Phone Call from a Stranger (1952): Survival Melodrama, Starring Gary Merrill in a Lead Role and then Wife Bette Davis in a Supporting One

Jean Negulesco directed this contrived, schematic melodrama about a survivor of aircraft crash and the contacts he makes with the relatives of the three victims he had met on the flight.

The predictable script, by Nunnally Johnson and I.A. R Wylie, which received the Best Scenario at the Venice Film Fest, unfolds through lengthy flashbacks that depict in explicit detail the characters’ past lives; nothing is left unsaid or unseen in this banal drama.

The film begins with a phone call: After his wife Jane (Helen Westcott) admits to having a long affair, David Trask (Gary Merrill), an Iowa lawyer, informs her that he abandons her and their two daughters, after 12 years of marriage, heading to Los Angeles.

His flight is delayed, and while waiting he meets 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. He is returning home to wife Claire (Beatrice Straight) and teenage son Jerry (Ted Donaldson), planning to tell the truth about the accident. (It was him who was driving)

Aspiring actress Binky Gay (Shelley Winters) is hoping to free her husband Mike Carr (Craig Stevens) from his domineering mother, former stage star Sally Carr (Evelyn Varden), who looks down on her.

Traveling salesman Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn) shares a photo of his presumably young, attractive wife Marie (Bette Davis) in swimsuit.

When a storm forces the aircraft to land, they continue to share their stories during the long layover, exchanging phone numbers, while hoping to reunite one day.

Resuming the journey, the aircraft crashes and Trask is one of the of survivors; most of the passengers and crew are killed. 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 that Binky had been cast in the musical South Pacific on Broadway.

When Trask visits Marie, he sees not the beautiful girl of Eddie’s photo, but a paralyzed invalid. Marie reveals that she had left Eddie, whom she found to be vulgar, for another man, Marty Nelson (Warren Stevens), who then deserted her. While in the hospital, confined and feeling hopeless, Eddie arrived to take her home. Marie tells Trask that despite his obnoxious behavior, Eddie was a decent man who had taught her the meaning of love.

Marie’s story changes Trask’s mind, and he calls Jane to tell her he’s returning home.

Merrill’s wife Bette Davis asked Negulesco if she could play the small role of Marie Hoke, feeling “it would be a change of pace for me. I believed in the part more than its length. I have never understood why stars should object to playing smaller parts if they were good ones.”

Phone Call from a Stranger was the third and weakest on-screen pairing of Merrill and Davis, after All About Eve  (1950) and Another Man’s Poison (1951).

Stage actress Beatrice Straight, who made her screen debut in this film, would win the Best Supporting Actress in 1976 for Sidney Lumet’s Network.


Merrill and Winters reprised their roles for a Lux Radio presentation on January 5, 1953.