In Bells Are Ringing, Judy Holliday plays an answering service operator who gets personally involved in her callers’ lives. If I were showing this in one of my classes, I would have to explain to students what an answering service was—a service company employed by a business or a professional to screen, organize, and process their incoming telephone calls. Messages were taken by real human beings, who remained anonymous, and then delivered later when the customer checked in. The concept of a stranger taking their calls and the idea of having calls deferred until later are antithetical to a generation whose members are compelled to take every call or text immediately lest their lives fall apart. The film reminded me of other classic-era movies about telephones in which the plots are dependent on the characteristics and limitations of old-school land-line phone service.
Telephones are supposed to ensure a measure of safety and well-being, because if you are ill, you can call a doctor or ambulance, and if there is an intruder, you can phone the police. But, anyone who believes that a phone will protect you from harm need only see Sorry, Wrong Number. Spoiled invalid Barbara Stanwyck is home alone in bed when a crossed wire during a phone call causes her to hear someone making plans to commit murder. Efforts to report the call are thwarted by the phone company and the police. As she tries to track down her husband via phone, she realizes he is involved in shady dealings as the vice-president of her father’s pharmaceutical company. When she discovers that the intended victim is herself, her telephone does not help her. Though the phone may have been a source of comfort, it only gave her the illusion that it was her lifeline to the outside world, and a safety net for her well-being. She was essentially trapped by her dependence on the phone, lulled into thinking that it could compensate for a life lived in the real world.
In Dial M for Murder, the phone plays an even more destructive role in the plot to murder a spouse. Ray Milland stars as a cuckolded husband who blackmails an old acquaintance to kill his wife. The plan is for Milland to call her at home at a specified time, luring her to the phone. When she answers, the killer will step out from behind the window curtains and strangle her while the husband listens. Like all old-school telephones, their house phone is immobile and stationary, situated on the desk by the window. The position of the phone and the wife when answering it are central to the plan. However, as played by Grace Kelly, the wife proves to be more resourceful than anticipated, and she kills the supposed intruder in self-defense—with a pair of scissors. I like the use of the phone call and the scissors in this story. Most wives feel loved and cared for when their husbands call to check in—it’s a trope in popular culture to suggest a loving relationship. Here, Hitchcock, who never missed an opportunity to point out the dark side of romance, turns that signifier of love and devotion into a message of murder. The wife’s weapon—scissors—is a motif associated with sewing or knitting, or women’s work. There is something subversive about dispatching the killer with a tool related to domesticity.
The phone becomes an instrument of death in the film noir Detour when the femme fatale takes the phone into her bedroom to prevent the luckless protagonist from calling for help. She accidentally falls with the cord wrapped around her neck, leading to her strangulation. Other common tropes in which the illusion of safety is shattered include intruders who cut the phone lines to prevent calls for help, or intruders who force victims to pretend everything is okay when friends or family call to check on them. And, who can forget the horror films in which the babysitter or sorority girl is alone in a house, while a psycho calls her from another room. All of these plot devices subvert the idea that the phone can be an instrument to enhance safety. They also play on the limitations of old-fashioned land-lines—cords, outside wires, its immobility—to create tension.
Telephones are also supposed to increase or enhance communication among people. But, in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk, a party line between Doris Day and Rock Hudson leads to a feud between them as Hudson is always on the line trying to seduce women. Try explaining a party line to young cellphone users! In Don Siegel’s thriller Telefon, the phone is an instrument of espionage and destruction as opposed to helpful communication. A spy uses the phone to activate brainwashed communist killers by reciting a Robert Frost poem to them.
The phone’s failure to communicate key information at the right time is central to the bitter climax of Nicholas Ray’s film noir In a Lonely Place. Bogart plays a gifted screenwriter whose violent temper gets in the way of his career and his love life. His crusty personality and propensity for violence place him under suspicion for the murder of a young girl he barely knew. In the meantime, he turns over a new leaf after he meets beautiful neighbor Gloria Grahame. He returns to writing, and he develops a nicer demeanor. But, when his old insecurities and neuroses resurface, Grahame decides to escape his jealousy and possessiveness by secretly taking a plane out of town. Suspense mounts each time the phone rings: Is it the airline confirming her reservation; will Bogart answer it by mistake and discover her escape plan? The tension—and Bogart—explode when he finally does pick up her ringing phone. Later, when the call comes from the police to tell Grahame that Bogart’s name has been cleared in the murder, it is too little, too late. By that time, the damage to their relationship has been done. If only the call had come earlier. . . .
Many of these phone-related motifs, plot devices, and tropes have disappeared in the face of mobile phones, cellphones, Voicemail, and, good grief, Skype. Judy Holliday could never remain anonymous with Skype, while Grace Kelly could have picked up a ringing mobile phone anywhere in her home. Doris and Rock would never have met if they had cellphones, and Grahame could have taken her call later if it had gone directly to Voicemail.