Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)

US / 96 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Jean Negulesco Pr & Scr: Nunnally Johnson Story: I.A.R. Wylie Cine: Milton Krasner Cast: Shelley Winters, Gary Merrill, Michael Rennie, Keenan Wynn, Evelyn Varden, Warren Stevens, Beatrice Straight, Ted Donaldson, Craig Stevens, Helen Westcott, Bette Davis, Hugh Beaumont, Tom Powers.

Phonecall from a Stranger 0a opener

Phonecall from a Stranger 0b second opener of pair

Iowa lawyer David L. “Dave” Trask (Merrill) leaves his wife Janey (Westcott), plus their two daughters, to take a flight for LA to try to sort his head out; he can no longer live with her or the memory of the “little slip” she committed. He books himself on the plane under the name Joseph H. Collins so that Janey can’t track him down.

Phonecall from a Stranger 1 Janey reads Dave's goodbye note-

Janey (Helen Westcott) reads Dave’s goodbye note.

The weather’s appalling, and the flight suffers various delays. Dave becomes one of a disparate quartet of passengers thrown together by circumstances; the other three are

  • Binky Gay (Winters), aka Mrs. Bianca Carr, an actress, chanteuse and stripper, with greatest expertise in the latter sphere of entertainment, and also, despite her compulsive sassiness, a startlingly astute judge of people;

Phonecall from a Stranger 3 Dave reassures a terrified Binky

Dave (Gary Merrill) reassures a terrified Binky (Shelley Winters).

  • Dr. Robert “Bob” Fortness (Rennie), once a prominent young surgeon but now someone trying to patch himself up using booze; and

Phonecall from a Stranger 2 Bob hides his alcohol intake well

Bob (Michael Rennie) hides his alcohol intake well.

  • Edmund Vincent “Eddie” Hoke (Wynn), a traveling salesman in novelty goods whose dreadful jokes and boorish behavior inevitably repel those around him.

Phonecall from a Stranger 4 the photo of Marie

Eddie insists on showing everyone his candid shot of wife Marie (Bette Davis).

It’s Eddie who suggests the “Four Musketeers” should exchange contact details so they can stage reunions of their eventful flight together. But it isn’t to be, for the plane plows into the ground en route to its destination, leaving just three survivors.

Dave, who’s one of those three, determines to contact the families of the other Musketeers and try to do a little to put right some of the things that they confessed to him, before the crash, were wrong at home.

Bob Fortness, during the journey, retained Dave as a lawyer to represent him when he went to the DA to confess a crime. Five years ago, speeding to an emergency operation having had far too much to drink, Bob crashed his car, killing his friend and colleague Tim Brooks (an uncredited Beaumont) and two others; afterwards Bob lied that Tim had been the driver and his wife Claire (Straight, in her first screen role) covered his lie with one of her own. Ever since then he’s been drinking hard to compensate for the fact that, he’s sure, his beloved Claire must have lost all respect for him. Dave is able to convey to Claire that before his death her husband had decided to do the decent thing at last and admit his guilt, and is also able to reconcile Claire with her teenaged son Jerry (Donaldson), who has been blaming his mother for Bob’s drinking and death.

Phonecall from a Stranger 5 Claire tries to put on a brave face

Claire (Beatrice Straight) tries to put on a brave face.

Binky was heading home to husband Mike (Stevens) after a year’s absence during which she’d been trying and failing to build her own career. Mike, a crooner, works at the Club Carr with his mother, the old vaudeville star and bitch on wheels Sallie Carr (Varden). Sallie tells Dave her own, quite clearly fictional version of Binky’s departure for New York, with herself as a saintly, put-upon mother-in-law. Dave sees through this as the nonsense it is, so lies in return that Binky had just nailed down Mary Martin’s part in the Broadway production of South Pacific, to replace her when the star went to open the London production; moreover, Binky managed to get Sallie a part in the show as well. Afterwards Mike thanks Dave for the lie, for having given Binky the showbiz success she never achieved in life.

Phonecall from a Stranger 6 Sallie and Mike perform

Mother and son Sallie (Evelyn Varden) and Mike (Craig Stevens) perform.

Finally Dave visits Eddie’s widow Marie (Davis, who was at the time Merrill’s wife). During the night before the crash, Eddie pridefully showed around a photo of his babe of a wife clad in her swimsuit. What he didn’t mention was that she’s paralyzed from the waist down after a swimming accident incurred at a time when she’d run away from him with a younger, more refined lover, Marty Nelson (Stevens). Having learned the truth from Dr. Fernwood (an uncredited Powers), Nelson headed for the hills, leaving Marie in intensive care. It was there that Eddie found her, to declare his undying love for her and to take her home. Whatever other people thought of Eddie, Marie explains to Dave while still knitting what appears to be a last sock for her husband—his loudness, his tastelessness, his general ghastliness—to her he was the rock upon which her life was built.

Phonecall from a Stranger 7 Marie counsels Dave

Dave’s first sight of the bedridden Marie (Bette Davis).

Dave reads the obvious moral of Marie’s tale and phones Janey to ask if she’ll have him if he comes home . . .

Phone Call from a Stranger is one of a set of Hollywood movies that lie somewhere between an anthology and a more straightforward narrative—another is The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which assembled an equally stellar cast. We’re told the stories of Bob’s fatal crash and its aftermath and of Marie’s adulterous escapade and its aftermath through extended flashbacks, while Sallie Carr’s lie and Dave’s retaliatory lie are treated similarly. The latter two pseudo-flashbacks represent the only two sequences where the movie aims directly for laughs, treating both accounts as the tall tales they are. There are other moments of humor in the movie (for example, we’re given a list of the places where Marie and the despicable Nelson consummate their adultery: the Toddle Inn, the Crawl Inn, the Stagger Inn, the Meander Inn, the Hop Inn), but these shafts of sunlight are shortlived amid the general gloom.

The movie does manage to be genuinely moving, especially in its final act, as the bedridden Marie (even though Davis hams up the role a bit) manipulates Dave into making the right decision, that he should be “strong enough”, if he really loves Janey, to get past her affair. Some have accused the movie of being designed a little too clinically to tug on the heart strings, and this is undoubtedly true as well. A more noirish treatment of the theme is Identity Unknown (1945).

Phonecall from a Stranger 9 ... but Eddie's there for Marie

Eddie (Keenan Wynn) was always there for Marie (Bette Davis).

Johnson’s screenplay for Phone Call from a Stranger won the International Award at the 1952 Venice Film Festival, and Negulesco was nominated for the Golden Lion at the same event, but otherwise the movie went unrecognized by the various awards committees.


On Phone Call from a Stranger

19 thoughts on “Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)

  1. Probably this is one of the few films you’re bringing to our attention that I have seen. I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy to see it again, since I don’t remember it clearly.

    • I don’t remember it clearly

      I see JacquiWine says much the same thing, and I know I was in the same position before rewatching it a few months ago for the purposes of this entry. Maybe that’s the judgement of the movie: enjoyable to watch, genuinely moving in parts, but tends to slip from the memory.

    • recall enjoying it even if the details are somewhat fuzzy now

      As I’ve just been saying to Jose Ignacio, who made a similar remark:

      I was in the same position before rewatching it a few months ago for the purposes of this entry. Maybe that’s the judgement of the movie: enjoyable to watch, genuinely moving in parts, but tends to slip from the memory.

  2. Really fantastic, exhaustive review. I know Negulesco’s work very well, and have seen most of his films. Sad to say not this one though. In view of your recommendation I will definitely catch up with it.

  3. Nothing — and it’s more of a weepy than a melodrama. As I say in one of the sidebars,

    That’s why this enterprise has the title it has: Noirish. Many of the movies here are very borderline noir, and some aren’t noir at all but have associational interest.

    Anything that’s actual noir or even significant borderline noir should have gone into the encyclopedia. Inevitably, I’ve come across a few germane items since the publication of that book, and I’m including those here in a piecemeal fashion; same for a few neonoirs that have been released since the book appeared. But most of the movies covered on this site are in that fuzzy cloud that surrounds but isn’t a part of noir.

    This one interested me because of Davis and Rennie, and also because of its similarities to the much more noirish movie Identity Unknown, which probably should have been in the book.

  4. I have an audacious question: I’m working on a review of this film and I’d really like to “borrow” some of your images.

    1. Are you OK with me doing that?
    2. If so, how would you like to be credited? (I’ll be linking to this review regardless.)

    If you would rather I didn’t use your images, that is A-OK.

  5. Pingback: How Bette Davis Turned 18 Minutes into a Whole Movie – Silver Screenings

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