support@opentapes.org
Saturday, February 24, 2024
Entertainment

Terror runs on the wire: the film that invented telephone suspense

Terror runs on the wire: the film that invented telephone suspense

Terror Runs on a Thread, Anatole Litvak’s masterful thriller from 1948, builds a passionate noir plot through the phone calls of the protagonist Barbara Stanwyck.

Terror runs on the wire: the film that invented telephone suspense

… just now on the phone I heard a horrible conversation: there will be a crime! A crime that will be committed at a quarter past eleven and… and I no longer know anything about my husband!

In the history of American cinema, the forties they are also remembered as the golden season of noir: a genre which, taking suggestions and ideas from literature as well as from German expressionism, would in a short time experience extraordinary success through a plurality of declinations, from stories hard boiled until it borders on horror. On September 24, 1948, when the glorious decade of classic noir now seemed to be coming to an end, a film destined to establish itself as a milestone of noir made its debut in US cinemas, by virtue of a completely new narrative formula: Terror runs on the wireproduced and directed by Anatole Litvak based on a popular radio play by Lucille Fletcher. The case, more unique than rare at the time, of a film that takes place entirely around a telephone.

Stanwyck Lancaster

Terror Runs on the Wire: Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

Sorry, Wrong Number, the original title of the text by Lucille Fletcher (also author of the screenplay), was broadcast for the first time in 1943, with Agnes Moorehead as the protagonist, arousing the enthusiasm of the public and even the admiration of Orson Welles. Five years later, Ukrainian director Anatole Litvak transferred Fletcher’s radio play to the big screen for Paramount, preserving the structure of the original work and, above all, that risky mechanism for the medium cinematic: build an entire story using only the protagonist’s phone callsLeona Stevenson, an infirm woman stuck in bed in her home in New York waiting for her husband Henry, with no one by her side and with the device on her bedside table as her only means of contact with the outside world.

Story of a marriage

Sorrywrongnumber1948

Terror runs on the wire: a close-up of Barbara Stanwyck

And from that device, due to a technical error, Leona accidentally finds herself listening to a fragment of a conversation between two men, only to discover something terrible: that same evening, at a quarter past eleven, a woman in the city will be the victim of a murder. This is a premise that anticipates Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window by more than five years: here too we have an invalid protagonist (although only later will we learn the exact nature of her illness) who grasps the clues to a crime, but he can’t get the police to take him seriously. But in Terror Runs on the Edge, Leona’s personal story immediately overlaps the plot about the imminent murder: where has her husband Henry ended up, who has not yet returned home from work, and what is the meaning of the strange information what does a certain Waldo Evans tell you on the phone?

Rear Window is 60 years old: all the secrets of the Hitchcock cult

Sorry Wrong Number

Terror Runs on the Wire: Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

Sorry Wrong Number Lancaster

Terror Runs on the Wire: An image of Burt Lancaster

The great challenge of Anatole Litvak’s film is played precisely on this very unusual approach: making the protagonist “passive”, to the point of confining her to the bed in her room, relying exclusively on her point of view and developing a complex mystery plot through the phone calls made or received by the woman in real time, over the course of almost ninety minutes of duration. From the conversations between Leona and the other supporting characters, a chain of flashbacks unfolds, recurring elements of noir, aimed at illustrating the different phases of the relationship between her and Henry, as well as reconstructing the events relating to the man’s mysterious disappearance. It is Henry who lends his face Burt Lancasterwho just two years earlier had made her debut in another noir classic, The Gangsters by Robert Siodmak, while dominating the scene in the role of Leona is the undisputed icon of the genre in question, Barbara Stanwyck.

Barbara Stanwyck in a landmark thriller

Sorry Wrong Number 2

Terror Runs on the Wire: Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster

After having embodied an archetype of a dark lady in 1944 in the crown jewel of noir, Billy Wilder’s In Flames, Barbara Stanwyck he had acted in it The strange love of Marta Ivers, The second Mrs. Carroll e The cry of the wolfalternating between heroine and da fatal Woman. But in Litvak’s film, the New York actress tries her hand at another type of character: an insecure woman, dominated by her own neuroses, whose propensity to give orders (the result of an upper-middle-class social background) gradually gives way to an increasingly devouring anguish. Terror runs on the wire it will prove to be one of the greatest successes in Stanwyck’s career and will earn her an Oscar nomination for best actress, thanks to an interpretation filled with various degrees of tension and enhanced by the frequent use of close-ups, with shots that frame Leona’s face leaning on the fateful handset on which the outcome of the evening will depend.

In Flames of Sin: How Billy Wilder Reinvented Film Noir

Sorry Wrong Number

Terror runs on the wire: an image by Barbara Stanwyck

Barbara Stanwyck

Terror runs on the wire: an image by Barbara Stanwyck

Marked by a fast pacebut still capable of outlining the twists and turns of the plot and deepening the bonds between the characters, Terror runs on the wire it certainly won’t be the only film to hinge suspense around the telephone: just remember two cult films from the Seventies, Black Christmas e When a stranger callsl’begins of Scream or the recent Black Phone; while the ‘radical’ approach of Litvak’s film, i.e. making the telephone the only vehicle of the story, would have been taken up in films such as In line with the killer, Buried – Sepolto and Locke. But several decades ahead of the aforementioned titles, Terror runs on the wire won a challenge that was anything but obvious, readapting the language of radio to that of cinema and making the most of dramaturgical potential still unexplored; with the result of having proposed a very particular thriller model which, to this day, remains unmatched.

Opentapes