“Sorry, Wrong Number”- Observations and Thoughts


I’ve been watching a lot of film noir recently, mainly for this blog so I’ll be able to post some bigger piece on its general sensibilities later. But for now, having just come off of seeing this film, I thought I should see what I made of it.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) is a Paramount Pictures release, starring Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck directed by one Anatole Litvak, and captured by cinematographer Sol Polito. I mention the cinematographer, not usually given his fair due, because the film’s cinematography is exquisite. A stylistic trait of the director’s work, it roams and tracks like a wandering bird, underscoring and fleshing out the characters in this work with pure visual language. It wanders over the character’s houses, capturing their interiors, their mental spaces externalised so we can see their lives, their dreams, their fears without so much as a word being spoken regarding this. Sometimes its hard to recognise how much we can take for granted in our processing of visual information, how pictures can become shorthand for what would be lengthy and clunky to explain using written, or even verbal communication.

Secondly, it’s an incredibly taut slow burner. Like all good thrillers, it works on a level of less is more, meaning that the fairly innocuous nature of what is being revealed only really amps up in the last half an hour, as the vision of our protagonist-cipher finally becomes clear, the mist of all the mysteries dropping like the wool from over our eyes. The layers of dramatic irony (the plot is given away by the poster for chrissakes) only help to heighten the agony, in true Greek theatrical fashion, as our knowledge of the impending events only makes the seconds ticking by more excruciating. And so as it comes to its cathartic, climactic ending, an ending which seems as inevitable as one second ticks to the next, the only feeling left is one of profound agony, of a kind of psychological mourning of how things have happened, and why couldn’t they have changed to allow for a happier outcome. It seems that hindsight only magnifies our pain.

It’s a brutal experience that catharsis. In the film, as we come to understand [spoilers for a nearly 70 year old film] Leona (Stanwyck) comes to realise her husband (Lancaster) has plotted her murder, after being stifled and unconsciously betrayed by her, and having a huge debt to pay off to some offended mafia types after trying to screw them over. As the murderer comes up the stairs, in only a writer’s torment, he hurriedly admits to his crimes, and pleads with her to scream out to try to get help, while she hurriedly confesses and apologises for all of her wrongdoing, her obsessive need to own and control him. Finally, as the police come to arrest Henry, the husband, she is strangled, and the murderer picks up, simply saying “Sorry, wrong number.”

Do you see how explaining something using the word can be so pitiful in comparison to the image? Just watch the scene:

Of course in its own context, without watching the film before, the climax might seem too melodramatic, even hammy some might say. It is after a scene of great loud acting, agonising confessions and shrill terror. In the same way, if you simply plucked the scene in Oedipus Tyrannus where Oedipus tears out his own eyes, and showed that to someone outside of the rest of the story, they too might think it a little melodramatic.

It’s interesting, because only in the context of our lives’ more languid moments, in the moments where fail to pay attention, don’t know the whole story, go forth with actions when we don’t know where the consequences will lead, that we can more expertly make sense of moments like these, when the culmination of our acts forms into a conclusion, the train reaches its last station. Our curiosity can kill us (and the cat), but the recognition of both our ignorance and our curiosity to save us from circumstances we don’t want (Death by strangling for example)  is far more of a painful experience. I think that’s perhaps why stories such as these can be so viscerally affecting, why they speak of Aristotle’s catharsis.

Finally the film speaks as a testament to some very basic truths in our digitally enhanced hall of mirrors. The film spends no time enjoying special effects, no ensemble cast or high concept story elements. It contains the holy trinity of any great performative art, good direction, good acting, good script. The direction and technical elements, the editing is tight and subtle, the visual language is complex, intricate and gorgeous without being dense or confusing while no expense is spared on creating a believable visual and auditorial world. Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster both give impeccable performances here, actors who I will return to later (Stanwyck is much better here than the other film I saw her in, Double Indemnity). The cruelty in both of them envelops them like a swamp, mired in Stanwyck’s inability to cede any ground to Lancaster, while his wish to assert himself goes down the road to hell, along with any other good intentions he might have had.

The script, last of all, just functions in bringing this all to fruition. Starting life as a radio play by one Lucille Fletcher, Orson Welles referred to it as “the greatest single radio script ever written”. And when a work contains such rich thematic meat which you can sink your teeth into, and contains such esteemed elements of pure human experience, pride, arrogance, curiosity, foreboding, terror, horror and dread, well then its no wonder we still love our stories, regardless of how they end. Maybe even because of that, they end.

Stay tuned for a post coming soon about film noir, unless I get sidetracked.


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“Sorry, Wrong Number”- Observations and Thoughts

Easy Rider: Peace or Freedom?


“And so there they were, their gas tanks stuffed full of bribes from the establishment, and you remember hearing somewhere that, in the South, “easy rider” is slang for a prostitute’s lover.”

“Easy Rider” Review, Roger Ebert, Sept. 28 1969

The very film Easy Rider is not the same film that holds a place in cinematic history, the Easy Rider that inspired the New Hollywood Movement, the Easy Rider which is part of the title of Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, stories and tales of the mythic birthing independent film world.The film that is called the generational touchstone of the sixties and the classic road movie. All of those words and labels are macro touch points, genres and generalisations, designed in part to associate the spirit of the film with the ethos of the time, even at the expense of the individual film itself, which is funny, considering one of the film’s primary themes is disillusionment.

Easy Rider contains a lot of stuff, stretched out in a very idiosyncratic time-scale, which is what marks it still as such an unconventional piece of cinema. As the film itself has crystallized into a historical context, and its soul has been picked apart by endless academics and cineastes (myself currently included), the very structure of its being has only crystallized more clearly than before, as an ever-expanding cinematic language has come into use since this film’s release. Film’s such as Memento and Synechdoche, New York really are revolutionary in the same way the editing of this film’s time scale are(flash cuts between the end of one scene and the other, flash forwards for example).

Their journey through America flows like a sunset, in both perpetual motion and seemingly immovable, only moving when you stop and notice it. Perhaps this is a rather pretentious metaphor, but for a film essentially about two guys travelling America trying to find anything spiritually satisfying, it makes sense.

Back in the 60s, when people assumed spiritual enlightenment was possible without assuming any irony or reactionary hostility, two bikers travel America, after selling a hell of a lot of cocaine to pretend Phil Spector. They’re heading to Mardi Gras because…well because. They just are, but also to Florida where they hope to retire wealthy. To be honest the details escape, simply because where they’re going is essentially the equivalent to the Irish folklore land of Tir’na’nog or the Greek mythological island of Ogygia. It just is not real, not on our mortal plane. So they journey, as a verb, to journey, because that seems to be the end goal, to just journey and not stop.

Scanning some brief secondary material, Easy Rider seems to be a celebration of the hippie movement, encapsulating all its youthful idealism, free spiritedness and rebellious nature. Maybe with the hangover we’ve got, from watching hippies segue into punk, love to hate, to technological music circumventing the organic nature of music, but what a forlorn celebration this is, if it is one at all.

Forlorn is a good word to describe the film. Or maybe its just my reading of the film, but it channels such a melancholy atmosphere. Wyatt and Billy, one introspective and one happy, drug smugglers neither at the bottom nor the top, float from place to place, shunned by most, welcomed by others, never really accepted and brutally murdered for no reason. Nietzsche would probably have enough material here for another tome.

It’s interesting noting this film came out one year after the Motion Picture Production Code was finally dismantled or laid to rest. In 1968 so to speak, the chains were officially off. Low budget exploitation cinema has been rolling forward long before this (the precursor to this film, The Trip, was written by Jack Nicholson, who plays lawyer George Hanson) and there definitely is a B-movie exploitation feel to the whole film, like a philosopher wrapped in a shoddy coat. Everything it’s doing at the time is anti-traditional, the strange flow of time, the large amount of internal moralising and debating without clear resolutions, hell even the minimalist performances and dialogue stand for something. It bristles with spirit and force, even if that force doesn’t know where its going. (While also ageing like any film, it has lost none of its power to shock. It’s been nearly 50 years since it came out, and I still could feel my mind submerged in madness during the acid trip sequence, a sequence which really must be seen to understand the experience of seeing it, even if you don’t understand the sequence itself.)

Much of Easy Rider is enveloped in ambiguity and melancholia, while realistic cynicism and fading idealism butt heads. Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper don’t say much, because really what is there to be said? When the spirit of community dies and is beaten down, all that matters is trying to find a place hidden from the storm.George (who frankly ties the whole film together, Mr. Nicholson is just so earnest in this film) guides us into the faded movement, shows us how we can get enamored by people who do seemingly bad things for reasons which could be debated until the cows come home. There is no grand political change on the way here, no better future even being considered or dreamt of. All that’s left is the half-finished ruins of a nation fragmented.

No one here understands one another. The lack of shared meaning here struck me hard, perhaps because it mirrors/I project my cultural fractures onto it. The girls see the hippies as sexual escape. The rednecks see them as dangerous social scum. The hippies see themselves as just regular people, avoiding the ignorant rednecks. The rednecks see themselves as the moral arbiters of the land. The girls see themselves as adults, while the hippies see them as girls (sexual connotations implied). All in all a request for food, something most of us consider as a basic human need, is so crushed under the weight of intense social prejudices, that simply by existing and being out of shift or step with the locals, you warrant enough aggression and violence to murder, as our poor Jack Nicholson finds out.

What does this film show us about the world these characters inhabit? After all its a reflective piece, it’s not content to just show us the world, it has its characters talk, discuss and dissect it, to prod into the cracks of the status quo and reveal the gaping sad truths lying underneath, truths like this one:

“But talking about it and being it…that’s two different things.lt’s real hard to be
free…when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.Don’t tell anybody that
they’re not free, because they’ll get busy killing and maiming to prove to you that
they are.They’re going to talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But
they see a free individual, it’s going to scare them.” – George Handson

Well, that’s what happened to America – Liberty became a whore and the whole country took an easy ride.” – Peter Fonda

For as long as film is around, people won’t stop talking about Easy Rider.It’s a genuine crucible of a film, smashing low-budget B-Movie expectations with actual substantive ideological conflict. At the end of the day, no one in the movie is even particularly crazy. Sure they get crazy, tripping with hookers through New Orleans in some maddening recursive bad trip, but the characters are just directionless, existentially lonely guys looking for something to fill the void. The behind the scene stories are enough to be talked  about forever anyway (see interesting write-up here).

Finally I guess I better address the title of the essay. Peace or Freedom. What is the better option? That for me seems to be the massive conflict riding through this film. Every time they encounter peace or stability, they enjoy its fruits and move on, free to flit from flower to flower, rootless trees in a rootless world. But it brings them no joy. They move along because they’re slaves to their dreams. They’re still trapped, just in a more spectral form. And which prison is the worthier one? The restless never stop, destined to ride their motorcycles eternally, regardless of what is offered to tempt them from their path. Condemned to be free, while everyone else treats freedom like a common whore.

Freedom is the ethos of America, but it’s also inexorably illusive. Peace is tangible but ultimately unsatisfying. Wyatt and Billy ride the line between the two. There’s the truth lying in there somewhere. Just like the hippie movement souring (the Weather Underground formed the very same year), so too will Easy Rider, because for all its melancholia and forlorn happiness, one real question remains;

Just who were they rebelling against in the first place?


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Easy Rider: Peace or Freedom?