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Taking the drama out of a crisis?

Cinema as we know it is under threat from cell phones – those super-slim, shiny and increasingly seductive devices around which 21st-century life revolves. No, I’m not talking about the popcorn-munching, Apple-loving text addicts, whose glowing handsets ruin the big-screen experience for the rest of us. And I’m not losing any sleep over the DIY merchants who record wobbly, illegal copies of films on their mobile devices – although they are suitable cases for deportation.

No, the real issue here is what the mobile phone is doing to narrative itself. For most of the 20th century, telephones were fixed, clunky devices that rang loudly and pointlessly in empty houses. Film-makers could generate terror and suspense around anonymous calls, or phone lines being cut to isolated homes. Eavesdropping presented opportunities for comedy and romantic complications, as with the party-line antics of Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk. A phone and a long lens are the constant companions of wheelchair-bound James Stewart in Rear Window, while Hitchcock uses a ringing phone to lure Grace Kelly into the hands of her would-be strangler in Dial M for Murder.

But since phones migrated from the house and the office to pockets, bags and the great outdoors, the landscape of cinema has changed. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s abduction nightmare begins shortly after he realises he can’t contact his mother “One of those brand-new apartments: all wet paint and no telephone yet.” Yes, a portable handset could have saved Mr Thornhill/Kaplan a lot of grief.

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Does this evolving technology offer exciting new possibilities for stories based around battery failure and the untapped potential of new iPhone Apps? In the 2003 thriller Cellular, Kim Basinger’s fate lies in the hands of slacker Chris Evans, his cell phone and his willingness to believe in her plight. But Variety dismissed this LA-set kidnap tale as “a tepid recycling of old film noir chestnuts”, suggesting that high concept isn’t a substitute for coherent storytelling. Cellular writer Larry Cohen was also responsible for the more traditional Phone Booth, in which Colin Farrell’s punishment for dallying with Katie Holmes involves being trapped in a confined space and taunted by a sniper.

It’s too early to say whether the dramatic concepts explored in Cellular, or action-based TV shows like 24, will be as effective as stories that relied on old technology. But while scenes of texting, “sexting”, or downloading will become more commonplace, I don’t think they’ll make up for what’s already been lost. While old phones had weight and cinematic gravitas, it would be hard for any actor to look macho hurling a cell phone across a room. Can you imagine the aural landscape of 1940s cinema without that distinctive “Nostalgia” ringtone?

Here’s a reminder of the good old days:

All The President’s Men (1976)

Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal with a little help from “Deep Throat” and a dedication to typing and dialling. Those analogue phones could be wedged snugly under the chins of stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, proving that small is not always beautiful.

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Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Unwilling gigolo Joe Gillis (William Holden) discovers his fanatically jealous “employer” Norma Desmond (Gloria Desmond) calling his girlfriend Betty.  He grabs the receiver and smashes it into the cradle, sealing his fate and reminding us of the limitations of cell phone design when it comes to expressing rage.

La Peau Douce/The Soft Skin (1964)

Fornication is a sin, but procrastination can be fatal. At the climax of François Truffaut’s love-triangle drama, philanderer Jean Desailly waits to use a restaurant phone in a last-ditch attempt to reconcile with his wife (Nelly Benedetti). But by the time he gets through, his aggrieved spouse has already left their apartment, armed with a rifle. His number is well and truly up.

Local Hero (1983)

It’s fitting that a public phone box should be one of the stars of a comedy about the preservation of land and tradition in a Scottish fishing village. The Americans may have the big bucks, but businessman Mac (Peter Riegert) is still forced to scrabble for change so he can report back to his boss (Burt Lancaster) in Houston.

Halloween (1978)

No self-respecting strangler could ignore the possibilities offered by a nice long telephone cord. Michael Myers efficiently dispatches Lynda (PJ Soles), as a bemused Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) listens in.

– Susannah Straughan

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