“Jumping Niagara Falls”; or, She’s Pushy, for a Corpse

Among the fifty-eight movies I added to our video library while shopping in New York City is the 1948 film adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s radio play Sorry, Wrong Number. Fletcher penned the adaptation as well, despite her previous remarks about the merits of her original script. “I wrote ‘Sorry, Wrong Number,’” she was quoted in a 1948 anthology of Plays from Radio, “because I wanted to write a show that was ‘pure medium,’ something that could be performed only on the air.” And yet, “Sorry” has been reworked for stage and television and turned into both film and novel. If the original play is “pure medium,” Anatole Litvak’s melodrama is a Sorry adulteration. Just how much of a narrative muddle it is becomes clear when the screenplay was returned to the airwaves as a presentation by the Lux Radio Theater on 9 January 1950.

The thrill of the original lies in what Matthew Solomon refers to as its “narrative isochrony,” that is, the congruence of elapsed airtime and the clock ticking away the last minutes in the life of the central character. Instead, Sorry is marred by too many flashbacks and too much background story for what is essentially our witnessing of the inevitable death of someone we cannot wait to shut up.

Fletcher invites us to rethink Mrs. Stevenson’s role of a victim and permits us to enjoy tuning in to the well-scheduled execution of a perfect monster. In her screenplay, however, the playwright attempted to elicit feelings for a woman we’d much rather strangle, to make us waver between sympathy and condemnation. Mrs. Stevenson now has a first name and presumably a heart, however weak.

Alfred Hitchcock might have agreed with this revision, considering that the audience experiences suspense more keenly if the character is sympathetic. Fletcher also adds a moment of doubt as to Mrs. Stevenson’s fate by suggesting that her executioner might also become her rescuer.

At the same time, though, the film, unlike the radio play, compromises its point of view, letting the camera glide through Mrs. Stevenson’s room and giving us eyes to see the world beyond instead of keeping us close to the invalid who is being given a pair of wobbly legs just strong enough to make us wonder about her condition and chances of survival. Film insists on showing, even if the most compelling sight is the emotional state as written in the face of a person reduced to being all ears.

At any rate, Mrs. Stevenson died, eventually and unsurprisingly. Or did she? While on our trip upstate, recalled in the current entries into this journal, I was reminded of “Jumping Niagara Falls,” the unlikely sequel to Fletcher’s rather conclusive thriller. In it, Mrs. Stevenson is out for revenge—from the grave as her husband Elbert goes off to the Falls with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. What’s left of Mrs. Stevenson is nothing more than what we get when we first encounter her—a voice, which insists on making itself heard on the telephone, the radio, and (or perhaps solely in) the mind of the man who masterminded her murder.

That voice, in the 1999 sequel (by Brian Smith and George Zarr) is Claire Bloom’s. To me, though, as to anyone loving radio, the voice of Mrs. Stevenson belongs to none other than the aforementioned “First Lady of Suspense.” Equipped with Moorehead’s larynx, Fletcher’s celebrated harridan might have us all over in a barrel.

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