Phone technology may have changed wildly over the past 100 years – from those nutty handsets that looked like metal daffodils to today’s sleek cells – but it hasn’t stopped screenwriters and directors from putting phones front and center at key moments in the action. Here are some of my favorite movie phone moments.
THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939)
Might as well start with the birth of the telephone. Don Ameche does his able best as inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who makes the first successful phone call when he spills a chemical on his lap and inadvertently phones his assistant, Mr. Watson (Henry Fonda), in another room.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
This is more like it. In one of the best films of all time, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant play fast-talking newshounds who make a row of old phones look like cutting-edge technology. They swing those handsets around like samurai swords, carrying on multiple conversations at lightning speed.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart played one of the most romantic phone scenes in movie history here, when they shared an earpiece and receiver. Makes you wonder how many potential relationships have been spoiled by speakerphone.
DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954)
A fateful phone call is the centerpiece of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant thriller. A devious husband (Ray Milland) has blackmailed a thug to murder his unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly). The murder is set to take place when the wife answers the phone, except …
PILLOW TALK (1959)
This silly film about gender politics and double identities grows sillier and more odd with each passing year. That said, it is undeniably iconic in its look and sensibility – including its enthusiastic use of the split-screen phone call.
This, for a generation, was the ultimate phone call: The one between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that would determine whether global nuclear war would occur. Our old friend Fonda plays the American president who must come to terms with the Soviet premier as warheads threaten the world. What’s terrific here is the cold, unfeeling vibe the phone itself exudes.
ANNIE HALL (1977)
Amid the many killer jokes in “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen includes two great phone bits. One is the way Tony Roberts keeps calling his office to tell his “people” where he can be reached. The other is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo as a guy calling his therapist because he can’t remember his mantra.
THE VERDICT (1982)
What an incredible actor Paul Newman was. I’ve watched this film many times and I always marvel at Newman’s total commitment as a washed-up attorney with one last chance at redemption. Much of the character’s desperation comes through in phone calls. Not only that, but the entire movie hinges on – wait for it – a phone bill. Swear to God. And there’s a ringing phone in the final scene that is absolutely haunting.
LOCAL HERO (1983)
Movies don’t come any sweeter than director Bill Forsyth’s story of an American oil company stooge (Peter Riegert) who is sent to purchase an entire Scottish fishing village in order to build a refinery. Scotland here is a magical realm, and the only connection to the corrupt, wider world is this little phone booth.
WALL STREET (1987)
Far from a great movie, but it speaks strongly to a particular American era. Never before, and never after, would you see those dopey, gigantic mobile phones.
For another view of phone booths, check out Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece (okay, ONE of his mob masterpieces). Robert DeNiro beats the crap out of this phone booth, after getting some sad news about poor Joe Pesci.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
It’s kind of a perfect, profane time capsule of great writing and acting. David Mamet’s penetrating drama about shabby real estate salesmen just oozes with delusion and deception. All the icky sales calls are just icing on a rancid cake.
Give Drew Barrymore her due. She nailed this scene in the ironic/iconic horror flick “Scream.” Tell me it didn’t give you a chill when Ghostface asked, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
THE MATRIX (1999)
Let me be clear. I love “The Matrix.” Love it. But there’s something hilarious and crazy about the way so much of this film revolved around trying to find a decent landline.
PHONE BOOTH (2002)
The third of our phone booth trilogy, this one I think does a great job of using phone technology to make a point about how exposed we feel as individuals in an increasingly-watchful society. Then again, I could be way off. It’s a Colin Farrell thriller, after all.
THE DEPARTED (2006)
To me, this is the best use of the modern phone in a major film. Another Scorsese mob picture (this one set in Boston), it allows its characters to use their cell phones just as often as real people do. There’s even texting! But you know what I liked most? The way Jack Nicholson’s mob boss opened and closed his cell in an aggressive manner that completely mirrored his King Of All Men attitude.
So those are my picks. What are yours? This is The Jimbo List, signing off.