Star billing in ensemble acting is always a problem. In Jean Negulesco’s Phone Call From A Stranger (1952) – a uncanny amalgam of noir styling, conventional melodrama and a touch of screwball comedy - it becomes downright confusing. Shelly Winters is given above the title credit even though Gary Merrill has infinitely more screen time. The script by Nunnally Johnson and I.A.R. Wylie is a tedious mishmash of clichés and uncertainties with a few brief nuggets of hidden surprise that seem to come out of nowhere.
The story concerns David L. Trask (Merrill) an attorney running away from his home life after he discovers that wife Jane (Helen Westcott) has been unfaithful. Telephoning Jane from the airport, David next buys his ticket under an assumed name. He is ‘picked up’ by lonely ex-actress/former stripper Bianca Carr (Shelley Winters) while waiting for their flight in the terminal and thereafter also becomes friends with two other passengers; traveling salesman Edmund Hoke (Keenan Wynn) and Dr. Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie).
The flight takes off under a terrible storm and is grounded in Vegas overnight. Dr. Fortness confesses a deep dark family secret to David, whom he is hoping will be able to provide some much needed legal council. It seems that one night not so very long ago the good doctor departed a fashionable party with fellow colleague, Dr. Tim Brooks (Hugh Beaumont) en route to treat a patient at a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, David’s cockiness and the influence of alcohol contributed to a head on collision where Brooks and all of the passengers in the other vehicle were killed instantly.
Lying on his hospital bed, Fortness tells presiding physician, Dr. Luther Fletcher (Harry Cheshire) that it was Brooks, not he who was driving the car. Fortness’ story is backed by his dutiful wife, Claire (Beatrice Straight) even though she knows the truth about the accident. The secret eventually tears Fortness’ family apart.
Meanwhile, inside the airport terminal, Edmund is proudly passing around a picture of his wife, Marie (Bette Davis). * Aside: the photo is actually an airbrushed image with Davis’ face pasted onto the body of a bathing beauty pin-up. Bianca jokingly tells Edmund that he is far too lucky to have Marie as his wife. Fortness agrees. For both Fortness and Bianca, Edmund is misperceived as boorish, grating and nonsensical. However David finds Edmund – if not enlightening – then, at least amusing.
With weather conditions all clear, their plane takes off the next morning only to suffer ice build up on its engine and wings. It crashes, killing all but three on board. David is the only member of his troop to survive and he spends the rest of the film’s run time reluctantly contacting the family members of Dr. Fortness, Edmund and Bianca to relay their final hours and provide closure and solace to each family.
In Fortness’ case, David is able to reunite Claire – who had become estranged from her husband - with their embittered son, Jerry (Ted Donaldson). In Edmund’s circumstance, David learns that Marie has been paralyzed for many years following an ill-fated elopement with her lover that Edmund forgave.
The most peculiar of all reconciliations, played out in flashback like a bad screwball moment ripped from another film, involves David’s brief interaction with nightclub proprietor Sallie Carr (Evelyn Varden) and Bianca’s estranged husband, Mike (Craig Stevens). Possessive mother-in-law, Sallie hated Bianca’s independence – fabricating a persona for her that reads more that of the heartless vixen. Sensing Sallie’s relish in demonizing Bianca, David fabricates a bit of his own wish fulfillment about Bianca’s audition with Rodgers and Hammerstein; thereby deflating Sallie’s claim that her daughter-in-law was a no good useless failure.
As film entertainment, Phone Call From A Stranger is acutely convoluted; it’s plot suffering from too many half ideas that never meld into one complete narrative. Merrill does his usual laconic ‘world weary’ loner routine with aloof disenchantment. He doesn’t seem terribly engaged, but rather trudging from one plot point to the next with a ‘am I there yet?’ mentality that, at times, is rather oppressive.
Bette Davis is wasted in her near cameo. Truly, Davis’ acceptance of the part of Marie (something any actress could have played blindfolded) has to be one of the all time cinema curiosities. How desperate for work was she? Winters is a bit long in the tooth to be the tart with a proverbial heart of gold but she pulls it off for the most part. Wynn overplays his hand with a painful example of ham acting. In the end, the characters and the plot do not gel the way they should. The results are mediocre at best.
Fox Home Video provides a beautiful DVD transfer. The B&W image exhibits exceptional tonality in its grayscale. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are nearly pristine. Contrast levels are perfectly balanced. Age related artifacts are rare and do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to an interactive press book and lobby and stills gallery.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)