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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