The Problem of the Speaking Woman:
The Spiral Staircase (1946), Blackmail (1929), Notorious (1946), Sorry , Wrong Number (1948)
The front parlor of a small hotel. Americana circa nineteen-aught-six. The audience faces the silver screen. A piano player accompanies the quaint melodrama. A young woman watches silently, enrapt. At this point we don't know that she is mute; the situation is one in which silence is natural and socially accepted. However, as the film we are watching proves, this is a primitive period in film, soon to be outgrown, left behind by the demands of progress. As the narrative will prove, the silent character like the silent film is an anomaly in a sound film. Both need to be brought up to snuff or snuffed out.
Upstairs, the camera moving past the chandelier and through the floor, we see a woman with a limp. She is being watched. Through the dresses in the closet we see an eye. It is all-seeing but itself unseen. As the crippled woman reaches her arms up through her dress, her fingers splay and the music strikes a jarring chord. She is murdered somewhere out of sight and out of frame by the possessor of the look.
As the downstairs Sunday picture-show ends, Helen (Dorothy McGuire) prepares to go. We find out that she is mute and that "afflicted" girls are being murdered by someone in town. She walks home, alone. After a few Gothic glimmers (sounds not quite hidden by the wind seem to follow her, a storm is coming), she arrives safely and rushes up the grand staircase to attend to her duties as nurse to the rich invalid woman who owns the great house.
Helen pauses on the landing to look at herself in the mirror. Suddenly we find we are back in the presence of the Eye. It is not "out there," but here, in the house. It stares at Helen with disturbing malevolence. Then we see her as the Eye sees her: a reflection in a mirror, a woman without a mouth. Through
benign special effects, and in the least disruptive way possible, her mouth has been wiped from her face. All that remains is a blur.
Since Laura Mulvey first identified the privileged relationship between the male spectator and the gaze in her article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975) feminists investigating the cinematic representation of women have struggled to find a means or an instance whereby the female spectator could be positioned as subject in classical Hollywood texts. One of the few options left, not accounted for by psychoanalytic approaches that privileged the male eye, was the sound track. And feminists soon began pondering the relationship of the one insignificant signifier to the Other.
The special applicability of feminist film work to the study of sound stems from feminism's situating itself among the structuring absences, amid concepts and processes culture and the film industry have deemed invisible or irrelevant. Annette Kuhn states that "the main focus of interest" in feminist film analysis is "the ways in which woman has been constituted as a set of meanings through processes of cinematic signification" (Kuhn 1982, p. 71). In terms that echo the concerns of sound-film theory, Kuhn argues that feminist film theory
has tended to premise itself largely on a notion of representation as mediated, as a social and ideological construct, an autonomous or relatively autonomous process of meaning production which does not necessarily relate immediately to or reflect unproblematically a "real" social world.
The concern then is . . . that of becoming sensitive to what often goes unnoticed, becomes naturalized, or is taken for granted. . . . The fundamental project of feminist film analysis can be said to centre on making the invisible visible.
(ibid., pp. 71, 73)
Or the silent audible.
In classical film, sound is conflated with the feminine. Sound itself, as a cinematic register, is "feminized," assigned the role of the perpetually supportive "acoustic mirror" that reenforces the primacy of the image and of the male gaze. Sound is made to point away from itself and back to the image and the narrative, while woman is made spectacle for the former and recuperated by the latter. Both sound and woman, in effect, have been made Echo to a vain and self-absorbed Narcissus. As such, they serve the very hegemony that restricts and defines how they can function.
The following films explicitly confront a woman's struggle to speak. In fact, it is the very difficulty of speaking that exemplifies women's speech under patriarchy. Despite the entrenchment of classical conventions that so effectively impede the possibility of female subjectivity, what continues to grow in significance is the ever-present potential of a break with classical representation within a given text. In all of the films I discuss here, woman's speech sparks a crisis within the texts that mirrors a corresponding breakdown within the dominant ideology. The alleged neutrality of sound technology comes under attack, its role in the patriarchal construction of woman exposed. When admitted to the narrative as a subject , sound's hidden status becomes paradoxically powerful as a signifier of the repression of that other potentially disruptive sign, the equally "silent, absent, and marginal" woman (Kaplan 1983, p. 34; see also pp. 36–48).
The term "woman's voice" condenses three issues: (1) the woman's physical voice, (2) her relationship to language or verbal discourse, and (3) her possession of authorial point of view. We have analyzed the voice's relationship to language in Sadie Thompson and Rain and shall examine the authorial voice in Chapter 6. While it is not possible to entirely separate out the voice from its verbal and visual cinematic context, this chapter will examine how the simple, physical ability to produce a sound is interrupted by specifically patriarchal pressures brought to bear on the women in these texts. In Blackmail and The Spiral Staircase , the women can't talk; in Notorious and Sorry, Wrong Number , they talk too much. Secondly, in all of these films to a greater or lesser degree, that natural ability is interrupted, made difficult, or condi-
tioned to a suffocating degree by sound technology itself. The Spiral Staircase and Sorry, Wrong Number illustrate in different ways the mixed blessing a telephone can be, with its false promises of greater security and its vaunted ability to ease painful isolation—issues of especial interest to women. In Notorious the phonograph purports to capture a woman's essential beliefs—but not to her benefit. In Blackmail it is the very recording process of sound film that fractures a woman's body and voice into irreconcilable pieces. Lastly, the textual association of man with the image and woman with sound accentuates the way cultural values associated with gender are assigned to cinema's image/sound hierarchy. These in turn "figure" the woman in sound film.
All four of the films we shall be considering problematize genre identification by combining elements of the woman's film and the suspense thriller. This merger in itself tells us what is at stake when the dominant ideology is disrupted or challenged; in all the films, it is the woman's fate (and her function) that is being held in suspense, while she hangs suspended between recuperation and death. Three of the four films fall within two years of each other (1946–48), at a point that is arguably the peak of the classical sound film period: The Spiral Staircase (1946), Notorious (1946), and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Blackmail , produced in England in 1929, is an early and illuminating predecessor indicating the subversive potential of sound in film and the critical nexus of woman and voice.
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Offhand, The Spiral Staircase belongs to the Gothic genre, one of the first "women's" genres. Gothics also include elements typical of the suspense thriller. If we take Jane Eyre as a model, we find the innocent, plucky heroine who is in some terrible, though undefined, danger. Despite her reduced social status as an orphan, the heroine, educated but poor (literally handicapped in The Spiral Staircase ), is efficient, reliable, intelligent, and valued by members of the family. The great house in which she lives is not her true home but rather the scene of her work. The house is a character itself, frequently a figure of menace, inasmuch as it shelters the person who threatens the heroine.
In The Spiral Staircase it is not only the house that shields the identity of the killer, but, more disturbingly, the cinematic institution. Three scenes in particular develop the complicity between the murderer and the cinematic. The opening scene hides the identity of the killer while endowing him with the authority of the look. When the unknown killer's eye "sees" Helen without a mouth, its point of view is temporarily allowed to subvert the normal codes of realism; these shots are marked, set apart from the "uncoded" shots in the film by being labeled as "subjective" and unreliable.
The unreliable authority given to the "eye" causes an imbalance in the cinematic system, undermining conventions of seeing/seen. The first time we see
the killer's eye watching the woman with the limp, the reverse shot that represents his vision is heavily distorted. The top of the image curves, echoing the shadows cast by the brass bed. The woman's body sways unnaturally under pressure of the wide-angle lens. As she raises her arms to put on her dress, the text cuts to a shot that purposely excludes the actor and the act. We see her hands; the murder is below. Her hands, in conjunction with the music, are a heavily coded sign of victimization. They clutch at the air, signaling the violence being visited on their owner, but they are useless for defense. This shot, undistorted and clear, with the authority of an omniscient enunciator, preserves the identity of the killer—even the method of murder—and is merely the first indication that the visual track will be instrumental in obscuring his identity.
In the next and most famous point-of-view shot in the film, we see what the eye sees—the mouthless woman—and are made to share in what is marked as a "perverted" vision. These shots are again an aberration within a classical organization, the use of special effects making possible a frisson of horror and loathing not merely at the sight of a mouthless woman (presented as a monstrous deformity) but at the realization that we are inextricably implicated in the killer's point of view, his "way of looking."
The mixture of horror and recognition is striking. Because the character who sees woman as possessor of the "lack" is a disturbed, psychopathic killer, the film marks his point of view as dangerous and to be resisted. While the text exposes the woman's lack (the killer's "look" shrieks, "Women are castrated!"), it simultaneously enacts and rejects the male character's logical next step: removal of the castrated woman because she is seen as a threat to the male.
The French critic Marc Vernet once said half-seriously, "The most important contribution of psychoanalysis has been to furnish a new alibi for the structure of the American narrative film" (quoted in Altman 1985, p. 526), and The Spiral Staircase is very much a post–World War II American Freudian text. The killer's anxiety about his masculinity is the narrative's excuse for his fear of "maimed" women, and of Helen in particular. We first see Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) literally in a closet, surrounded by frilly dresses. His "latent" homosexuality marks him as an emasculated, castrated man, analogous to the women he must kill in order to preserve his precarious grip on his masculine identity. As in many works of this period, the troubled male has an overbearing, overly dependent mother, played here by Ethel Barrymore, Hollywood's grand matriarch throughout the forties. (Seemingly on her deathbed, she states: "Nobody told me. Nobody had to. I always know everything.") Professor Warren's late father could not tolerate signs of weakness. "He always used to say, 'The strong survive, the weak die,'" his brother Steven tells Albert. "Neither of us fitted his concept of what a real man should be—a gun-totin', hard-drinking, tough-living, God-fearing citizen." It was
the powerful stepmother, Mrs. Warren, who accompanied Dad hunting. The sons could never compete with her "unfeminine" prowess with a gun.
Although Professor Warren's literal point of view is stylistically isolated, the murderer's Oedipal hysteria seems to be shared to a large extent by the text. Whenever the "eye" presents us with the killer's "distorted" point of view, the filmic organization—the image track, most noticeably—undergoes an equivalent crisis. The power of the Eye is so great, it not only momentarily controls what we see, "its" point of view drowns out the sound track. The preservation of the tinkling piano heard from far away in the room of the first victim fades under the pressure of the Eye's "vision." Non-diegetic strings join the now discordant piano on the sound track. A choir fades up, only the disjointed moans of the victim remaining audible. The film's refusal to confront the implications of seeing "what cannot be seen" (a practice that apparently drives one to psychosis and is only narratively possible when the murderer is present) leads to a breathtaking declaration of disavowal in the next murder.
Brother Steven's fiancée, Blanche, is the only woman in the film who is ostensibly normal. She is neither a servant, a drunk, nor physically or mentally disadvantaged. She is pretty (played by Rhonda Fleming) and works as a confidential secretary, "a suitable job" for a middle-class woman. Her only conceivable flaw (and the one cited by Professor Warren when he explains why he killed her) is that she is an intelligent articulate woman who actively pursues her own sexual desires. When Steven won't marry her, she wastes no time mourning and industriously packs to leave. "I didn't realize you were so strong," Steven responds.
Going down to the cellar to find her trunk, with only a candle for light, Blanche hears a noise and turns. She sees someone she knows but becomes frightened at the person's strange demeanor. The woman's look does not "see," it cannot authorize a reverse shot or point-of-view shot, particularly in situations of stress such as this (Williams 1984, Doane 1984). The woman stares "madly" at what she fears, yet her look is merely the symbol of her impotence with regard to the cinematic system. We cut to a single eye, circled by light. This cannot be Blanche's point of view because it matches the shots we've seen before with the special use of light and shadow to separate the eye from the face. The killer's look can authorize a point-of-view shot, and, as before, the choir fades in on the sound track, the camera dollies in on his eye, and we now cut to what he sees: a visually distorted, subjective shot of Blanche, staring wildly at the camera as she backs away in fear. The shot is a superimposition—she is literally surrounded by an image of an eye. Behind her, the world seems to melt and flow downward. Again, the text cuts to a non-subjective shot: a gloved hand in the foreground, ready to strike; Blanche, much smaller in the background, cowers against a wall. She does not scream.
The hand smashes the candle, and the frame is slashed by shadow. On the left and the right, we can see Blanche's hands, gripping the wall. Her body is swallowed in the darkness. We hear her gasp and moan as her hands slide down the wall. By now we know the manner of death is strangulation, a point especially chilling in relation to Helen (already rendered mute) and to the speaking woman in general.
But where is the killer? The shot is a long shot. Logically there is no way we could be watching from this angle if it were seen by the killer and no way we could fail to see his back in an "objective" shot—except that the entire central section of the frame has been blotted out. The diegesis makes no effort to supply an internal justification for the shadow cutting across the center of the frame; the only source of light, the candle, has been extinguished.
The sexual connotations of the murder, the attack as rape, as literal extinction of the woman, might account for the impression of censorship associated with masking parts of the frame. But by hiding Blanche's body and what is happening to her, the shot accentuates the degree of violence, calling attention to it as censorship tends to do. Another possible explanation is that this is the killer's view of the murder, with his own presence torn away, his authority so strong that it momentarily exceeds the narrative and disrupts the camera's ability to see. But the killer doesn't need to exceed the narrative. The visual system has obscured his identity from the beginning.
In this single shot, the cinematic signifier forfeits its ability to claim authorial distance from the killer's point of view. In a brazen revelation of the enunciation, the center of the frame is ripped away, the woman reduced to nothingness, the camera obliterating her as fiercely as it shields him.
Early in the film, Helen accepts a buggy ride from a handsome young doctor (Kent Smith). In a scene that verges on parody, the doctor is forced to carry the entire conversation himself, awkwardly providing expository dialogue about Helen's past (on the order of "I know seeing your parents burned alive must have been traumatic and your inability to scream then has lead to this silence"). By her silence, Helen allows the doctor to position her in ways that appeal to him.
However, as long as her true feelings about the doctor and the past are held in reserve, and as long as she refuses to obey those who insist she speak, the danger looms that this seemingly pathetic silence might be a cover for rebellion. Her silence is what makes her inscrutable and a source of obsession for the other characters and the audience. The problem of woman's insistent silence is that it acts as a goad to, an overt expression of, even an accusation against patriarchal society's deafness to women's discourse.
In the male/eye, female/mouth dichotomy, a woman's voice, her ability to speak, is figured as the corollary of his eyes. Helen's mutism is a lack she can overcome, but she can only do so within the narrative by assuming her ap-
proved social role as "woman"—helpless, grateful, and dependent. The engine driving the narrative and providing the suspense is whether or not Helen will recover her ability to speak in time to save herself from the unseen killer who stalks her. Vocally, this is represented in the text by screaming. In classical texts, women are supposed to scream; it can signify sexual arousal, victimization, helplessness, death, or act as the hero's cue. In fact, it is as unusual for women not to scream as it is for men to resort to vocal expressions of fear. (Perhaps this is because women recognize their position in culture with horror, while men seldom see "the horror"—or else, as in this case, they are the horror.)
And in fact she does recover the ability to speak when she screams. As the professor (another kind of doctor) explains his revulsion and his intention to kill Helen too, she cowers, but cannot speak. Just then his invalid, masculine mother, assuming the power of the father, aborts her abnormal, effeminate stepson by shooting him. This unexpected display of female power (a coupe de mère ) evidently so shocks Helen that she forgets she can't speak and does what "comes naturally"; she screams. Helen rushes to the telephone and finally assumes her proper place—on her knees, calling the doctor for help.
E. Ann Kaplan summarizes the feminist debate on the political implications of women's silence. Using Lacanian concepts of language, "it follows that if language is by definition 'male,' women who speak it are alienated from themselves" (Kaplan 1983, p. 93). Silence, then, seems the only alternative. However, "a real contradiction faces women: as long as they remain silent . . . 'they will be outside of the historical process'" (ibid., quoting Xaviere Gauthier). Because of this, "it is dangerous" to adopt silence as a response and so "accept women's exclusion from the symbolic realm," Kaplan observes. "Silence seems at best a temporary, and desperate, strategy, a defense against domination, a holding operation, rather than a politics that looks toward women's finding a viable place for themselves in culture" (ibid., pp. 102, 103).
How women are to confront language, to speak in their own voices, is not addressed in the fundamentally conservative Spiral Staircase . The mother is left having negated her motherhood, so exhausted by the effort as to be on the verge of death. Helen learns to scream, accedes to language, and is thus recuperated into her role as dependent, helpless, soon-to-be wife.
In the even more interesting Blackmail , patriarchal culture is indicted with the exposure of its intentional suppression of the woman's voice. Although it was made seventeen years before the other films discussed in this chapter, Blackmail provides an illuminating second "take" on the traumatized, silent woman. The dis-synchronization of the female character's image and voice
and her problematic relation to language are the central issues of nearly every scene in Hitchcock's first sound film.
The most striking manifestation of the heroine's visual/aural fragmentation lies in the dubbing of the lead character, Alice White, marking the material conditions of post-sync sound in the transitional period as crucial to the issue of the representation of the woman. The decision to dub the central female character was made by Hitchcock and the British producers. Anny Ondra, a silent film star in England, had a heavy Czech accent. Dubbing was a common solution in the earliest days of sound for studios and producers whose success in the years prior to sound had depended to a great extent on foreign actors. Although audiences knew these players were foreign (a great deal of publicity having established this as part of their "other-worldly" personas), in silent films an actress like Ondra was free to play either a foreign princess or the girl next door. In sound films, accents locked such stars into "exotic" roles at a time when vamps and sheiks were distinctly out of fashion. The desire to hear everyday speech, slang, and the vernacular created new stars in America and was felt in England as well. "Hear our Mother Tongue as it should be Spoken," a British poster for Blackmail proclaims (Barr 1983). Consequently a "woman," in effect, was constructed according to the production team's idea of what a woman should be—half agreeable appearance, half acceptable accent. The desire to dub Ondra was therefore in response to a cultural/realist demand ("local English girls don't talk like that") and the subsequent economic demand (the public wouldn't "buy" a Czech "posing" as a Chelsea shopgirl).
The technical limitations of the day made accurate lip-syncing virtually impossible. While Ondra mouthed the words, a second actress, Joan Barrie, spoke the dialogue offscreen. The failure of synchronization between lips and words makes a present-day audience constantly aware of the process of synchronization, taken for granted in every other sound film and ostensibly the "talkie's" reason for being.
The dubbing of Alice is a literal example of what Rick Altman calls sound cinema's ventriloquism. In arguing against the alleged "redundancy" of sound and image, Altman states that the two have a "complementary relationship whereby sound uses the image to mask its own actions" and vice versa. "Far from undermining each other, . . . each track serves as mirror for the other. . . . the two are locked in a dialectic where each is alternately master and slave to the other." Through this illusion of wholeness, untained by the "scandal" of a mechanical source, the "myth of cinema's unity—and thus that of the spectator" is perpetuated (Altman 1980b, p. 79).
The failure of synchronization fragments the unified subject created by successful synchronization by revealing the material heterogeneity underlying the sound film. It exposes "Alice," the character with whom the audience would usually identify, as a (re)production, a composite made up from several
sources. Because the convention of synchronization is designed to make lip-syncing seem "natural" and easy, the actress's painfully apparent exertions to say one word "right," in perfect sync, break down illusions of smoothness, as well as interfering with spectator identification. The spectator is denied the specular and auditory pleasure realized in simply watching an image appear to "speak." In being dubbed—and badly at that—Alice becomes a voiceless Echo, betraying the inadequacy of the image, its nature as shadow, and the vague threat of a voice that is not fixed, not fully secured to the narrativized image.
It is difficult to say whether audiences in 1929 were as intolerant of lapses in synchronization as contemporary audiences. Accepting that "meanings are not fixed and limited for all time within a text," and that "it is likely that they will be read in different ways at different times and places" (Kuhn 1982, p. 94), and rather than try to recapture whatever phenomenological impact Blackmail might have had upon its audience in 1929, the following analysis is
an attempt to read the film according to contemporary issues: the ways in which woman is positioned by cinematic processes of signification, and the function of the sound track in this process.
Although 1929 was rather late for a "first" sound film, the delay enabled Hitchcock to produce an advanced meditation on the possible uses of sound. The text incorporates silent footage (lifted whole from the original silent version, made immediately prior to the sound version), which allows for a series of comparisons/contrasts between sound and silents/silence. The conceit of this early sound film is an attempt to keep a man silent (paying off a blackmailer). The heroine spends over a third of the film virtually speechless. When she finally speaks, her boyfriend urges her to keep quiet. The dialogue is laughably banal, yet the right word can cut like a knife. The opening scene, an exciting silent chase, is immediately contrasted with a poorly dubbed, confusingly cut dialogue scene that seems as if it will never end. But before we glibly assume silents were "better" movies, sound becomes a moral force, while silence is linked with corruption and moral lassitude.
The text's position on "sound plus image" versus "image alone" is carefully paralleled with the depiction of Alice. Thematically, she veers from one extreme to the other. She is introduced as a chatterbox. After a violent assault, she becomes almost catatonic. Finally, she accepts speech as a moral imperative, achieving maturity and the audience's respect before slipping back under patriarchal control and enforced silence. Alice White becomes Hitchcock's personification of the course the sound film must take.
After the opening scene, detailing an arrest, Frank, a Scotland Yard detective, meets his girlfriend, Alice, back at the station. Totally caught up in his work, Frank explains why he's late by telling Alice that the great (male) machinery of the Yard cannot be rushed for a woman. As they walk outside, Alice begins to giggle. Frank asks what she is thinking about, but she keeps it to herself. In another context, Mary Ann Doane describes the result of such a construction: "The voice displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible: the 'inner life' of the character" (in Weis and Belton 1985, p. 168). Already the sound marks Alice's voice as the signifier of an inner woman inaccessible to Frank.
At dinner, Alice is again dissatisfied with Frank. His idea of a good time is to see a movie about Scotland Yard, called Fingerprints . (Fingerprints, incidentally, like the silent film image, are visually perceptible physical imprints, whose alleged ability to indicate guilt or innocence would prove totally inadequate in the case we are about to see.) An artist, on the other hand, has sent her a note saying that he is waiting to see her . While Frank is clearly the force of order (safe, secure, predictable), the artist attracts Alice with a bohemian quality that suggests he is outside Victorian expectations and constraints. Yet Alice has trouble deciding. Verbally, all she does is equivocate. Frank, exasperated, walks out (making her choice for her), and she leaves with the artist.
In his apartment, the artist seems unhurried, kind, and enjoys Alice's company. However, this scene is gradually revealed as a series of subtly graded attempts by the male character to control both the female's image and her speech. Alice draws a face that could be either male or female. The artist, controlling her hand, adds a sexy female body. Alice toys with the idea of putting on a fancy dress and asks if it will fit. She may sound a little silly, but she clearly feels free to try new things. He urges her to try on the dress while he plays the piano. Hitchcock indulges/accuses his/our voyeurism as she undresses behind a black screen but remains visible to the camera. This creates a split-screen effect. Alice looks like an idea in the artist's mind, a projection of white on black, a silent image to his "all-singing, all-talking" one. He sings a song about the twenties' "wild youth" ("There's no harm in you, Miss of Today") and when Alice steps out, he informs her, "That's you," defining her in the lyrics of the song. While Alice takes dressing up as part of her adventure, one of the possibilities opening up to her, the artist uses it as an excuse to kiss her, implying that her willingness to experiment with her image shows that she has in fact agreed to accept the image he has given her. The kiss upsets Alice, and she wants to leave, but the artist dominates her further by witholding her dress. Finally, he physically drags her out of the frame despite her reluctance. He terms her objections "silly."
The series of uninterrupted, static long takes in the scene leading up to the rape give Alice's exchanges with the artist an unstructured quality noticeably absent from the stilted restaurant scene with Frank. The limited camera movement in contrast to the acoustic "opening up" (the use of music and verbal wit) allows the characters constantly to experiment with their positions, increasing the sense of freedom. Alice's being forced by modesty to retreat behind a screen to change her dress underscores the psychological progression of the scene by indicating to us that she isn't as free as she thinks she is and that the open apartment could become a trap.
Charles Barr compares this scene with its counterpart in the silent version of Blackmail (apparently released only in Britain). The silent version of the scene in the artist's studio has eight shots and two titles, both of the artist addressing Alice: "Alice" and "I've got it" (when she is looking for her dress). As Barr describes it, "The silent sequence, then, is based on montage, reverse-field cutting and mobility of the camera and viewpoint; the sound sequence has none of these." He disagrees with "Rotha's 1929 verdict that the silent version was infinitely better by virtue of 'the action having its proper freedom.'" Barr argues that as "post-Bazin era" spectators, "we have more 'freedom' watching the sound sequence" (Barr 1983, p. 124). While the spectator/auditor's "freedom" is, of course, constrained in both versions, the sound version offers a greater potential ambiguity in attributing psychological motivation to the two characters.
The series of shot / reverse shot alternations reproduced in the stills accompanying Barr's article resemble classic melodrama, intimating an impend-
ing "fate worse than death." This construction is so much a part of the "damsel in distress" silent film that the next shot could well reveal Frank and the Mounties riding to the rescue. The use of the long take in the sound version, with Alice unwittingly trapped in a large empty set that invites her to feel free, and where any choice she makes is ultimately revealed as having been the wrong choice, is finally more claustrophobic and threatening than the looming close-ups of a sinister Cyril Ritchard as the artist cut opposite high angle shots of a cowering Alice. The sound version is a more subtle achievement, with the bright and inviting apartment of the easy-going artist changing imperceptibly into a suffocating enclosure.
Up to this point, Alice's words have had little individual impact. Her dialogue has consisted of clichés, slang phrases, and expressions of indecisiveness indicating that she doesn't know her own mind. Ironically, when she definitely says "No," it is discounted. The futility of her discourse, her attempt to establish an independent identity in the face of male domination is now forcefully introduced. By cutting to a static long shot of a draped bed, Hitchcock eliminates the image's ability to tell us simple facts of plot or action. The only movement is Alice's hand, fingers flexing against the air, literally unable to come to grips with the assault taking place.
With the visual obstruction of the action, the spectator must rely on the sound track for information. Alice screams, "No! Let me go!" over and over, her voice the only instrument that keeps her from being absorbed into the oblivion represented by her invisibility. However, her words are ignored; her attacker doesn't listen; the policeman outside is oblivious; Hitchcock doesn't spare her. Alice is forced either to allow herself to be victimized or else resort to violence. The music is suddenly brought in at full volume as Hitchcock returns action to the image with a cut to a close-up of Alice's hand finding the knife that will free her.
The trauma that occurs in this scene and that must be worked through for the rest of the film is the separation of image-track and sound track. Alice is stratified; she becomes a silent image or (as in the rape scene) a disembodied voice. The question the film raises is whether or not it is possible to reunite image and voice, the very question film itself was facing in the early sound era. As long as Alice occupies the two irreconcilable extremes—silence and screaming—she remains powerless. The question dramatically posed by the rest of the narrative ("When will she speak?") implies the text's resolution of her verbal impotence/catatonia: mature speech unified with her image. However, as we shall see, the wholeness and potency associated with the synchronization of image and voice are ultimately denied to Alice, who cannot bring herself to speak at the right time and whose voice is (literally) never her own.
The power of words, when wielded by others, is imposed on Alice at breakfast the next morning, when she is presumably in the bosom of her family. As Alice sits down, a local gossip relates in gory detail the horrible "mur-
der" that has occurred. The near-monologue fades to a murmur while the word "knife" is amplified, sharpened. The blurring/accenting functions as audio "point of view," a famous use of subjective sound.
The manipulation of the sound track is augmented by the use of standard point-of-view construction in an alternation of shots of Alice staring avidly before her and close-ups of a breadknife. The combination of image and sound track develops a clear, even overemphasized, depiction of Alice's psychological state and of the relationship between knives and her efforts at control. She used the first knife to regain control of her environment and stop the attack; here, she unconsciously tries to deny she ever had control of the original knife by suddenly flinging the breadknife to the floor. Sound functions here as the representation of moral consciousness, reflecting on and deepening the meaning of the earlier action/image.
At this point in a classical Hollywood film, the hero would enter and take over—speaking for the heroine, protecting her, explaining situations, devising scenarios, and verbally controlling the world for both of them. However, Hitchcock insists on Alice's discourse. Although she is often speechless, instead of turning to the detective to relate the "truth" and take charge, Hitchcock makes us wait for Alice. Frank has been assigned to investigate the "murder" of the artist. He finds Alice's glove at the scene and goes to ask her what it means. As Frank impatiently waits, Alice (center of the frame) plays with her sweater, looks away and shakes her head. No music fills the space. We are left with a silence that is consequently all the more uncomfortable for character and audience.
Thus the dramatic structure of the film has been transformed. The suspense now rests entirely on Alice's asserting her version of events, her discourse, the truth. This is the need established in the audience, which must now be satisfied. Instead of wondering, "Who done it?" we ask, "When will she speak?"
But Alice finds it extremely difficult to speak except in the near-nonsensical utterances of a young lady at tea. A blackmailer who had seen Alice and the artist together outside the artist's apartment arrives and tries to blackmail Alice and Frank. Attracting the attention of Alice's parents, he brazenly invites himself to breakfast. With all eyes on her, all Alice can manage to blurt out after the fact is "Would you stay for breakfast?"—clearly inadequate to the tense situation, but for the moment all she can handle.
Kaplan points out the inadequacy of language to express crises common to the lives of women. The character Norah in Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia is in a situation similar to Alice's: an attempted date-rape resulting in the woman's seemingly killing the man in self-defense.
Norah's inability to "remember" or to say what actually happened represents the common experience of women in patriarchy—that of feeling unable to reason well because the terms in which the culture thinks are male and alien.
Women in patriarchy do not function competently at the level of external public articulation and thus may appear "stupid" and "uncertain."
(Kaplan 1978b, p. 85; italics added)
This encapsulates Alice's position as well, and might account for some of the hostile reactions to her character in writing on Blackmail .
Just as the artist would not concede Alice control of her image or validity to her speech, Frank also tries to suppress her. Far from helping Alice overcome her fear of speech, when she succeeds in getting out a word, Frank snaps, "Don't interfere." It's her life, but it's his job, which from the beginning has taken precedence over Alice. Visually, Frank and the blackmailer work together, surrounding Alice or forcing her to the edges of the frame. Dramatically, the men are engaged in an effort to keep Alice's actions secret.
Where the standard film detective's goal is to find and thus establish for us the "truth," here Frank knows the truth. His job has become to suppress it in deference to a greater goal—the Victorian patriarchal control of women's sexuality. In this case, it is preserving the illusion of control while ushering Alice back into the fold that counts. After all, what Frank is protecting Alice (and society) from is the public admission that she chose her own male companion and assumed the authority to say whether or not she would have sex.
Formally, the respective moral sensitivities of Frank and Alice are linked to cinema. Codes of silent and sound film are made to interrogate each other, each representing the two characters who are at odds with each other, Frank and Alice. While it might seem that Frank, earlier so dedicated to the Yard and police procedure, would have scruples about hiding evidence, Hitchcock (never a fan of the police) reveals that he has surprisingly few hesitations. To keep things quiet, Frank considers paying blackmail. He finds it more appealing to frame an innocent man than to seek justice. Frank's job is redefined; he is not supposed to find the truly guilty but to maintain law and order, the status quo, appearances. Caught in his failure to control Alice, Frank simplifies the situation. He accuses the ex-convict blackmailer of the "murder." Forced to run, the man dies in the chase.
Police procedure is characterized throughout the film as a silent film chase. The pursuit of the wrongly accused man refers us back to the opening scene, which used the same set of silent film conventions. Through the comparison we can now recognize the lack of moral thoroughness that results when action (visual only) proceeds without verbal (moral) qualifiers; the power of force is celebrated over the power of reflection, appearances over truth. In the opening scene, the police push their way into the room of a man who looks typically "criminal" (unshaven, surly). Suspenseful music reminiscent of that in silent film melodramas is laid over the visuals, while ambient sounds and speech are removed. When the man is arrested, however, his neighbors object and crowd around the police. Who is this man? What is the charge? What do we the audi-
ence know about him except the stereotype of the silent film thug? The image shows us the surface, but we never do find out the purpose or justness of the arrest. The haste to judge on the basis of appearances foreshadows the end of the film's second chase. The wrong man dies in a mindless, impurely motivated chase, persecuted by the police because it is convenient for the police. They pursue the matter no further. Once the action has been carried out, they wash up and go home (as in the first scene).
The framing of the blackmailer is the dilemma that forces Alice to break her silence. The chase is intercut with Alice sitting at a table, troubled by her conscience. She writes a note, refusing to participate through her silence in what amounts to a lynching. She writes that she must "speak up" to save "this poor man." However the crosscutting reveals that her efforts are too little and too late. As the blackmailer is about to shout the true identity of the killer, he falls to his death.
Alice arrives at the police station ready to speak. The station is a male cloister, where a woman must apply to the doorman in writing (!) for admission. The sergeant, who recognizes Alice as Frank's girl, laughs at the thought of a young lady knowing anything about a "murder." Alice is led to the chief inspector's office. Frank arrives to "rescue" her by preventing her from carrying out her plan. As she struggles to choose the right words, Frank interrupts to tell the chief that what she has to say can't be important. The chief interrupts her by taking a call in the middle of her statement.
The dialogue warns us that Alice is doomed to fail. She is still unable to finish a sentence. She stutters, repeats herself, announces that she is about to say something and generally prevaricates. The space between sound and image remains a chasm. She has not been able to unite image and voice. On the contrary, if Alice wants to keep her "good" image, she has to keep silent and let Frank usher her out of the room. Where Frank, the chief, and the sergeant take it for granted that speaking moves straightforwardly along pre-set male-controlled channels of meaning, Alice is completely incapable of making the words serve or even accord with her intentions when she is called to account for herself to the male head of the law. Her attempt to speak has failed and she is hustled away.
Out in the hall, Alice breaks down and tells Frank her actions were in self-defense, but what she says clearly does not matter. Out of convenience, the forces of law and order have blamed a dead man. Frank has returned Alice to her constrained place within patriarchy. She has been forced to submit herself to the judgment of the police, to "confess" her "crime," and her confession has been totally contained by the system. Alice's story is dismissed (the real truth) and she is turned over, in effect, to Frank's custody.
Standing between Frank and the sergeant, Alice is literally surrounded by the police. "Next they'll be having lady inspectors," the sergeant jokes. Alice
joins in the laughter. She is back in line and won't step out again. Another policeman takes the artist's painting of a clown to be filed away. The leering, pointing clown reminds Alice to look at herself. She stops laughing.
In Blackmail , maturity comes at the cost of innocence. Alice resumes her place in patriarchy, but has to acknowledge that she is neither innocent nor free. Frank succeeds in containing Alice, but is forced to compromise his duty and any idealism in favor of maintaining appearances. Frank and Alice are painfully aware of the price of socialization. The recognition of the workings of patriarchy and language precludes a romantically happy ending. Alice and Frank are fragmented and must confront that what society holds they should be is actually very far from what they are. The end only increases their disintegration. Their images are false and they are struck dumb.
In many ways the relationship between sound and the woman in Hitchcock's Notorious is the exact opposite of that found in Blackmail , produced seventeen years earlier. The sound design flawlessly adheres to classical conventions governing sound. Far from being dubbed, the film's sound track devotes special attention to the synchronization of the image and voice of leading lady Ingrid Bergman. Despite a certain wariness regarding issues of feminine specificity in connection with the voice, the function of the woman's voice, even when contained by classical sound conventions, is far from simplistic. In fact, in this film, the woman's voice is presented with such fervor, approaching reverence, that it becomes almost an audio-fetish, the voice of the star as a new source of cinematic spectacle. And in a scene that serves as the turning point of the narrative, the woman's control of her voice is radically undermined when the technology of sound recording is exposed as a male prerogative.
The voice is an integral part of the star system, and Ingrid Bergman's accent was an important part of her persona. Doane notes that "the voice serves as a support for the spectator's recognition and his/her identification of, as well as with, the star" (Weis and Belton 1985, p. 164). Bergman's lilting Swedish accent was publicized and frequently accounted for in the roles she played. In her first English-speaking role in the remake of Intermezzo (1939), Bergman's accent, combined with her wholesome, well-fed looks, lent her a "farmer's daughter" quality of openness that contrasted favorably with the wan upperclass angst of the British Leslie Howard and Edna Best. (It would be interesting to compare the English language version of Intermezzo with the original, in which everyone spoke Swedish and where Bergman would have been more "the girl next door" and less the "innocent abroad.") Bergman's shining persona was very popular and, packaged as innocence, was worked
into Casablanca (1942), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), and Joan of Arc (1948).Notorious invokes Bergman's accent more complexly and the question of whether her accent is good becomes a central concern of the film.
Michael Renov (1980, p. 30) suggests that the central issue of the film turns on the labeling of Alicia Huberman as "notorious"—"the key term" in the narrative's "enunciation of sexual difference." In addition to the dubious moral accuracy of Alicia's "notoriety," there is the question of her "virtue" as defined by the war. Can she be trusted politically as well as sexually? Or, put another way, will she harness her sexuality in service to the government and ultimately to male-dominated monogamy? This question is constantly posed subliminally by Bergman's accent as the film's narrative works to uncover the persistent presence of the "enemy" in the immediate postwar period. The carefully enunciated "Huberman" (rhymes with über Mann ) sounds suspiciously Teutonic. The film's only explanation of Alicia's accent occurs at the precise moment when the question of who she is—a Nazi or a "real" American—hangs in the balance. While the answer is being worked out at the narrative level, her accent continually marks her as "other."
The dialogue, combined with several striking close-ups, repeatedly directs our attention to the star's voice as well as her accent. In the opening scenes, Alicia is drunk and slurring her words. She hesitates before choosing a word, then rushes on. The resulting slightly unpredictable rhythm, the alternation of blurry, then precise, enunciation, exacts an extra attentiveness toward Alicia's dialogue. In comic scenes, her use of everyday slang becomes an amusing surprise considering the source is a suspected foreign spy. At one point Alicia dismisses a love song by saying, "It's a lot of—hooey." Her unsteady negotiations around English parallel her unsteady walk in the drunk scenes, as well as signifying the character's psychological confusion.
The use of internal rhymes, alliteration, and repetition in the dialogue emphasizes the musicality of Bergman's voice, stressed particularly in the romantic scenes.
I'm happy. Why won't you let me be happy?
Why won't you believe in me, Dev. Just a little. Why won't you?
Oh darling, tell me what you didn't tell them.
In these scenes the sound is sculpted, intimate tones amplified, private, but clearly available to the audience. Bergman's voice is brought forward in the mix, placed in strong relief to the background sounds so that there is literally nothing else to hear.
In Notorious , what is out of place, a scandal to patriarchal control, is the speaking sexual woman. Alicia's control of her voice represents control of her sexuality. In the opening scene, the government agent Devlin's (Cary Grant) point of view is undermined by Alicia's cynical, sarcastic wisecracks. Despite
her occasionally uncertain enunciation, Alicia's constant talk and movement dominate the scene. In marked contrast, the male romantic lead is introduced with the back of his head to the camera, a mere spectator at Alicia's wild party. The apparent undercutting of the male's point of view is part of Hitchcock's "continuous manipulation of the most disruptive elements of classical cinema," Renov asserts (1980, p. 30), but through a "complex system of projection and fragmentation" (supported by a classically "gendered system of spectatorship"), the patriarchal (negative) characterization of the woman as that dangerous object of desire (rather than desiring subject) is consolidated and reenforced.
Janet Bergstrom argues that in Hitchcock's films "the woman's desire is the central problem or challenge for the male protagonist." The narrative reduces the threat posed by the woman through the process of fetishization, "the pleasure of seeing the woman's body in pieces," which becomes "a guarantee of the safety (coherence, totality) of the man's" (1979, p. 53). In Notorious , Alicia is deconstructed as a speaking woman and re-presented as an object of visual and auditory pleasure.
After spending an evening with a bitter and drunken Alicia, Devlin proposes that she volunteer to assist the government—the "cops" she "detests." She leaves the room, uninterested. He takes a phonograph record he has brought with him and plays it. It is a recording of a conversation between Alicia and her father, a convicted Nazi spy now in prison. While we hear Mr. Huberman urging Alicia to help the Nazis, we see a shot of the doorway to Alicia's room. Slowly she steps into the doorway in the center of the frame. Distractedly brushing her hair, she listens to her own voice proclaiming her patriotism. Devlin enters the shot, joining her in the doorway. They stand facing forward and listen to the diegetic voice-over.
Watching Alicia listen, the audience is presented with a fragmented woman, stratified evidence that in its very construction invites reevaluation of the character of Alicia. "If the ideology of the visible demands that the spectator understand the image as a truthful representation of reality, the ideology of the audible demands that there exist simultaneously a different truth and another order of reality for the subject to grasp," Doane observes (Weis and Belton 1985, p. 55). Alicia's asynchronous voice, captured on a hidden phonograph, is narrativized as revealing her "true" feelings. The voice-over effect as Alicia and Devlin listen ideologically positions the dialogue as representing a deeper, previously hidden level of truth. "The voice displays what is inaccessible to the image, what exceeds the visible: the 'inner life' of the character. The voice here is the privileged mark of interiority" (ibid., p. 168).
Devlin positions Alicia as a patriotic woman. When she objects in person, he whips out the "real Alicia," a recording he has had in his possession all along. Because the introduction of the audible brings with it a new level of interiority and a concomitant greater "truth" value, Alicia's protests cannot
bear any weight. Her synchronized "spoken" dialogue is discounted as surface, a pose, while the asynchronous dialogue is the deeper, unmediated truth.
In a reversal of the ideology of the camera obscura, Devlin has in his possession the essence, the inner truth of Alicia's enigma—what she sounds like. Furthermore, this "audible essence," like the visual essence of the world provided by the camera obscura, is ownable, portable, and available for exhibition. Compared to this powerful combination, the physical Alicia and her voice (the real Alicia) are markedly reduced in value. "In dominant cinema,
women do not tell their own stories or control their own images [or voices], but are ideologically positioned in patriarchal terms," Kuhn says, paraphrasing Claire Johnston (Kuhn 1982, p. 88).
Jean-Louis Comolli identifies the extreme care taken to preserve synchronization as the sign of ideology at work. Synchronization carries with it "the concept of the 'individual as master of speech' [and] indicates a desire to preserve the status of speech as an individual property right—subject only to a manipulation which is not discernable" (quoted in Doane 1985a, in Weis and Belton 1985, p. 58). The dis-synchronization of Alicia's voice from her body and from her control is a radical manipulation of sync, obvious and discernable, and denies to her as a woman the "individual property right" scrupulously maintained in the film for the male characters. Because he operates the technology, Devlin can orchestrate a conversation with Alicia when she is out of the room, dictating when "she" will speak, turning her dialogue on or off as it suits him. By disregarding the woman's right to be the "master" of her speech, the male is able to re-position her in patriarchal terms. Through control of her voice, she is recuperated.
After the recording ends, Devlin asks Alicia for her decision, but she is mute. Her voice has been taken from her. A yachtsman, her friend, arrives and suggests she hurry, because they are about to sail. Alicia, conceding that Devlin has the power to speak for her, turns to him and says, "You had better tell him."
Devlin exits the two-shot he shared with Alicia and she is left alone, watching him go. The next shot is the reverse angle showing Devlin's back as he disappears out the door. There is a cut to Alicia watching. This classically constructed point-of-view shot briefly presents us with Alicia as the one who looks and Devlin as the one who runs. But coming at this point in the narrative, when she has just lost control of her image and her voice and submitted to Devlin's authority, the woman's ability to authorize the look is fleeting and of no consequence.
Once Devlin has attained control of Alicia's speech, and thereby resolved the issue of her political notoriety, it is a brief step to resolve the question of her sexual promiscuity. In "Spectacle and Narrative Theory," Lea Jacobs and Richard de Cordova discuss how alternating close-ups in The Scarlet Empress at a certain point begin to lose their function of advancing the narrative and assume the function of spectacle (1982). In key shots in Notorious , Hitchcock presents Bergman in shimmering close-ups for the male gaze. When she makes declarations of love and dependence to Devlin after forfeiting all control of her actions to him, her face glows with "star" lighting and soft focus, completely at odds with the hard-edged long-shots used in the opening party scene. The romantic transformation is supported by the manipulation of the sound track. Alicia's voice is mixed forward and amplified. There is a slight echochamber effect that softens the tone, giving it a richness verging on excess. Alicia is no longer presented on the sound track the way Devlin is, as a function-
ing character in the narrative, but as a visual and aural object of pleasure.
The handling of Bergman's voice exceeds what could be called the "narrative volume," the recording and mixing practices allotted Devlin and the other male figures, and even Alicia prior to her romantic submission. Even in those earlier scenes, with her promiscuity and outspoken criticism of the system, Alicia is playing by their rules. She is aware that she is trapped, that others (the press, the FBI) have defined her, and in a rage perversely tries to live "down" to their image of her. She drinks too much, drives too fast, and in effect tries to kill herself rather than conform to society's rules. But Alicia is only marginally freer in her rebellion than in her submission. There is no place for her that is not already inscribed within the poles of "womanhood," as either whore or wife.
Instead, the dangerous sexual, speaking woman slides out of the narrative into shimmering light, murmuring promises of pleasure to male spectators as she steps into the realm of audio/visual spectacle.
The conclusion of Notorious illustrates Alicia's positioning as a fetishized object available to the audience and the men in the narrative (Devlin, his boss, and the Nazi sympathizer Devlin's agency wants her to marry, Alex Sebastian). Following the loss of her voice, Alicia becomes an object of possession and exchange, passing through the roles prescribed for women by patriarchy—employee, prostitute, wife—finally becoming the ultimate object, the helpless female waiting to be rescued by the active, heroic, coherent male.
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
In films such as Notorious and Sorry, Wrong Number where women initially seem to have the power of speech, they talk too much and must be silenced. Furthermore, their words are meaningless, characterized as babble (fitting term for those trying to speak an incomprehensible language imperfectly heard from a far-off country).
Sorry, Wrong Number was adapted from a very successful radio drama. As such, it is one of the few cinematic texts that has a free-standing auditory text to which it can be compared, the appeal of radio competing, as it were, with film's cinematic pleasures. The central figure of the woman, controlling the narrative through the telephone and her voice, becomes the focal point of a tense negotiation between sound-based narrative and the power of the image, the dangers of an overweaning sound track merged with the figure of an overbearing woman.
After a brief prologue illustrating the labor of telephone operators, the film introduces us to Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman trying to call her husband at the office. The bedridden Leona accidentally overhears two men on a party line plotting to kill a woman that night. Torn between trying to alert the indifferent police and contacting her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster), Leona grows more and more distraught. In addition, she receives a
series of disturbing calls from strangers, informing her of Henry's recent illegal activities. She finally realizes that because of her husband, she is the woman the men are planning to kill, and, as she finally reaches him on the phone, they do. Though confined to her bed, Leona in effect organizes the narrative through what she hears. She is the one who makes sense of the narrative, and as such becomes our surrogate, an auditing spectator within the text.
It is interesting to compare the character of Leona as a spectator-surrogate (especially a female one) with L. B. Jeffries in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). The films illustrate differing male/female relations to knowledge, marriage, work, and voyeurism, as well as differences between sound and image and their related technologies. In place of the man who actively looks/sees/knows, Sorry, Wrong Number presents a woman who accidentally overhears, against her will learns, and, because she knows, dies.
The characters are similar, as are their circumstances. Both are invalids, Jeff confined to a wheelchair, Leona to bed. Her illness is a (the) feminine condition of invalidism and smacks of nineteenth-century antecedents like Henry James's sister Alice, strong women who could not openly exercise power and who masked their extraordinary will by an extravagant show of physical weakness. Dr. Alexander, praising the miracle of twentieth-century psychiatry, insists that Leona's illness is all in her mind. ("Oh, the pain's real enough," he says to Henry, who smashes the nearest phone.) Jeff has become incapacitated in a more masculine way, through a violent collision in the course of his work. Each is a busybody and a meddler. Jeff uses his camera to shut out the woman in his life, to avoid marriage and fix the world as it is. Leona, on the other hand, is very much married and uses the telephone to obsessively track Henry down.
From the central base of a single room, both characters are isolated and free to use their instruments. His is the camera; hers is the telephone. However, while Jeff is able to make a living off of his visual drive, what Leona can get from the telephone is transitory compared to Jeff's captured (and saleable) moments. What Leona hears comes and goes like the train rattling her window at night, and when it is gone there is no proof that it ever passed. When Leona tries to tell the police she overheard a conversation, the problem remains that she can't prove it and they can't trace it. While Jeff can prove empirically that something is buried in the garden by comparing an old slide with a new image, Leona's "voices" remain unidentified throughout the course of the film. Jeff and Leona also have differing relations to voyeurism. Jeff looks for pleasure; Leona listens for information. Sorry, Wrong Number is not so much sound -based as dialogue-based. There is little audio-voyeurism or pleasure in hearing for the character, however the original radio audience would have enjoyed the double thrill of eavesdropping on a woman talking on the telephone and on the people on the other end. Although both films end with the main character being overwhelmed when the necessary voyeuristic dis-
tance is violated, Leona's listening is a sign of her dependence rather than her will to pursue her own pleasure.
In Sorry, Wrong Number, the telephone becomes the woman's instrument, calling to mind the cultural canard about women "talking too much," "all the time," or compulsively on the phone. Like the radio and other sound apparatuses, the telephone is also strictly linked to the home, the woman's sphere under patriarchy.
Several notable texts present the telephone as literally a woman's lifeline. In Jean Cocteau's La Voix humane (first filmed in 1948 by Rossellini) and the film The Slender Thread (1965) the telephone is our means of access to the "star" and the purpose of the narrative is to ensure that she keeps talking—that is, stays alive. In both cases the women are suicidal, alienated, and isolated, and the telephone is their only means of making tenuous contact. Versions of Cocteau's drama strive to be faithful to their source by maintaining the single set and restricted point of view of this one-woman monologue as we watch the woman talk without our hearing the voice on the other end, but this is essentially theatrical and has nothing to do with the specific character of the voice on the radio or the telephone. By keeping voice and image synchronized, they lose the peculiar quality of the voice as disembodied, as alienated from the body, wandering, lost in the symbolic. Such a quality is preserved in The Slender Thread, where a woman calls a suicide prevention hotline. Her only chance of contact is through language and a machine. Each inadequate, together they form an illustration of what is killing her.
Culturally, the telephone has long been offered as a palliative to women. In a study of assumptions about women and telephones, Lana Rakow notes that "early commentar[ies] . . . extolled the virtue of the telephone in reducing women's loneliness." One author, she notes, "claims that by the end of the 1880's, 'telephones were beginning to save the sanity of remote farm wives by lessening their sense of isolation'" (Kramarae 1988, p. 207, quoting John Brooks).
In keeping with the exaggerated claims made for the telephone and aimed at women, a 1938 advertisement for Bell Telephone pictures a Lilliputian woman sitting on a giant telephone over the words, "Few things give you so much convenience, happiness and security—all rolled into one." The title crawl at the beginning of Sorry, Wrong Number modifies this optimism with the ubiquitous contemporary fear of crime:
In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives . . . It is the servant of our common needs—the confidante of our innermost secrets . . . life and happiness wait upon its ring . . . and horror . . . and loneliness . . . and . . . death!!!
To some extent the telephone empowers women, enabling them to combine their piecemeal knowledge and find out what is going on in the separate world
of men. In Sorry, Wrong Number, we see what amounts to a network of women using the telephone to talk behind men's backs: the secretary talks about her boss, and Sally about her husband, not to mention the rows of telephone operators making these connections possible.
Talking behind her husband's back becomes literal in the case of Sally Lord, an old friend of Leona's and ex-girlfriend of Henry's. She reads in the newspaper that her husband is investigating Henry, but when she asks him about it, he tells her to mind her own business (presumably his isn't hers). She sneaks into the other room to call Leona, then creates an excuse for leaving the house so that she can call Leona back from a pay phone. But no matter how much or little women know, they can only subvert (Sally's husband's plans) or disrupt (Leona interrupts Dr. Alexander's evening out and her father's philandering with her incessant calls). The women talk, but they can't do anything. Sally cannot stop her husband's investigation, and Leona cannot make Henry call her back.
Ultimately, the telephone is a sign of Leona's impotence. When she calls for a nurse because she is all alone in the house and frightened, no one will
come. When she calls the number left her by a man who knows something about Henry, she finds she is talking to the morgue. At the same time she is bombarded with incomprehensible information. Henry reassures her that she is safe because there is a telephone right by the bed; she says, "I've been prey to every kind of horrible call." By the time she understands what all the pieces mean, she is incapable of saving herself. As in The Lonely Villa (1909), the telephone is revealed to be an instrument that underscores helplessness instead of alleviating it.
The clash of genres, everything frilly and domestic in Leona's sphere compared to the heavy angles and foreboding shadows in Henry's, puts further pressure on the text. As in Mildred Pierce, Sorry, Wrong Number illustrates the necessary imbalance that results from trying to combine two antithetical genres, film noir and the woman's film. The strongest dissonance comes when women try, if only momentarily, to control visual point of view and the film's narration. As we have already seen in the earlier films, that very distortion forms the value of these tortured texts. "If female sexuality and female discourse are regarded as together posing the threat of disruption to the linear process of the classic narrative, then that threat must be recuperated or repressed if the story is to have any kind of 'satisfactory' resolution," Annette
Kuhn argues. "Repression of the discourse of the woman," she says, is achieved "by means of a cutting-off," limiting "female control over the film's enunciation" (Kuhn 1982, p. 104).
Doane argues that in the "paranoid gothic . . . there is a concerted effort to locate [the woman] as the subject of knowledge"—in direct contradiction of classical codes. This branch of the woman's film insists "on situating the woman as agent of the gaze, as investigator in charge of the epistemological trajectory of the text" (Doane 1987, p. 134). Although she is quite explicitly barred from control of the gaze because of Sorry, Wrong Number 's dependence on hearing and consequent virtual elimination of standard shot/reverse shot, Leona is able to control much of the narrative, the cuts determined by what she hears and not what she sees. It is this adherence to radio's different forms of address and different means of constituting the listener/subject that comprises the threat Leona poses toward classical cinema.
Radio dramas are based either on the listener overhearing (a position similar to that of the film viewer, who sees without being seen, or the playgoer, who watches the characters through an invisible "fourth wall") or on direct address (by announcers, narrators, and even characters). Orson Welles's radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" (1938) incorporates both forms, particularly direct address, whereas the original Sorry, Wrong Number sticks exclusively to a series of overheard conversations. The third-person form is less potentially disruptive when translated to film than direct address, and is in practice quite compatible with existing classical film structures. As used here, however, the dependence on overhearing, both by the viewer/auditor and characters within the narrative undermines the authority of the visual, resulting in a potentially subversive text.
Occupying the German expressionist/film noir crossroads favored by many European émigrés, such as the film's director, Anatole Litvak, Sorry, Wrong Number tells its story through an increasingly complicated flashback structure held together by voice-overs and the central organizing presence of the woman to whom the flashbacks are being narrated. The voices we hear and the stories they tell come to Leona (and us) over the telephone. The telephone conversations are presented by crosscutting between Leona and the caller on the other end. These in turn lead to flashbacks, signaled by a slow dissolve and a marked increase in the volume of the music, as either Leona or the speaker remembers or narrates previous events.
The use of voice-over narration with flashbacks is not in itself enough to distinguish the film from other films of the time. In fact, it is rather common in film noir, where it signals the fragmentation of the narrative. In the 1946 film The Killers, a film in many ways similar to Sorry, Wrong Number, the flashbacks are the story. However, in The Killers, directed by Litvak's fellow émigré Robert Siodmak (who also directed The Spiral Staircase ), the flashbacks assume the authority of an omniscient point of view. Although each major segment is initiated by a particular character, who verbally covers the
transitions from present to flashback, nothing within the flashbacks themselves marks them as being to any extent subjective or controlled in any way by the character. In Sorry, Wrong Number, as Leona grows more hysterical, the flashbacks and even the cuts to the caller become increasingly expressionistic, both visually and on the sound track. As the film progresses, there is a growing dissolution of any sense of reliable, objective visual information.
Of the six major flashbacks, Leona herself directly authorizes one. She calls Sally Hunt, whom we have seen Henry meet for lunch that day. Sally warns Leona that Henry might be in trouble, but she cannot say what kind of trouble and has to hang up. Leona, speaking to herself, repeats the name "Sally Hunt." This leads in standard form to a flashback (with minimal narration) showing how the rich and glamorous Leona Cotterill stole Sally's hardworking, poor but ambitious boyfriend, Henry. The flashback ends where it began, with Leona in bed, thinking. This is the only flashback that does not make extended use of voice-over, because it is not presented as a story Leona hears, but as something she remembers.
When Sally calls back, she tells Leona that her husband, who is with the district attorney's office, is investigating Henry. As we cut to Sally on the phone, we see a flashback detailing how Sally found out about her husband's work. Sally's story is presented in a strongly expressionistic way, oddly reminiscent of Susannah York's "dream" in Freud (1960). In voice-over, Sally says: "It was one of the weirdest days I've ever spent. . . . Parts [of Staten Island] seem to exist in a kind of dream, like the lonely beach we went to that day. It was quite a desolate place, Leona. Far out on the island."
They're on a beach, empty and cold, near a dilapidated, boarded-up house. Sally ducks behind a broken boat, watching her husband and his men. They hide in a nearby shack and watch the house. Nothing happens. After time drags on, she sees a signal from the house. A boat appears. A man with a briefcase steps out and walks into the deserted house. The men follow. Sally runs to a net-strewn stair to get a closer look. Her husband and his men leave, carrying the briefcase.
What is notably different about Sally's story are the strongly disturbing visuals, with their emphasis on diagonals and extreme angles, and the disjointed and incomplete nature of the information. Sally doesn't know a lot and is in constant danger of being discovered by her husband. Her fear seems to infest her perception: "I didn't know what I expected to see. As a matter of fact, there wasn't much I could see at first." As she is unaware of what anything means, it all becomes heavy with portent, resulting in the exaggerated images typical of classical "subjective" scenes such as dreams. Leona, our listener-surrogate, repeatedly asks what it can mean. As the central organizing "ear" for whom the story is being told, she knows as little of the significance of this striking scene as we or Sally do.
The third and most complicated structure occurs when Leona's doctor, treating her progressively worsening heart condition, tells her of a meeting he
had with Henry where the doctor revealed that Leona's condition was psychosomatic. As Dr. Alexander (Wendell Corey) narrates his flashback, set in his office, Henry begins to tell him how Leona's heart condition first began as a result of a conflict of wills between them. This triggers Henry's flashback within the doctor's flashback. Inside Henry's flashback, Henry comes across as a well-meaning and tender husband. The question, however, is whether or not this is Henry's view of himself, represented subjectively in his memory, or the doctor's view of Henry. The question of who is "authorizing" Henry's flashback leads to a third possibility—that we are seeing Leona's images. (She listens to the doctor and supplies images to both his story and his version of Henry's story.)
The accelerating expressionism of the visual design and in the foreboding music begins to put not only the control of the flashbacks in doubt, but the crosscutting as well. The reason crosscuts to the speaker work so well is because they fill the slot usually served by conventional shot/reverse shot, with the cut being signaled by the dialogue and not the look. When Leona receives the strangest call of the night from Waldo Evans—a man she does not know—the "reverse shot," the cut to identify the voice on the other end of the line, reveals nothing. As he speaks, we see a silhouette shot from a very low angle. Behind him is a dark room lit only by light coming through the transom. The only time we "see" Waldo Evans is in his heavily noir-ish account of his and Henry's black market drug dealings.
The (non)representation of Waldo Evans reenforces the possibility that we have never left Leona's room at all. Each cut to other characters is put in doubt retroactively, submitted to Leona's subjective, but authorial, auditory point of view. As the organizing subject, Leona supplies the faces that go with the voices she hears, the rooms they occupy, the clothes they're wearing (Sally's "poor but honest" milieu, Dr. Alexander's tuxedo and impatient wife, as well as the unidentifiable Mr. Evans). Some voices are never given faces at all (the operators or the hospital receptionist Leona asks to send a nurse). Their function is all we and Leona need to know. This is not to say that Leona imagines the entire movie. The voices are "real," the phone calls real (i.e., not under Leona's control). It is merely the images accompanying them that are called into question as objective visual representations of the voices we hear.
Listening to the radio or talking on the telephone thus become acts of reading, even more than watching films. Leona occupies and demonstrates the position of the radio listener, sitting in his or her home, overhearing others speaking yet unable to intervene or make herself heard. Unlike film viewers, the original radio audience would be doing the work Leona does here (through her control of the cinematic signifier), providing faces for the voices and filling in the image of the caller.
No one's images in the radio audience would be more correct that any one else's. In a film, though, the images tend to carry authorial weight. And at first, the crosscutting seems to present equally objective worlds outside
Leona's bedroom, balancing her growing hysteria. It is the authority of these cuts and of the flashbacks within them that are put into doubt by the obsessive return to Leona listening, asking what it means, and the breakdown of "objective" style as Leona struggles to make sense out of the words and voices pouring into her ear.
Depending on flashbacks and crosscutting to open out the original radio play results in a precarious instability of space and time that increases our dependence on Leona as the center of the narrative, the subject constituted as "the one who hears." Classical cinema's rules of spatial, temporal, and narrative continuity strive to ensure a text that seems transparent and unmediated, the story telling itself. Here, the narrative threatens to fly apart and requires an entire system of compensations to hold it together. In order to contain the potential spatial and temporal incoherence, the film constructs a "present" set in a coherent space: Leona in her bedroom from 9:30 to 11:15. Everything else is firmly tied to this, constantly referring back to it in order to preserve a sense of unity.
In radio drama, space and time are far more fluid by nature, program, advertising, and bracketing material all blending into each other, interruption and flow being characteristics of the medium. ("War of the Worlds" is the model textual restatement of the way the form functions.) The construction of space and time therefore requires less regulation than in the classical cinema text. In the original "Sorry, Wrong Number," the "present" is the half hour the program covers, as the narrative observes the dramatic unities, taking place entirely in the present as we listen in on Leona's telephone conversations. Spatially, to radio listeners eavesdropping with the help of radio/telephone technology, we are not so much in Leona's room as on the same line. The "where" is simply where we can hear her. When we no longer hear her, she ceases to exist.
The film maintains a sense of temporal continuity by (1) using voice-overs to make constant reference to the present and having characters address Leona ("Have you ever been to Staten Island, Leona?" Sally asks, over shots of a ferry approaching a dock); (2) employing deadlines in the present tense to give pressure to the scenes outside Leona's bedroom, which are themselves under time constraints (Sally's "five minutes are up" as she tries to speak to Leona, Henry stands in the train station with a clock saying 11:10 prominent behind him); and (3) quickly answering enigmas posed in the present in the flashbacks ("Sally . . . Hunt," Leona says, and we dissolve to a ballroom where Henry is dancing with a blonde, while Leona repeats "Sally Hunt" in voice-over).
Space is inevitably even more fragmented, hence the insistence on the technology of the phone system that links the scattered locations. The protocol of placing and receiving calls is stressed again and again. Operators ask standard questions, speakers repeat the numbers they want, callers ask first whether or not they have the right party. There are pay calls and person-to-person long
distance calls and over-the-phone telegram deliveries, and of course a wrong number which is in fact an inadvertently correct connection. In addition, voices are frequently "filtered" so that we hear them as if over a telephone, attesting to the literal connection of the far away with the speaker whom we see before us. Filtering usually occurs near the beginning or end of a conversation as a way of bringing our attention back to the technology.
Verbal transitions are also used. When Leona is talking to Henry's secretary, the secretary asks if Leona got the flowers. "I thought camellias might be nice this time." As she says "camellias," there is a dissolve to a close-up of an arrangement of blossoms and her voice switches to a filter, each marking the transition back to Leona's room. Cutting between speakers in the middle of a sentence eases the transition between physical spaces, while creating the sense of intimacy of a personal conversation, much like shot/reverse shot. Further, Sorry, Wrong Number literally softens the movement from space to space (and from time to time) with a heavy use of dissolves, implying the connection between spaces rather than the distance that separates them.
The more disjointed the spatial and temporal systems of the film become, and the more difficult it becomes to determine who "authorizes" the image as the scenes become progressively more subjective, the more heavily we depend on Leona as the subject, the point where all the pieces will be organized into meaning.
The challenge Leona poses to classical cinema is the elimination of "seeing/seen" and the substitution of "hearing/heard." Leona understands everything eventually strictly through what she's heard. If she makes seeing irrelevant, it becomes the job of the camera to render her hearing ineffectual—to place the ear at the mercy of the eye.
When Leona realizes what she has been hearing, it is presented in terms of an audio-montage. The killers have said that "the woman's" bedroom has a window overlooking the river. The servants are gone and her husband will be out. They will kill her when the train goes by because it will drown out her screams. After trying desperately to reach Henry and receiving calls from Sally and Waldo Evans implying Henry is in imminent danger of being arrested, Leona receives a call from Western Union. It is a telegram from Henry saying he won't be coming home because of business. As the train begins to rumble past her window, Leona clutches her forehead. Bits of conversations she has had during the evening echo on the sound track: the train, the location, her husband Henry's trouble with the law. She is at the center of it, the subject of all she has heard, the only place where all the pieces come together.
What Leona recognizes with such horror is the degree of hostility the world (and specifically Henry) holds toward her. The fact that she "accidentally" discovers this is significant: women are not supposed to know their exact place in the scheme of things—that is, that they are not subjects, but objects. Leona's "crime" lies in thinking she is a subject and in struggling to exert a degree of control over her own life. When she meets Henry, she is the
sexual exploiter, taking advantage of the well-built young man's poverty. Their marriage montage is dominated by Leona repeating in voice-over, "I, Leona, take thee, Henry." (The poster advertising the film reads, "Heiress to millions . . . who bought everything she wanted . . . including this man!") However, after they're married, Henry wants to decide where they will live and to support them on his salary. Leona, who had fought her father for the right to marry, to control her own money, and to decide where she will live, realizes that she is trapped, this time as Henry's wife (as opposed to Daddy's girl), and has a heart attack. She does not intentionally fake her illness according to the narrative ("the pain's real enough"), and from this point on her will to control her own life (and Henry's) is masked by an increasing physical deterioration.
As far as Henry is concerned, Leona's crime is turning out to have been strong all along. To Henry, Leona is a signifier of her father's wealth, a status symbol (the "Cough Drop Queen") with jewels and furs, a house, a job, and, finally, an insurance policy. Although Henry's flashback presents him as a considerate husband, he is nonetheless willing to bet that she'll be dead within the month, anticipating that her insurance will cover his debt to the mob. When Dr. Alexander tells him her heart is sound, Henry discovers that all the time he thought he was being strong for his fading clinging vine, he was actually performing in her scenario. Her strength is figured as being necessarily emasculating, making his superfluous, and interfering with his ability to function as a subject.
By pretending to a power intolerable to her husband, and furthermore by occupying the center of the narrative, through which all information must pass, Leona threatens to disrupt (if not supplant) the male hierarchy, especially that of the film noir world the male characters inhabit. This is why, like other strong women in the genre, she must be eliminated. (It is also possible that Leona has been using her illness to avoid maternity, the reluctance to become a mother a sign of the noir woman's refusal to take her rightful place in the family.)
In the radio play, Leona's "guilt" is moot. As a matter of fact, we can never really be certain that her husband was involved at all. We don't know him. In the original, "Mrs. Albert Stevenson" (she has no first name) gets a busy signal when trying to call her husband. She asks the operator to redial. The phone rings on the other end. A man answers. Mrs. Stevenson begins to speak, but simultaneously we hear another man speaking. One of the men seems to have a foreign (most probably German) accent, perhaps reflecting the drama's World War II provenance. The other sounds as though he's from Brooklyn. After trying to interrupt, Mrs. Stevenson is silent for the remainder of the conversation, until the men, about to specify the address, are abruptly cut off.
She calls the operator back, explaining the missed connection and demands
that the operator reconnect her with that wrong number. The operator tells her that is impossible, and Mrs. Stevenson tries the police. Again she tells about the wrong connection. This time, she is the one who mentions the similarity of her location and that described by the conspirators. "The coincidence is so horrible . . . I'd feel a lot better if you sent around a radio car." The policeman demurs that it is not likely that they were discussing her house, "unless you thought somebody was planning to kill you." She proclaims everyone's devotion to her "since I took sick twelve years ago." Hanging up, she begins to talk petulantly to herself: "Why doesn't Albert come home?" and "Oh, if I could only get out of this bed."
The phone rings. She answers. No one is on the line. She hangs up and it rings again. Again there is no one there. Getting more and more uneasy, she calls the operator, whom she accuses of being "spiteful." "I haven't had one bit of satisfaction out of one phone call this evening," she rages, and threatens to report the woman to her supervisor. The phone rings but she refuses to answer. "It's a trick," she says to herself. "I won't answer." When it stops ringing, she becomes frightened and demands that the operator get her the police. Their line is busy.
The phone rings and she grabs it, yelling. A man identifies himself as calling from Western Union. Her husband will be out of town. He had tried calling her, but her phone has been busy for the last half hour. In despair, Mrs. Stevenson calls the hospital and requests that a nurse be sent to spend the evening with her. They refuse because of a wartime shortage of nurses. Her clock has stopped, and she asks the time. It is 11:15.
The radio play is famous as an example of suspense. The anthology program that originally featured the drama was called "Suspense," and its weekly opening identification stated that the hope was "to offer you a precarious situation and then withhold the solution until the last possible moment." The narrator continues, "And so it is with 'Sorry, Wrong Number,' and the performance of Agnes Moorehead. We again hope to keep you in . . . Suspense!"
However, the film's narrative is actually better constructed and more suspenseful than the original. Because the radio play depends on the dialogue, there is less emphasis on time, and consequently that device is not used. In the film, the camera frequently singles out a clock in Leona's bedroom at the beginning of a shot in order to keep us aware of time passing. Henry's impending arrest, though not specified to the minute as is Leona's impending murder, becomes an additional, interwoven time-constrained plot, increasing the suspense.
By "opening up" the story and defining the character of Leona's husband, the film provides a motivation for the murder that is missing in the original. In the radio version, we can never be sure whether or not Mrs. Stevenson's husband is involved. We do not know whether he is suffering business difficulties
or merely resents her; moreover, despite the length of her invalidism, there is indication that it is in any way ungenuine.
When a psychological background is provided for Henry, with his desire for financial independence and an explanation of Leona's illness added, the motivation for the murder becomes stronger, making it seem all the more inevitable. In the film, Leona becomes Oedipus, pursuing a mystery whose answer lies in her character and her past actions. Her blindness to the consequences of her obsession with controlling those around her leads inexorably to her fate. Henry's arrest in the last shot of the film smacks of Production Code retribution; in the original, all indications are that the cipheric Mr. Stevenson has gotten away with murder. On the other hand, the film's conclusion perfectly ties up the two lines of suspense, bringing all actions and their consequences full circle.
Leona's "will to power" extends beyond the psychology of the character within the narrative. As the "organizing ear," she poses a challenge to cinema's image-based construction, redefining the subject as the one who listens. In Mildred Pierce , another woman who has succeeded in asserting her independence, thus putting her "rightful" husband to shame, is silenced by the text's validation of the noir discourse, embodied by an omniscient policeman. At the end of the film, Mildred is (re)placed in her husband's custody. Leona cannot be handed over to her husband, as he has failed to control her to begin with and is being stripped of his power by the other males. Throughout the course of the film, Leona proves her prowess. She is able to decode the complicated series of events that make sense of an errant phone call merely by using the phone—by listening and speaking. In order to recuperate or destroy the speaking woman, the system must reassert the power of the image.
The scenes in Leona's bedroom are the center of the film. In the first scene in the film, Leona waits for her call to be answered. The camera follows her movements. She reaches for a cigarette, and the camera pans right, revealing a clock that says 9:30 and Leona and Henry's wedding portrait. She reaches for a tissue, and the camera pans left showing a table filled with medicines near a wheelchair. ("I'm an invalid, you know," she says to the operator.) However, after Leona hears the killers' conversation and calls the operator back, the camera begins to establish a certain distance from her point of view. As she begins to relate the story so far to a second operator, the filtered voice of the woman on the other end fades out, so that all we hear is Leona. The repetition of the plot makes it less important for us to attend to what she is saying, and the camera begins to investigate Leona's room. The camera pans toward the open window as the sound of a train gets louder, threatening to drown out Leona's voice. As the camera continues to pan around the room, our attention to what she is saying fades in and out, depending on occasional congruencies with what we see. When she says, "I'm all alone tonight," we see a nurse's coat and a hospital bed through the doorway. Dissolving to a shot outside on the landing, the camera cranes down the staircase and into the
kitchen, leaving the sound of Leona's voice farther behind. As it moves in for a medium shot of a servant's jacket hanging next to the downstairs phone extension, we hear Leona say, "There isn't a sound downstairs, not a sound." When we cut back to her, her eyes are cast down and she is concentrating on the telephone. No part of the shot was from her point of view.
Such salient camera movement does several things. First, it functions like a small descriptive paragraph, showing us the set in detail before handing over control of the narrative to Leona. (There is a similar examination of Jeff's apartment at the beginning of the equally set-bound Rear Window .) Second, the set establishes that we are, for the moment, in woman's film territory, with that genre's attention to domestic decor and a central female figure. Most important, though, as in Rear Window , the foregrounding of the enunciation with this early camera movement makes clear that there is a narrative presence separate from Leona, and further, that it is a strictly visual presence, unknown to her. The camera exposes the limits of Leona's strictly aural point of view, countering with a potentially dangerous visual point of view—dangerous because it is out of her (and our) control. Camera movement not motivated by Leona's look or her gestures continues throughout the scenes in the bedroom and shifts the position of the spectator/auditor from one of listening to/with Leona to one of watching her listen. The sense of threat posed by the untethered camera is borne out in the climax of the film, when the camera lets the killer in.
There are three major sequences not controlled by Leona's auditory point of view: the opening prologue, the entrance of the killer, and the end. Each of these sections is distinctly marked as narrated. Single long takes characterized by elaborate camera movement (tracks, dollies, crane shots) call attention to themselves and to the fact that they are not authorized by anyone in the text (i.e., Leona).
The prologue sports a long title roll delineating the wonders and potential horrors of AT&T. We see a cityscape at night. Dissolve to a shadow-filled office somewhere in the city. In the distance we hear a dial tone. To foreboding music, the camera pans to an office door, dollying dramatically up to the name "Henry Stevenson" written on the glass. With a dissolve, the camera passes through the door and up to a close-up of a telephone with the receiver off the hook. Dissolve to Leona in bed listening to a busy signal. She demands that the operator connect her with the number, not knowing what we know. It is this unanswered telephone that will set the entire plot in motion. The camera has already given us privileged information that sets us apart from Leona.
Later, knowing Henry is about to be arrested, Leona calls for a nurse to come stay with her. In the middle of her hysterical pleas for help, the camera indulges in a slow retreat, pulling back from the bed, dollying out the bedroom window, sinking two storeys past a tree to reveal a man's shadow against the house. A hand reaches in and opens the kitchen window the killers had said would be left unlocked. The extravagance of this gravity-defying move is
pointed: it is, in fact, the return of the repressed. After an hour and some minutes, the camera forcibly reestablishes the preeminence of the visual discourse over the heretofore verbally dominated narrative structure.
As we follow the killer moving through the kitchen toward the telephone extension, we cut to Leona, literally cut off in mid-speech.
Leona: What was that? . . . As if someone had lifted the receiver off the hook of the extension downstairs.
Operator (filtered): I didn't hear it, ma'am.
Leona: Well, I did. There's someone in this house. In the kitchen downstairs. And they're listening to me now—
She clasps her hand over her mouth and hangs up. Leona's technical knowledge and telephonic expertise (understanding the meaning of the quiet click and instantly making the correct deduction) do her no good at all. Her voice, the exclusive sign of her presence in the radio version and her sole connection to others, is denied her now and puts her in danger. When the phone rings immediately, she is afraid to pick it up, but must. It is Henry.
The competing discourses, the auditory identification with Leona versus the identification with the camera (linked to the killer), put the viewer in a bind. If we identify with Leona, our listener/surrogate, we identify with the victim. The establishment of an alternative identification with the camera allows us to escape at the cost of rejecting Leona and auditory identification in favor of classical cinema and the primacy of the image. Radio is put in its place, cinema triumphant.
By the time Henry calls, Leona's death is defined as a "mistake." The mobsters have been arrested, so they won't need to be paid off with Leona's insurance money. Henry does not want her killed, because it will send him to the chair. However, Leona's death serves a greater purpose—the reestablishment of the priority of the image.
Leona hears footsteps coming up the stairs. Henry tells her to walk to the window and scream, but she cannot pull herself out of bed. "He's here!" she tells Henry, staring at something beyond the camera. As noted earlier, the woman's look is insufficiently empowered to control the narrative in the "paranoid" woman's film, of which Sorry, Wrong Number could be a raucous prototype (see Doane 1987, pp. 123–54). As we have shown, Leona has been able to control much of the narrative through the acoustic. However, the woman's inability to "see" is powerfully reinstated at the film's climax.
In the last shot of the film, as the killer approaches her bed, there is no reverse shot as Leona screams. We see her staring wildly, but there is no reverse shot that would legitimate her fear. The horror of the unseen is a carryover from the radio play. However, a more compelling reason why we do not see the killer here is because what kills Leona in the film is not only invisible
but unvisualizable. It is the system itself—language, patriarchy, cinema—that needs to destroy her. As she pleads for her life, the camera pans to the window where the train passes, drowning out her screams as planned.
In the radio play, Leona is stabbed to death. We hear screams, coughing and hacking—shocking and violent effects that verge on the pornographic. In the film, Leona is more fittingly silenced. Her hands, gripping the edge of the nightstand, loosen and fall out of the frame. Music and sound effects (which are not inimical, merely subordinate, to the classical image-based system) overwhelm her ability to hear or make a significant sound. In a phone booth, Henry begs her to scream. When we return to her bed, she is gone, literally wiped out. (A character falling out of frame like this is called a "natural" wipe, as opposed to optical wipes, where the hand of the enunciator is present.)
To reiterate: "If female sexuality and female discourse are regarded as together posing the threat of disruption to the linear process of the classic narrative, then that threat must be recuperated or repressed if the story is to have any kind of 'satisfactory' resolution [or] closure" (Kuhn 1982, p. 104). Never a role model, Leona accepts the guilt for her actions and begs Henry's forgiveness, but it is too late for her to be recuperated. Having exposed the potential power of the woman's voice, the ability to gain knowledge despite both isolation and a culturally imposed passivity approaching paralysis, Leona has to be fully repressed for a "satisfactory" resolution.
In the silence of her room, the phone rings. The killer's gloved hand reaches in and gruffly answers, "Sorry. Wrong number." He hangs up, ending the conversation and the film.
In the films discussed above, the woman's voice does not free her; she is either reduced to silence (Alice and Leona) or gives up and echoes the words provided for her (Alicia and Helen). In each of the texts (except perhaps Blackmail ), there is no doubt that putting sound and the woman "in their place" is presented as a good thing, perpetuating cinematic and patriarchal hegemony. Nevertheless, for moments in each of these texts, Echo is presented as someone rendered mute. Helen can't speak; Alice does not know how to find the right words; Alicia's words are used against her, her active speech discounted and dismissed; Leona lives on the telephone—and dies. In Notorious , control of the technology is wielded within the text by the male character (and so, too, at the very end of Sorry, Wrong Number ). In Blackmail , Alice's silence is a function of language and film sound, both loaded and used against her. In The Spiral Staircase and Sorry, Wrong Number the image itself moves to aid the violent repression of the active woman who would speak. The challenge the woman's voice poses to the cinematic hierarchy and its representation of woman as object is met with the reassertion of the power of the image. Sound and the woman are contained, suppressed, in the revenge of classical cinema.