Sorry, Wrong Number ★★★★★

Watched as part of the August 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Christian Alec's master list
#4: Watch a film starring a Summer Under the Stars on TCM star Barbara Stanwyck

2017 movie viewings, #117. I admit, I still have quite a few holes to fill before I'm anywhere near to being an expert on film noir; which is kind of odd, in that I've generally liked just about every noir I've ever seen, and have no particular aversion to older films, meaning that it's just been through random circumstance that my knowledge of this period of film history is so spotty, and not through deliberate design. Anyway, today's noir under discussion, 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number, definitely ranks up there in the "must see" tier among most fans of the genre; based on a 1943 radio script by Lucille Fletcher that was already gimmicky famous for being essentially a one-woman show (Orson Welles called it the "single greatest radio script ever written"), Fletcher herself adapted it into the minimalist screenplay directed by journeyman* industry vet Anatole Litvak (a Russian Jew perhaps most famous now for being one of the first people in Hollywood to recognize in the '30s the true global threat the Nazis represented), adding a bit of visual flair but mostly keeping the script the tight, claustrophobic psychological drama it started out as.

*And a side note -- since I use the term here a lot, I thought I'd finally take a moment and explain what I mean when I call a writer or director a "journeyman;" basically, I mean they're a Hollywood veteran but not particularly famous or who could particularly be called an "auteur." Hitchcock films are famous for being "Hitchcock-like;" but you'd never say the same thing about the 33 films Livak directed from the 1930s through '70s, which bounced around from studio comedies to noirs to romances to action-adventures, taking advantage of the latest technologies of the times but never really doing anything cutting-edge or distinctive with them. In the studio era in which they worked, sometimes these "collecting their paycheck" veterans are to be sneakily celebrated, sometimes to be rightly forgotten; but certainly no one's going to mistake Litvak for Billy Wilder, for example.

And indeed, perhaps the most distinctive thing about Sorry, Wrong Number is precisely that it hits so many expected notes of the film-noir genre, making it an excellent teaching example when wanting to explain to others what exactly constitutes such a film; it takes place mostly at night, within a gritty Manhattan that can be seen right out the window of the main set, shot with beautifully moody shadows that were inspired by the Expressionist movement in German cinema in these same years. Most importantly, it's about crime -- not grand crime but petty everyday crime, one of the things that distinguishes noirs from, say, the gangster films that were also popular in this same period; and our main villain, the never-better Burt Lancaster, is not a sneering gun-toting tough guy, like the hardboiled detective tales that were also so popular in this same period, but a cowardly little milquetoast weasel, one of the most important things that distinguishes noirs from other genres, a weak-willed slave to his contemptible little vices, which then forces these kinds of morally ambiguous antagonists into evermore desperate situations in order to keep feeding their prurient, dirty little desires.

Note that I'm giving you very few details about the movie's actual plot; and that's because you deserve to go into most noirs knowing as little as possible about what's going to happen, in that it's the various surprises afoot, and the pacing of these surprises' reveals, that is one of the main pleasures of this genre. I can definitely state, though, that it's one of the most clever of all the noirs I've now seen, a gimmicky concept (95 percent of the movie is simply Barbara Stanwyck talking on the phone while laying in bed) but that profoundly works here, through a combination of fascinating characters and a tightly plotted unwinding nightmare of a storyline. I'll keep checking noirs off my list as the years continue; but for now, this is one I can absolutely 100 percent recommend, one of the big highlights of this genre for those who are planning to only visit a handful of noirs in their life.

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