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Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

In 1948, the versatile Barbara Stanwyck put herself and the audience through the wringer—or rather, the ringer. Critics complained that expanding Lucille Fletcher’s 20-minute radio play with flashbacks and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks had diffused its power, but Stanwyck’s final ten minutes, as she tries desperately to save her life, are among the most gruelingly suspenseful in film history—and they earned her yet another Oscar nomination.

The original story is simple enough. A bedridden hypochondriac (Stanwyck) has no contact with the world beyond her telephone. One night, a glitch in the wires results in her overhearing a plot to murder a woman in 90 minutes. As she tries to alert the police, the film flashes back to her unhappy marriage to a man (Burt Lancaster) she comes to realize has a part in the murder, the plot she overheard earlier.

Director Anatole Litvak allowed Stanwyck to decide whether to film the framing scenes in bits throughout the schedule or in a single 12-day marathon. She opted for the latter so she could properly modulate the character’s progression from suspicion to terror. She was helped greatly by Franz Waxman’s score and Sol Polito’s camerawork. As the music builds tension, the camera circles the shadowy bedroom, gradually zeroing in on Stanwyck and visually trapping her.

d. Anatole Litvak, 89 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures