Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Telephones in Movies: "L.A. Calling"

 On a gorgeous end-of-summer day, I was lounging on a beach in Corona del Mar, California. I needed to make a telephone call, but suddenly discovered there was no cell phone service in the vicinity. What most of us have come to consider a basic human right – to communicate electronically whenever we choose – was suddenly, shockingly, unavailable. The experience reminded me how much movies have changed with the advent of mobile phones. Way back when, in any kind of thriller, characters were always on the lookout for telephone booths, so they could make an essential call (or change into an appropriate superhero outfit). Today, with cell phones on hand, the canny screenwriter has to think of clever ways in which to disable those handy little gadgets that are so good at keeping us in touch with the world.

I can recall several Hollywood oldies in which a telephone was almost a central character. In 1948, there was Sorry, Wrong Number, based on a melodramatic short play about a bedridden woman who suddenly realizes, after a flurry of mysterious phone calls, that she’s about to be murdered by her husband’s hirelings. The film version, starring an Oscar-nominated Barbara Stanwyck, is far more complicated, but builds to the same kind of startling climax, ending with a lingering shot of that bedside telephone. Much more obscure is a drama I saw at last spring’s Noir Fest, sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation. In Chicago Calling (1952), a down-on-his-luck World War II vet struggles to keep the phone company from repossessing his telephone. Though  he badly needs to go out and look for a job, he’s also desperate to be at home with access to a working phone line, because his estranged wife will be calling from Chicago with news of their young daughter’s life-or-death surgery. What a difference a cell phone would make in that scenario.

Not long ago I caught a recent thriller that once again focused on the power of telephones. The Call opens, most effectively, in a Los Angeles 911 call center, where trained operators are always standing by, ready and able to handle any possible crisis. In the leading role is Halle Barry, as a call-center veteran who has been badly rattled by a flub that cost the life of a young girl. Naturally, she gets embroiled in a similar case, when a teenager manages to place a 911 call from inside the trunk of her kidnapper’s car. Pretty soon, Barry has flung aside the rule book and is deeply involved with tracking down the perp, first electronically and then (natch!) in person.

For quite a while I was enjoying the film for its clever manipulation of what we expect about today’s mobile communications. Shouldn’t the police be able to track down the origins of a cell phone call? Well, no – not if the victim has inadvertently switched her own phone with her bad-girl buddy’s untraceable throwaway. And aside from switched phones, there are dropped phones, broken phones, forgotten phones . . . you get the idea. It’s only when Barry gets up-close-and-personal with a creep who abducts young women to satisfy his own outrageous kinks that the movie enters the realm of silliness. Eventually Barry and victim Abigail Breslin (the former Little Miss Sunshine, who spends most of this movie in her underwear) are venting their righteous feminist anger on a white male jerk who’s as unconvincing as he is despicable. Given Breslin’s state of undress and the world of hurt inflicted on various cast members, it’s totally fair to call The Call torture-porn. That ending? I wish they’d just phoned it in.


  1. Having written three horror movie scripts in the last ten years - I think you have to address the cell phone issue - make them unusable, even though that is a bit of a cliche. But if you don't at least do a quick throwaway scene explaining why they aren't usable in a movie set this century - you're undermining your movie's realism. For the record, the first and second movies were set far enough out in the boonies, that "no signal" was easy to add. The next one was about ne'er-do-wells on the run after committing a crime. I had the ringleader destroy all their cellphones, explaining they could be too easily tracked through them. Then, later, when they've chosen the wrong rural house to steal a car from - this one contains a wily torture murderer with all kinds of security gadgets installed to keep you in the house with him - they simply have no phones to use.

    I have not seen The Call - not sure I will. I did enjoy Cellular - which puts a kidnapped Kim Basinger on a one shot connected call from a cobbled together landline to a random cell phone carried by Chris Evans - who must try to get help to her without losing the call. Farfetched? Sure. Exciting? Oh yes. It's a modest thriller, but an enjoyable watch.

  2. Mr. C, sounds as though you (and the makers of Cellular) have been mighty creative in explaining why cell phones couldn't solve the existing problem and save the protagonist from jeopardy.