Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Hal Wallis Productions / Paramount Pictures
Lucille Fletcher was the greatest playwright who ever worked in the medium of radio.
Fletcher had an instinctive understanding of radio’s limitations and possibilities. Her dramas were often confined to a single location, never had more characters than the listener could keep track of, and exploited simple but primal fears like helplessness, confinement, and being alone in the dark.
Her most famous radio play was “Sorry, Wrong Number,” which was first broadcast on May 25, 1943, as an episode of the CBS anthology series Suspense. It starred Agnes Moorehead as a bedridden invalid who accidentally overhears a phone conversation between two men who are planning a murder. Distraught, she tries to get the operator to find out where the call came from. When that doesn’t work, she calls the police, but without specific information — she didn’t hear any names or exact places — there isn’t much they can do.
It’s a brilliant setup. Since all the action takes place in a single bedroom and all of the dialogue takes place over the phone, there’s never any confusion about who’s who, or what’s happening. Also, the fact that the story is told completely through sound creates a terrifying sense of intimacy.
“Sorry, Wrong Number” was the most popular episode ever broadcast on Suspense. It was so popular that it was performed seven more times, each time starring Agnes Moorehead; again in 1943, in 1944, in 1945, in 1948, in 1952, in 1957, and for the final time in 1960. (Suspense was on the air from 1942 to 1962.)
It’s natural that such a popular radio play would be adapted for the big screen, but I wasn’t sure how well it would work expanded to three times its length for a visual medium.
People seem to have mixed feelings about Anatole Litvak’s film version, but I thought it was pretty good. I love Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s a more likeable protagonist than Agnes Moorehead was in the same role on the radio.
I found Sorry, Wrong Number similar in some ways to Robert Siodmak’s film The Killers (1946), which was adapted from the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Both films take a small, perfect little piece of art and expand it into a feature film by adding a bunch of characters and a whole lot of plot that’s not even suggested in the original work. (Incidentally, both films star Burt Lancaster and feature William Conrad in a small but important role.)
How well this works is up to the individual viewer, but I thought that Sorry, Wrong Number worked pretty well as a film. It doesn’t have the same impact as the radio play, but the integrity of the original story remains intact, even though it only occupies the first 15 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the film. The film version also humanizes her husband (played by Lancaster) and turns him into a victim of sorts, which is drastically different from the radio play, in which he is mostly an off-stage presence.
Anyway, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work for radio, so I thought I’d compile a list of some of the shows she wrote scripts for. You can click on the titles below to stream the shows or right-click to download them.
The Hitchhiker (first broadcast November 17, 1941)
This is the June 21, 1946, broadcast of the show on Orson Welles’s Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Welles reprises his role as a man driving cross-country who repeatedly see the same hitchhiker on the side of the road, even though there is no possible way the man could be moving from place to place so quickly. The chilling music is by Fletcher’s husband at the time, Bernard Herrmann. Like “Sorry, Wrong Number,” this play was done for radio several times, and was even adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960.
The Diary of Sophronia Winters (first broadcast April 27, 1943)
Sophronia Winters (Agnes Moorehead), an unmarried middle-aged woman who is feeling liberated after her father’s death, meets a man named Hiram (Ray Collins) whose sister-in-law was also named “Sophronia.” Hiram marries Sophronia and begins to torment her with tales of the other Sophronia, an ax murderess. This is a claustrophobic, suspenseful story that evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as well as memories of the real-life case of Lizzie Borden.
Sorry, Wrong Number (first broadcast May 25, 1943)
The original radio version stars Agnes Moorehead and is one of a handful of absolutely indispensable shows if you have any interest in radio drama.
Fugue in C minor (first broadcast June 1, 1944)
Ida Lupino plays a woman in the late Victorian era who is introduced to a widower with two young children. The widower, played by Vincent Price, is a composer, and his children believe that he murdered their mother, and that her spirit is trapped in their father’s organ.
The Search for Henri LeFevre (first broadcast July 6, 1944)
Paul Muni stars as a classical composer who believes his work has been plagiarized and broadcast on the radio by a man named “Henri LeFevre.”
The Furnished Floor (first broadcast September 13, 1945)
Don DeFore plays a man whose wife has died. He moves back into the apartment he used to share with his wife and restores it to exactly the way it was when his wife was still alive. Mildred Natwick plays his landlady.
Dark Journey (first broadcast April 25, 1946)
Nancy Kelly and Cathy Lewis play a pair of old friends who reunite after years apart. One of them is obsessed with a man who has spurned her, and believes that she can make him love her through sheer force of will.
The Thing in the Window (first broadcast December 19, 1946)
Joseph Cotten plays a man who thinks he can see a corpse in the apartment across from him, but he can’t be certain if his mind is playing tricks on him.
As I said, I love Lucille Fletcher’s work, and I hope you will too.