Monday, 5 May 2014

Locke: A History of Phones in Film

The continued success of Locke, currently playing for a third week in cinemas, demonstrates just how much dramatic action can be generated through the humble telephone. Despite being set entirely in Tom Hardy’s car as he makes his way along the motorway to the birth of his child, the universe of the film is expanded to introduce multiple characters and action occurring off-screen thanks to the hands-free phone he spends the whole 90 minutes speaking into. Following in the footsteps of Phone Booth and Buried, it manages to tell a story with twists and pathos, all while retaining the sense of claustrophobia of a refined space that the film does not once escape. 

Films like these may be in the extreme with regard to their reliance on the telephone, but the device – so omnipotent that we barely notice it – plays a vital role in countless films. 

With less than twenty years separating Alexander Graham Bell’s first words on a telephone and the first ever motion picture hosted by the Lumiere brothers, the histories of cinema and the telephone has always been entwined, with the changing nature of telecommunications shaping the way stories on film are told.

Though appearances were scarce in the silent era as the phone had yet to be established as commonplace in the average household, as soon as people could talk in films they were talking over the phone. As demonstrated by a running joke in the original Scarface, which has the eponymous character’s secretary persistently fail at working the telephone before eventually shooting it in frustration (a great gag of overcompensation replicated in Star Wars some 45 years later: ( phone was still unreliable in its relative infancy.  

But by the fast-talking screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, telephones were used effectively to facilitate the relentless pace of the dialogue. Most of His Girl Friday consists of Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant successively picking up and slamming down phones (, while the discrepancy between what a character thinks is going on down the other end of the line and what we see really happening  is often exploited for laughs, as in Brining Up Baby when Katherine Hepburn pretends to be attacked by a leopard
Though it is often said how comic actors need other talented performers to bounce off, many of cinema’s funniest scenes derive from actors talking at a telephone. The aforementioned Cary Grant was particularly good at this, while the comic genius Peter Sellers flourished with the sole control over his scene in Dr Strangelove as the US president talking to his (unheard) Russian counterpart. 

Whether or not we can hear the recipient of a call is one of the subtle but significant ways in which action is shaped. While scenes like Sellers’s above– and those that utilise that distinct tinny sound to denote someone’s voice over the phone - keep the focus on the actor, instances when we witness both ends of the line help expand a story’s scope. This use of montage and the possibility of being in multiple places at once is one of the main things that set cinema apart from the theatre, and the phone is a particularly practical means of jumping from one scene to another in just a moment. 

Phones not only give characters access to others far away, but also provide a more depersonalised form of contact, which helps us explain how Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are more candid to each other when talking through pretend phones in Before Sunrise ( ). There is a certain comfort talking to someone who you know to be far away, and horror films have many times tapped into the terrifying scenario where that buffer is breached: in Nightmare on Elm Street Freddy Kruiger’s tongue somehow bursts out of the receiver, while phone calls in Lost Highway and Scream become unbearably tense once it transpires that the voice on the other end is not where we thought it was , .

Even outside the horror genre, the phone provides dramatic situations not possible in everyday talk – the abrupt hang up, the unanswered call and the ignored call all carry great dramatic weight. The very sound of phone ringing is enough to unsettle us as viewers conditioned to answering it, and certainly ramps up the tension in this scene out of No Country for Old Men. 

As the technology of phones advance, the way stories are told on film must adapt. The days when phone booths functioned as little urban islands for communication (see Dirty Harry) are all but over following the invention of the mobile phone (via the pager, which played such a key part in movies from the 1990s and season one of The Wire). 

Mobiles have, as satirised in this scene in Scott Pilgrim vs the World (, hugely sped up the time it takes to get in touch with one another, and as such have had big consequences on the way action unfolds. For instance, it now seems too contrived to have a character unable to track down another given the ubiquity of phones. The Departed, with its constant phoning, texting and double-crossing, is perhaps the finest example of a thriller in the age of mobiles, with twists in the plot occurring relentlessly as characters are able to access vital information at the press of a button.   

Mobiles are similarly fundamental to The Bourne Ultimatum, where the phone call is no longer presented as a private conversation. The swift way the CIA use Bourne's phone signal to trace his  location taps into the current climate of the surveillance state, by now practiced on a far wider and more sophisticated level than that the more crude techniques explored in 1974’s The Conversation 

While Bourne documents contemporary technology at government-level, this year’s Her draws upon the smartphone to critique modern day private lives, envisioning a near future where phones have dominated our lives so much that a romantic relationship is possible with them. The protagonist’s deep understanding is far away from the comical ignorance of the secretary in Scarface – by now phone technology has engulfed our whole lives. 

Phones have, therefore, always been a part of the movies, but perhaps never so much as they are today. Both Her and Locke could both even be considered in their own distinct ‘Phone Film’ genre, given how their very essence are concentrated within the device. With phones more omnipresent than ever, expect many more films in the future to be shaped entirely by a phone.


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