Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Another Fox anthology

When I recommended A Letter to Three Wives last week, I mentioned that there was another episodic movie coming up on the Fox Movie Channel this week. That movie, Phone Call From a Stranger, airs at 10:00 AM ET on May 7.

Gary Merrill stars as a passenger on a plane west to Los Angeles. Due to the fact that the plane gets delayed, he and three fellow passengers, strangers all, have the opportunity to get to know each other. Those passengers are Michael Rennie, a doctor who's got a secret that could get him in legal hot water; Shelley Winters, a wannabe theater star returning from a failed stint in New York City; and Keenan Wynn, a toy salesman who's a bit of a friendly, if slightly annoying, clown, and who keeps showing off a photo of his hot wife. The weather problems that lead to the flight delays prove more ominous as they result in the plane crashing, killing all of our new-found friends except for Merrill. It is thus left to him to return to Los Angeles and help the surviving relatives of his three dead friends tie up the loose ends of their relationships with the deceased. Of course, Merrill also has his own issues....

The weakest segment is the first, involving Rennie's wife (Beatrice Straight) and estranged son. Part of the problem is that when Rennie is in the movie in the first half, he's wooden and unsympathetic, making us care less about his character than either Shelley Winters' or Keenan Wynn's characters. The ending of Rennie's story is also too pat. But, as is always good with episodic movies, if you don't like one story, wait 10 minutes for the next story.

Shelley Winters' story comes second. She was returning to a marriage that's more or less broken up, with an overbearing mother-in-law who is a faded vaudeville star and who thinks Winters is only after the family's money and her famous name. The husband and mother-in-law are both good, but it's Shelley Winters who really shines when she's around before the plane crash. Her character, in addition to having to face her husband after not making the big time in New York, is also deathly afraid of flying. However, it turns out that there is more than this going on -- in one way, Winters failed, but in another, she really didn't.

Perhaps the most interesting is the last story. Merrill goes to see the beautiful lady whose photo Keenan Wynn kept showing. The only thing is, that was a really old photo, and the lady is now a 45-year-old Bette Davis -- and a Bette Davis who is in traction after a swimming accident left her partially paralyzed. She had originally been put off by Wynn's extroverted attitude, and was going to leave with another man, but that other man didn't want her after the swimming accident and she realized that perhaps Wynn wasn't so bad after all. Davis also helps Merrill deal with his own issues....

Bette Davis was probably only in the cast of Phone Call From a Stranger because at the time it was made, she was married to Gary Merrill. Indeed, she doesn't have all that much screen time. But, she adds quite a bit to the movie. That having been said, Phone Call From a Stranger would still be a very good movie even without her; the ensemble cast is, with the exception of Rennie, quite good all around. Thankfully, Phone Call From a Stranger has made it to DVD, and should be a treat especially if you enjoy the movies of Davis or Shelley Winters.

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