play in Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo — yet the point is well taken here whenever John Hodiak and Wendell Corey get into messy housecleaning discussions in the rustic Nevada cabin they share (though it’s 1947 Hollywood, so they sleep on separate floors). Fury also has a mother-daughter relationship between Mary Astor and Lizbeth Scott that’s a little strange even at its best, but one thing at a time. Meanwhile, and of all people, Burt Lancaster gets stuck in a cop uniform, usually the utmost in marquee anonymity.

The revisionist word has gotten around on this once critically drubbed Technicolor potboiler, though it’s a movie I’ve always liked since catching it as a young teen on the late, late show around 1961 or so. Paramount, in fact, had even re-issued it nationally in 1959, probably because it was in color and because Lancaster was at the top of his box office game; I remember that it played downtown at one of my local movie palaces (the Loew’s Broad) billed under Fess Parker in The Jayhawkers! and then worked its way out to neighborhood theaters. By then, the so-called youth audience probably knew Scott and Corey for the last movie both made to fulfill their long-standing Wallis contracts: as the music promoters who “sell” Elvis Presley’s character in Loving You (the movie that first sold Dolores Hart to me).

Scott, about 24 here, plays a headstrong school college dropout of 19 who returns home to rural Nevada, where mom Astor runs a Western-themed casino that rolls her in dough but buys no social standing for a daughter who’s shunned by local mucky-mucks (or as mucky-muck as you can be in a flannel-shirt community). Gambler Hodiak and Corey blow into town, where the former’s Scott-lookalike wife was previously killed in an auto mishap — though it turns out that Hodiak and then married Astor also had some history “back East” (Eastern corruption of the Western U.S. in a sub-theme here). Meanwhile, in what looks like an attempt by Fury’s sporadically great screenwriter Robert Rossen to flesh out Lancaster’s role, our local lawman is a former rodeo performer trying to come back from an injury, which at least allows a frequently indoor movie to get out and take a whiff of rural air sans casino cigarette smoke.

Scott develops a yen for Hodiak, which a) tramples on Corey’s own happily-ever-after fantasies; and b) unleashes an Astor competitive streak (not that she needs another one) with a daughter she’s already smothering. For his part, Lancaster ultimately isn’t above a little symbolic bomb-throwing himself when it comes to messing up this fling. Spending more time in his cruise car that Broderick Crawford did on any three episodes of Highway Patrol, he always seems to be pulling someone over on specious grounds, and it’s usually Scott.

The movie is heavier than it needs to be on people standing around and talking to each other, though, to be sure, the talk can be stinging. But the electric three-strip Technicolor and the attendant decor go along way toward carrying the movie and its notably twisted subtext before we get to some brutal action at a roadside eatery in the final reel. A further plus is a Miklos Rosza score from that early film noir period of his, back before he became to the go-to guy to pump up footage of Charlton Heston scratching his loincloth (more or less). So is Desert Fury even noir, despite the Technicolor? Well, Niagara is and Leave Her to Heaven probably is, though not many examples abounded until the modern screen era’s occasional forays into the genre when color was commercially mandated (if Taxi Driver isn’t noir, I’ll buy you a new hat, as my mother used to say). By this token, Fury likely is noir, in that it has “dangerous” women, a casino backdrop, a wide underbelly of moral corruption and a certain jaded attitude toward life despite the script’s hint at climatic happiness that rings a tad hollow.

The bonus commentary is another exceptional one by Imogen Sara Smith — and for a film very much in the wheelhouse of a film historian who wrote In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, a book I recently bought for Kindle reading to satisfy a New Year’s resolution. Typically, I learned a lot from her — from the ways Edith Head’s wardrobe contributions service the mood of each scene to Smith hitting me with the realization (well, actually they’re more like non-threatening nudges) that nearly all of Lancaster’s early screen appearances were in noir. Speaking of performances, Corey’s screen debut here may be the best role he ever had, though I’ve always enjoyed the personal spin he put on a potentially thankless role as James Stewart’s buddy in Rear Window. As for Astor, this is for me the role of her career and one that definitely merited a nomination, though the film didn’t get the kind of reviews to get the Academy’s attention. Bosley Crowther of the Times was among those who missed the boat (not that that would have ever stopped anyone’s presses).

Lewis Allen directed, and I always thought him somewhat underrated: The Uninvited (sublime), So Evil My Love, Appointment With Danger (with Alan Ladd “dropping” Jack Webb on the handball court), Frank Sinatra’s blistering Suddenly! and some long-unseens (including The Unseen, come to think) that I suspect may have a little something as well.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Desert Fury’ and ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’