Released in the autumn of 1948, Sorry, Wrong Number is a classic film noir thriller, filled with shadowy, atmospheric shots, and gradually building tension.
The film’s plot centers around Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a spoiled hypochondriac and heiress who is bedridden in her New York apartment, and who relies on the telephone for all communication with the outside world. Leona’s husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), a businessman employed by Leona’s father’s company, becomes increasingly embroiled in trouble. As detailed in a Variety piece from December 31, 1947, Leona
overhears a murder scheme through crossed telephone lines. Alone in her home, the invalid tries to trace the call. She fails, and then tries to convince the police of the danger. She gradually comes to realize that it is her own death that is planned.
Sorry, Wrong Number was based on a 1943 radio play of the same name by Lucille Fletcher. Orson Welles praised it as “the greatest single radio script ever written.”
The film’s terrifying climax comes in its final moments. Here, the composer, Franz Waxman, used the obsessive repetition of the passacaglia to evoke approaching horror. At one point, the passacaglia’s stealthy, tiptoeing subject synchronizes with the ominous sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. There are echoes of the music of Liszt and Shostakovich. The musicologist, Christopher Palmer, has singled out Waxman’s passacaglia as “one of the most frightening moments in film music.”
First, let’s listen to this music apart from the film. This performance features Richard Mills and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra:
Spoiler alert: Here is the same music, accompanying the film’s final scene:
- Waxman: Sorry, Wrong Number (Passacaglia), Richard Mills, Queensland Symphony Orchestra Amazon