Features and Columns · Movies

‘Phantom Lady,’ ‘Sorry, Wrong Number,’ and the Dolly-In Recognition Shot

Be they sinister, or joyous, a dolly-in is a powerful tool.
Phantom Lady
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on November 12th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about the recognition shot, and how it appears in Phantom Lady and Sorry, Wrong Number.

In the 1940s, Hollywood saw a boom of crime films that put women at the center of investigative intrigue. Throughout the decade, a slew of genre films focused on an amateur female investigator: she’s curious, she’s tenacious, and most importantly, she’s on the case. Films like Anthony Mann’s Two O’Clock Courage and Harold Clurman’s Deadline at Dawn gave inquisitive, resourceful women a sense of detective agency, if you will.

And another two of those films, 1944’s Phantom Lady and 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number, feature a very similar visual cue: a dolly-in that occurs right as our heroines experience a moment of recognition.

Phantom Lady (which, as it happens, was produced by Universal Pictures’ first female executive, Joan Harrison), follows Carol “Kansas” Richman (Ella Raines) an ambitious secretary attempting to prove her boss didn’t kill his wife by tracking down the key to his alibi: a mysterious woman no one seems to remember. In her moment of recognition, Kansas deduces the name of the phantom lady’s distinctive hat. It’s a joyous “ah-ha!” moment in which she confidently locates another piece of the puzzle.

In Sorry, Wrong Number, a wheelchair-bound heiress (Barbara Stanwyck) overhears a conversation about a plan to kill a woman. In her moment of recognition, she learns that the target of the murder plot she’s been investigating is herself. It is dread-soaked and full of despair at the suggested violence headed her way.

Using a dolly-in is a stylish and compellingly subjective way to represent a character connecting the dots. And as the video essay below demonstrates, setting both of these recognition shots beside one another acts as an informative exercise about the unique cinematic language of each film, from the speed of the dolly-in to the sense of scale, to the use (or lack) of sound.

Watch “The Moment of Recognition: Phantom Lady and Sorry, Wrong Number“:

Who made this?

This video essay on two different deployments of the recognition shot is by Patrick Keating, a professor at Trinity University, where he teaches courses in film studies and video production. You can find more essays from Keating on his Vimeo account here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).