Column: Summer Screams: “Sorry, Wrong Number” and Radio’s Outstanding Theater of Thrills

By Stephen Eldridge


A child wakes from a nightmare and runs to her parents. Teenagers seek each other out to brave a scary movie in a pack. A house is burgled, someone is injured, there’s smoke rising from a building, a little boy has gotten into the bottles under the sink – we have to call somebody! For centuries, humanity has been devising new ways to reach out and fight our isolation, to connect with each other in our times of need. For the past century, one of our most powerful lifelines has been the telephone. When we need information, when we need transportation, when we need food or help or just comfort, we pick up a phone.

It’s become de rigueur for scary stories to attempt to defeat the telephone. In horror fiction, every killer is versed in cutting phone lines and every mobile suffers from chronic battery failure. What’s more interesting is when a story uses the power of the telephone against us. In 1943, screenwriter Lucille Fletcher created Sorry, Wrong Number, one of the most acclaimed radio plays in American history. Writing for the classic radio program, Suspense, Fletcher subverted the telephone’s power to connect us, creating terror instead of comfort. Suspense was “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” presenting short audio dramas during the Golden Age of Radio. Though it would later go on to explore more fantastic subject matter, in its early years, it was a purveyor of hardboiled thrills of the kind popular in pulp novels and noir films. By far the best-remembered of these is Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number. Reprised seven times, adapted into a feature film and decades later into a TV movie, Sorry, Wrong Number grips you with its nightmare vision of how connection and disconnection can draw you into madness and murder.

The play’s protagonist is Mrs. Stevenson, alone in one of the world’s largest cities. Bedridden, she relies on her telephone to keep her connected to the outside world. The tone of her voice makes it clear that, in the words of Fletcher’s script, she is a “querulous, self-centered neurotic” – and, at the moment, she has some reason to be. It’s late at night, but her husband hasn’t yet returned home and his office line has been engaged for nearly an hour. In a final attempt to reach him, she dials the operator. The operator’s distant, almost robotic voice does little to comfort the high-strung Stevenson and, when a connection is finally made, matters become worse. Rather than the desperately-desired link to her husband, she finds herself on the line with two strangers – and bears silent witness as they plot a murder that just might be her own.

Mrs. Stevenson has been relying on her telephone to ease her frayed nerves, but, instead, it has shredded them. Now the question is whether the device that has put her in this terrifying position can also save her from it. Rather than presenting her audience with the lazy obstacle of more technical trouble to keep Mrs. Stevenson from reaching help, Fletcher’s screenplay ventures into deeper territory. The tension in the story comes from the simple truth that, just because a telephone allows two people to talk, it doesn’t necessarily allow them to communicate.

Already nervous, Mrs. Stevenson is now panicked. Redialing the operator, she is impatient and imperious, demanding the call be traced and the villains apprehended. Somehow, though, the horror of the situation doesn’t dent the operator’s calm. Mechanically following her required script, the operator does what is asked of her and no more, refusing to relate to Mrs. Stevenson in any way that might serve as reassurance. It’s here that the play begins to evoke a nightmare – the kind of nightmare that recalls Tantalus’ punishment in Hades, with a desperately-needed goal seemingly inches away, but always receding just out of reach. Stevenson is transferred from operator to supervisor to police and back to the operator. At each step, she finds someone who refuses to take her fears seriously. No matter how many people she reaches out to with her telephone, she simply fails to connect to any of them.

Much of the tension in the play comes from the superb work of Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Stevenson. Moorehead crafts a vivid character: frightfully nervous, yet demanding to the point of entitlement. There is something of the “only sane person in an insane world” trope to Mrs. Stevenson. With a murder in the offing, only she seems to be truly interested in saving an innocent woman’s life and butting heads with the implacably disinterested drives her toward nervous breakdown. Where a lesser, or more-self-conscious, actress might have tried to create an entirely sympathetic lead, Moorehead’s Mrs. Stevenson has a strident edge that keeps the other characters from seeming too cruel in their apathy. She’s sometimes calculating in using her infirmity to evoke sympathy and her steadily-building panic pushes her into verbal abuse of the people she’s relying on for help. Moorehead makes her character difficult without reducing her to a shrew or a one-dimensional victim.

Perhaps the best guarantee of immortality for Sorry, Wrong Number, however, is how intimately it’s tied to its medium. The story is adaptable enough – in fact, in 1948, screen legend Barbara Stanwyck brought Mrs. Stevenson (now granted the first name ‘Leona’) to life on film. What was necessarily sacrificed, though, was radio’s ability to draw you into the experience of Mrs. Stevenson’s phone calls. The radio play begins with the tones of the telephone dial and the story is told exclusively through the subsequent series of calls – exactly what you would hear if you were on the line with her. Whereas the film allows you to watch the action from multiple angles, the radio version keeps you locked into Mrs. Stevenson’s perspective. Like her, you’re overhearing a conversation without the power to respond. Like her, you find yourself tantalisingly close to a connection. And, like her, you are ultimately isolated, powerless to reach out and avert the terrible act you know is moments away.