Phone Call from a Stranger is a 1952 American film noir drama 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 employs flashbacks to relive the three characters’ pasts.
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. Boisterous traveling salesman Eddie Hoke (Keenan Wynn), who is always ready with a bad joke or a silly idea, shares a photograph of his young, attractive wife Marie (Bette Davis) wearing a swimsuit. When a storm forces the aircraft (Douglas DC-3) 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.
Claire confides that Jerry has run off because he blames her for his father’s frequent absences and drinking. Trask finds the young man and convinces him to return home, even for a short while, to hear what he has to say about his father. Claire objects to Jerry learning the truth about the car accident and about how she went along with a lie to protect both her husband and her son, but when Trask explains Fortness’ deep sense of guilt and his determination to right the wrong he had committed, Jerry has a change of attitude.
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. Mike thanks Trask for giving Binky “such a beautiful success. The kind she always dreamed about, but never could have”.
Trask’s final visit is to Marie; he discovers she 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). The two planned to drive to Chicago, stopping here and there and enjoying their new freedom together. During one such stopover at a lake, however, Marie hit her head on the underside of a dock while swimming and received her paralyzing injury. Marty abandoned her. While in the hospital, confined to an iron lung and feeling hopeless, Eddie, completely forgiving her and saying, “Hiya, beautiful,” came 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 true reconciliation; he calls Jane to tell her he’s returning home.