Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

In director Anatole Litvak's engrossing, expressionistically-filmed, psychological thriller and film noir classic - it was adapted from a famous and popular 1943 CBS radio play (one-half hour) with Agnes Moorehead by the play's author Lucille Fletcher:

  • after the opening credits, inter-titles explained: " In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives...It is the servant of our common needs - - the confidante of our inmost secrets... life and happiness wait upon its ring... and horror ... and loneliness ... and death!!!"
  • the suspenseful film opened in a Manhattan apartment with a view of a bedridden, spoiled, manipulative hypochondriac heiress Leona Stevenson (Oscar-nominated Barbara Stanwyck), whose domineering father was wealthy, drug company industrialist James "J.B." Cotterell (Ed Begley); an invalid, she was confined to her bed or wheelchair on the top floor of a claustrophobic Manhattan apartment
  • that particular night, her husband Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) was late and overdue, and her nurse had the night off. (She later was informed that Henry had to unexpectedly go out of town by train to an annual drug convention in Boston and wouldn't be back for a few days)
  • feeling vulnerable, she made a call from her home phone (PLaza 5-1098) to her husband Henry's VP office, when she accidentally overheard a crossed-wires telephone conversation between two thugs. The strangers were discussing the lurid details of a planned murder plot for that evening at 11:15 (the exact time of a loud, passing train) - "I get in through the kitchen window at the back. Then I wait till the train goes over the bridge - in case her window is open and she should scream....Make it quick. Our client doesn't wish to make her suffer long...And don't forget to take the rings and bracelets - and the jewelry in the bureau drawer. Our client wishes to make it look like simple robbery"; she began to fear that she was the intended victim
  • she reported the "unnerving" and "ghastly" call to the telephone operator: "It was about a murder, a terrible, cold-blooded murder of a poor, innocent woman tonight at 11:15." Then, the invalid neurotic woman reported her fears to the operator and to police authorities, but they didn't believe her
  • she attempted to make contact with someone before it was too late - gradually, she began to realize that she was to be the object of the planned homicide. Her frantic phone calls to get help were to:
    • Elizabeth Jennings (Dorothy Neumann), her husband's office secretary
    • Sally Hunt Lord (Ann Richards), her former married acquaintance (Henry's ex-girlfriend), now married to city DA-lawyer Fred Lord (Leif Erickson)
    • Henry J. Stevenson, Leona's missing, weak-minded, henpecked and greedy husband (she recalled her first encounter with her husband and parts of her life with him and others were presented through a series of well-constructed flashbacks); he was a lowly drug-store employee before love-struck Leona ("The Cough Drop Queen") stole him away from Sally Hunt, his loving girlfriend at the time; after a short romance and despite her father's reluctance, Leona married Henry, who then became a do-nothing VP in his father-in-law's pharmaceutical company, the Cotterell drug company based in Chicago; he even admitted: "I have a nice office, my name on the door, even a secretary. But what do I do? Nothing...No matter how hard you try, you know you'll never get anywhere"
    • Dr. Philip Alexander (Wendell Corey), Leona's NYC doctor, who revealed his recent diagnosis to Henry (and later to Leona) that her health (heart) issues were only psycho-somatic and didn't pose a serious risk of death: "There's absolutely nothing wrong organically with her heart. It's sound as a bell...Her condition is mostly mental. She's what we call a cardiac neurotic. Her attacks don't spring from any physical weaknesses. They're brought on by her emotions, her temper and her frustrations"; however, he added: "Mentally she's very sick and her attacks are real enough. They give her acute distress, even pain"
    • Waldo Evans (Harold Vermilyea), a timid chemist working at the Cotterell drug company, who owned a deserted house (at 20 Dunstan Terrace) on Staten Island - it was a rendezvous point (that he later burned to the ground); Henry persuaded Waldo to engage in a plot to secretly remove drugs from the plant and sell them for a profit - the Staten Island house was their "headquarters"
  • she was unaware that Henry had a number of dirty secrets after 8 years of marriage. She learned through Elizabeth that Henry had met - suspiciously - with Henry's ex-girlfriend Sally for lunch. Coincidentally, Sally was married to city district attorney Fred Lord who was investigating Henry who was possibly "in trouble" - for involvement in some unspecified illegal activity
  • as the film unfolded, Leona also learned from Waldo in a phone call that it appeared that her husband Henry had been engaged in the theft of drugs from the Cotterell's medicinal plant (in Cicero, IL and then in Bayonne, NJ) that were then trafficked to a crooked fence named Morano (William Conrad) for a cut of the profits. After a number of months, the greedy Henry began to swindle Morano by absconding with some of the drugs in order to make more of a profit. When Morano found out, the blackmailer insisted that Henry pay off an IOU debt of $200,000 within 90 days. This was when Henry decided to get rid of his manipulative and controlling wife in order to inherit her estate (and an insurance payout) to pay off the debt of $200,000 to the blackmailing Morano, by hiring a hitman to kill Leona [Note: He couldn't count on her dying since her heart illness was only psychosomatic.]
  • however, with Morano's recent arrest putting him in police custody, now it appeared that Henry would no longer be threatened by blackmail, and therefore, his murder-for-hire scheme to eliminate his wife was no longer necessary ("I do not believe it was Mr. Morano - the name is spelled M-O-R-A-N-O who betrayed us to the police as Mr. Morano has already been arrested. So there's no necessity for the money now")
  • after a number of revealing phone calls and flashbacks, Leona was powerless and time was dwindling in the thrilling finale; she became increasingly desperate as 11:15 pm approached: ("I'm a sick woman and I'm all alone in this horrible empty house!"). When Henry called collect at about 11:10 pm, Leona admitted she had just learned of Henry's dirty dealings through timid company chemist Waldo Evans, and realized he was in deep trouble. She said she would have bailed him out with money if he had asked: ("I would've given it to you gladly if it would've saved your life"). Henry confessed his guilt ("I confess everything, everything. I did steal from your father, and I was so desperate I even tried - I arranged to have you..."), but also regretted that it was too late to stop the killer
  • Henry instructed her to go to her balcony and scream for help: ("I want you to get out of that bed and walk to the window. I want you to scream out into the street"), but then, the intruder's shadow appeared in the stairwell, entered her room and strangled her to death - after covering her with his shadow. Henry listened until she hung up the phone - she was murdered at 11:15, when her hysterical screams were drowned out by a passing train
  • in the final line of dialogue when Henry called back, a white gloved hand picked up the phone receiver. Henry heard the film's title spoken by an unknown voice: "Sorry, wrong number"

Henry on Phone With Desperate Leona

Intruder's Shadow in Stairwell Outside Leona's Room

Leona's Scream As She Was Murdered

Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck)

Overhearing Murder Plot on Crossed Phone Line

James "J.B." Cotterell (Ed Begley)

Leona Experiencing Flashbacks

Leona Cotterell Romancing and Marrying Henry in Past

Leona Beginning to Be Scared

Phone Call From Waldo Evans (in Shadow) to Leona

Blackmailing Fence Morano (William Conrad)

Shadow of the Murder-For-Hire Intruder Outside the Apartment

Fearing For Her Life

Last Line: "Sorry, wrong number"


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