“I’m a sick woman!”
Barbara Stanwyck is electrifying as Leona Stephenson in the 1948 noir, ‘Sorry Wrong Number’. A rich invalid, confined to her gilded bed by ‘cardiac neurosis’, Leona overhears a murder plot on her rotary dial telephone and spends much of the next 90 minutes frantically dialling for help as her hysteria mounts.
The piece features a soundtrack of Helen’s trademark operatic vocals and blues/techno accompanying a screening of the thriller. But most of the exposition has been cut from the original movie - only the telephone scenes are retained, the rest replaced with sequences of other female actresses in various states of paranoia and panic from films such as ‘Portrait of a Downfall Child’, ‘Sisters’ and ‘Dressed to Kill’.
Women call out to unseen adversaries, and are menaced by shadows and invisible threats. At the edge of madness, they unwittingly interact with each other as the drama builds to a frenzy.
The soundtrack also uses existing audio, such as Faye Dunaway’s famous IRL answerphone freak-out and a secretly recorded conversation in which Barbara Stanwyck dishes the dirt on frenemy Joan Crawford.
Sound and vision are skilfully wound, together an impressionistic account of the ‘use’ of hysteria by women and our fascination with its portrayal. Desperation can come in many forms – from obsessing over an unreturned call as much as fearing death. ‘Sorry Wrong Number’ says more about private misery and unfulfilled desire than many conventional narratives, and with music to die for.