Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) dir. Jean Negulesco
Starring: Gary Merrill, Shelley Winters, Michael Rennie, Keenan Wynn, Bette Davis
By Alan Bacchus
Phone Call from a Stranger is a fine underappreciated ensemble potboiler from the 1950s, which finds a group of one-way ticketed guests, each with a hidden past, forming a unique bond of friendship during a flight delay. But when the plane crashes the sole survivor of the group is compelled to contact their families and finish the personal journeys of each of his friends.
David Trask (Gary Merrill) is introduced as a broken man who has run away from his family. He’s taken a one-way flight to Los Angeles under a fake name and left a seemingly loving wife and two kids. His painful past is left hidden to the audience. On the flight he meets Bianca Carr (Shelley Winters), a vivacious actress and singer who has a fear of flying and a painful and rocky relationship with her singer husband. Dr. Robert Fortness (the humble Michael Rennie), a kind doctor, is also on a flight to escape his troublesome past as an alcoholic. The foursome is rounded out by Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn), a travelling novelty salesman who uses his wild sense of humour to mask deep-rooted pain in his home life.
The group call themselves the four Muskateers and make a pact to revisit each other a year after the flight. The pact becomes an omen when the plane crashes leaving Trask as the only survivor. Despite the crash he makes good on his pact and proceeds to contact the families of each of his surrogate friends and help heal the familial conflict that divided each of the families.
Writer/producer Nunnally Johnson was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter with a great talent for creating suspenseful character-driven stories. His range across genres included fine screenplays for The Dirty Dozen, Black Widow and Three Faces of Eve. Johnson and director Jean Negulesco create great tension before and during the flight by teasing the audience with hints of the backstories and characters we’ll meet later in the film. The anxious performances from Winter, Rennie, Merrill and Wynn set up the revelatory actions in the second half.
As Trask makes his phone calls and visits the families he becomes a guardian angel to each of them and is a source of comfort and solace. It’s fun, though, to watch how easily the families are accepting of his intrusion into their lives. The old world hospitality toward strangers is unintentionally humorous compared to the fearful suspicion we have toward our neighbours in today’s world. At one point Trask physically restrains Fortness’s son in his own house just minutes after meeting him.
If you accept the contrivances of this classical style of study storytelling, Phone Call from a Stranger will be a fun experience. At the very least you will be rewarded with a great cameo from Bette Davis. She plays Keenan Wynn's kind wife, who enables Trask himself to accept the love from his own family again. Enjoy.