Directed by Jean Negulesco
Produced by Nunnally Johnson
Written by Nunnally Johnson
I. A. R. Wylie
Starring Gary Merrill
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Edited by Hugh S. Fowler
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox
February 1, 1952
Country United States
Box office $1,350,000 (US rentals)
Phone Call from a Stranger is a 1952 American drama film directed by Jean Negulesco, who was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and I.A.R. Wylie, which received the award for Best Scenario at the same festival, centers on the survivor of an aircraft crash who contacts the relatives of three of the victims he came to know on board the flight. The story features via flashbacks that accentuate the character’s past lives.
After his wife Jane (Helen Westcott) admits to an extramarital affair, Iowa attorney David Trask (Gary Merrill) abandons her and their daughters and heads for Los Angeles. His flight is delayed, and while waiting in the airport restaurant he meets a few of his fellow passengers. Troubled, alcoholic Dr. Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie), haunted by his responsibility for a car accident in which a colleague, Dr. Tim Brooks (Hugh Beaumont) was killed, is returning home to his wife Claire (Beatrice Straight) and teenage son Jerry (Ted Donaldson), and plans to tell the district attorney the truth about the accident.
Aspiring actress Binky Gay (Shelley Winters) is hoping to free her husband Mike Carr (Craig Stevens) from the clutches of his domineering mother, former vaudevillian Sally Carr (Evelyn Varden), who looks down on Binky. Overly loud traveling salesman Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn) shares a photograph of his young, attractive wife Marie (Bette Davis) wearing a swimsuit. When a storm forces the aircraft to land en route, they continue to share their life stories during the unexpected four-hour layover. They exchange home phone numbers with the idea that they may one day have a reunion.
Upon resuming their journey, the aircraft crashes and Trask is one of a handful of survivors; most of the passengers and crew are killed, including Trask’s three acquaintances. Trask contacts their families by phone and invites himself to their homes. Despite Claire’s objections, Trask tells Jerry the truth about his father’s past, but assures him that his father was a good man determined to right the wrong he had committed. Hoping to change Sally’s opinion of her late daughter-in-law, he tells her Binky had been cast as Mary Martin’s replacement in South Pacific on Broadway and had recommended Sally for a role.
Trask’s final visit is to Marie, who he discovers is not the beautiful girl of Eddie’s photograph, but an invalid paralyzed from the waist down. Marie reveals that early in her marriage she had left Eddie, whom she found to be vulgar and tiresome, for another man, Marty Nelson (Warren Stevens), who deserted her after she hit her head on a dock while she was swimming. While in the hospital, she was confined to an iron lung and feeling hopeless about her future when Eddie arrived to take her home. Marie tells Trask that despite his often obnoxious behavior, Eddie was the most decent man she had ever known, and had taught her the true meaning of love.
Marie’s story teaches Trask a lesson about marital infidelity and forgiveness, and he calls Jane to tell her he’s returning home.