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Telephone Scenes in the Movies

Since our editor Eric Krapf recently did a post on telephone songs I thought I would balance the scales with this post of famous telephone scenes in the cinema. In no particular order I have selected 1. Phone Booth (2004): Colin Farrell is walking along the streets when he picks up a ringing telephone in a phone booth. The voice on the other end is that of an extortionist sniper who tells Farrell that he will be shot if he hangs up. The voice of Kiefer Sutherland (star of 24) as the sniper was added in post-production, but Farrell is actually talking to someone on the line during his scenes. I personally don't know what is more unlikely: a sniper extortionist on a midtown New York rooftop or a phone booth on a midtown New York sidewalk. The telephone handset gives a performance on par with that of Farrell. Valuable life lesson: Don't answer phones without caller ID.

2. Cellular (2004): 2004 was a big year for telephones in the movies. Kim Basinger gives an at-times hysterical performance as a kidnapped woman locked in a room with a smashed telephone who is somehow able to place a call by tinkering with the wires. A surfer dude receives the call on his cell phone and gets the attention of the police to help poor Kim by stealing a car and waving around a gun. Good thing the cell phone had plenty of battery life left when he received the call. This film is a good reason why Ms. Basinger should confine her acting performances to Veronica Lake impersonations (see LA Confidential, her Oscar-winning performance)

3. The President's Analyst (1967): A clever spoof of the secret agent films of the 1960s, James Coburn (Our Man Flint, himself), plays the reluctant psychiatrist of the President of the United States who finds himself the target of multiple secret agencies and proceeds to run. Although the KGB is on the scene, when Coburn is finally captured in an isolated roadside phone booth the real villain of the film is revealed at as TPC (The Phone Company). TPC wants Coburn to influence his client the President to pass legislation mandating implanted telephone receivers in everyone's brain to reduce telephone equipment and outside plant maintenance and service expenses. Years ahead of its time, the film featured a prerequisite psychedelic hippie scene common to so many later 1960s films that is laughable today. A scene late in the film featuring a TPC commercial explaining the reasoning behind telephone implants was dead-on and a great parody of the low tech commercials of the time. A must film for all telephony enthusiasts.

4. Pillow Talk (1969): Seen today, the film demands the suspension of disbelief for more than a few plot points: Doris Day as a middle-aged virgin, Rock Hudson as a rampant womanizer, and party lines in New York City. Difficult to know which is the most unbelievable. This was Doris and Rock's first film together and set the tone for the two follow-ups (although some seem to remember a lot more by confusing Rock with James Garner). Doris and Rock meet cute on their telephone party line and share an online bathtub scene that was considered quite risque for its time (remember it was still the Eisenhower years, not yet the swinging sixties) with a split screen shot of the two showing their feet seemingly pressing against each other while lounging in their tubs.

5. Dial M for Murder (1954): A Hitchcock dud from the 1950s that did well at the box-office because it was filmed using 3D effects (especially during the plunging scissor murder scene). The pivotal plot point occurs when Grace Kelly, on an alibi telephone call from her husband (played by Ray Milland), is attacked by a blackmailed colleague of her husband. Princess Grace fends off the attacker and kills him instead. The film was remade for television several times and was also remade for the big screen as Perfect Murder (1998) with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas taking on the Kelly and Milland roles. Interesting to note that in both cinematic versions the real-life age difference between the performers playing the wife and husband roles was about a quarter century (or par for the movies).

6. The Spiral Staircase (1945): This was a bloodless serial killer film that would be the plot model for countless beautiful teenagers in distress films during the past 30 years. Dorothy McGuire (perhaps best known as the Mother in the Disney classic Old Yeller) played Helen, a mute house worker who is the target of the local village's resident serial killer of disabled young woman. Helen turned mute at a young age following a traumatic experience, but must make a phone call to the local constabulary (as they were known in small English villages many years ago) for help when the killer is identified as the owner of the house she is working in. Picking up the handset, Helen is unable to make a sound for what seems an eternity until she finally utters her first words of the film minutes before the conclusion. Life lesson: It takes a traumatic event to correct a traumatic event. The film thriller is noteworthy for its cinematographic use of shadows and darkness to convey a sense of fear and danger. The background thunderstorm doesn't hurt, either, during the climatic telephone scene. This film was also remade several times for television and once for the big screen, but none approached the scare factor of the original.

7. The Great Ziegfield (1936): This Best Picture Oscar winner features one of the most famous telephone scenes in film as played by Best Actress Oscar winner Luise Rainier (currently the oldest living Oscar winner). Ms. Rainier played a supporting role in the film, but managed to beat out Greta Garbo's classic Camille performance to win the Academy Award that year, based almost exclusively on her telephone scene (the last she had in the film). Her famous scene was a phone conversation with ex-husband Florenz Ziegfield (played in the film by William Powell). It was shot as a one-sided conversation without an appearance by Powell. Rainier's telephone scene was the primary reason for her Oscar win. At the time it was considered a bravura performance, but when seen today it appears too over the top to be taken seriously as great acting. Her French-accented English sounds like a parody of itself. Ironically, Ms. Rainier also won the Best Actress Oscar the following year for her role as O-Lan in The Good Earth, a part for which she spoke very little. In contrast to her role as Anna Held, her O'Lan was quiet and understated. No phone scenes in the latter film.

8. Bells are Ringing (1960): This film version of the Broadway musical starred Judy Holliday (her last film appearance and a re-creation of her Tony-winning stage role) and Dean Martin. Ms. Holliday played an answering service operator who unwittingly fronted a bookie operation by taking bets placed over the phone in not-too-ingenious code. She also falls in love with one of her clients (Dean Martin), but she uses a little old lady voice when they talk with each during phone conversations, complicating the romance situation. Answering services have largely been replaced by voice mail, and off track betting has helped pushed aside bookies who take racing bets.

9. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): The title of this Barbara Stanwyck starrer is probably more famous than the film itself. Stanwyck played an invalid wife confined to her bed; Burt Lancaster played her husband who hires someone to kill his wife. The key plot point occurs when Stanwyck picks up her telephone and accidentally hears two men plotting a murder (her murder as it turns out) when telephone wires somehow become crossed. What a coincidence!! This is one of Stanwyck's most famous roles. She received her fourth (and final) Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but she plays it too hysterically for modern tastes. After a while you don't blame Lancaster for planning to knock her off. As an aside, Agnes Morehead (now known primarily as Samantha's Mother on the Bewitched television comedy) played the role in its original radio broadcast and gave a superior performance as the sole performer in the drama. At the end of the film Lancaster has second thoughts about his plan, tries to warn his wife by phoning her, but the deed has just been done. The killer answers the phone with the words "Sorry, wrong number." Quick shot of Lancaster with a look of shock, then a fade to black. The film was remade for television in the late 1980s with famous thespian Loni Anderson taking on the Stanwyck role. She may not have given a better performance, but Loni looked a lot better in a nightgown.

10. Telefon (1977): This is one of the few good movies Charles Bronson starred in after he made the original Death Wish (1974). Bronson plays a "good" Russian KGB agent on the trail of a "bad" KGB agent who is triggering a series of sabotage attacks on American military installations by phoning sleeper agents and reciting a line of a Robert Frost poem. The sleeper agents were part of Operation Telefon, hence the film's title. Bronson's Lithuanian heritage (he was born Charles Buchinsky, a name used in the credits of his very early film roles) was useful for the part, because his Russian-accented English as KGB Colonel Borzov was not laughable. The film's title was taken from the KGB's plan called Operation Telefon: brainwash young agents into thinking they were Americans, have them grow up in America unaware of their Russian heritage, and be available for suicide missions should Cold War escalation require attacks on American soil. In the end, Bronson tracks down and kills the rogue KGB agent and returns to Mother Russia. The movie is surprisingly suspenseful and also gave a nice role to Lee Remick, a very underappreciated actress, as an American operative assisting Bronson in his mission.