In my private life, the telephone is a wonderful instrument, allowing me to keep in touch with remote friends and family. In some ways it is superior to being face-to-face with someone, because we needn't commit to looking presentable, making eye contact, or not checking email, and when the call is over, it's as if that person has left your house. No fuss. No car rides to BART.
Cell phones are a different story. They enable people to initiate calls from public spaces, as a way to pass the time while they are getting from one place to another. I always prefer that someone calls me because they want to talk with me, not because they're bored on a bus.
Landlines work well in film. They interrupt our characters just as they are about to say something important. A call allows one person in a room to receive secret information about another person, who is standing right there. Phone calls dispatch our cops and detectives to the scene of the crime. But because the telephones are land based, they have limitations. Our hero can't just call for help; he must find a phone first. And just as our hero is dialing the police, someone cuts the line.
Cell phones are more pernicious. Characters carry them at all times, and thus have constant, unlimited access to all the other characters. I've already lamented how movies and television shows use cell phones as a crutch to keep their characters from sharing scenes together, but movies and shows must also continually contrive new ways to get those darn gadgets away from our hero. The phone runs out of batteries. Or is lost. Or broken. Or we're in a tunnel. Or the relay station is blown up. Or the person on the other end of the call is still on a landline, and his line was cut. Basically, cell phones are a problem, because they keep our characters connected when the plot demands that they be isolated.
Here are ten films with scenes/plot arcs involving phone calls that work exceptionally well. Most involve landlines, but a mobile jumps in there every once in a while.
10. Telefon (1977)
Long before we could activate sleeper agents with text messages we had to do it the old fashioned way, using a diabolic technique dating back thousands of years: the telephone call. People have been unknowingly programmed as assassins. When it's their turn to bat, they receive a phone call, hear their trigger word, and they're off. Does Charles Bronson have what it takes to bring down the telecommunications industry?
9. Karthik Calling Karthik (2010)
Karthik receives nightly calls from a well-informed, more confident version of himself. By following the caller's advice Karthik is able to improve his life. He also finds great solace in the nightly calls. We've been trained by movies of the past decade to be suspicious that it might all be in his head. But mid-movie his psychiatrist and girlfriend stage a sit-in with him. When Karthik calls, he yells at Karthik for telling these two about the calls; then he asks to talk to the psychiatrist, and he gives her an ear full.
8. The Matrix (1999)
Sure, cell phones are portable. But if you want to teleport between the real world and the digital world, you're going to need a land line. In the opening scene, Trinity picks up the phone just as a truck comes crashing into her phone booth. There's no body, but we don't yet know about the Matrix, so we're just left to wonder. Later, Neo is on the phone with Cypher as he watches his teammates get unplugged. ("Not like this. Not like this.") In the finale, Neo rushes through the city trying to get to a phone; when he finally reaches the correct apartment, there's not just a phone call waiting for him, but a bullet as well.
7. The Ring (2002)
It has nothing to do with the plot. You're going to die whether you answer the phone or not. But still, it's creepy as hell. "Seven days."
6. Phone Booth (2003)
Colin Farrell does his civic duty by answering a ringing phone in a phone booth, inadvertently entering into a deadly game with an anonymous caller determined to ruin Farrell's life. The caller begins shooting people from an unseen location, and finds a way to implicate Farrell. Soon police arrive, demanding that Farrell hang up the phone and surrender himself, but if he leaves the booth, he knows he'll be shot.
5. Wait Until Dark (1967)
Audrey Hepburn tells her young neighbor to go upstairs and watch out her window. If the neighbor sees someone placing a call from the phone booth across the street, she is to wait for the caller to hang up, and then immediately call Hepburn, to signal to her that the call came from across the street, rather than from a police station or airport or wherever else the caller said they were. The emotional climax of the film comes when Hepburn hangs up her phone, not thinking for a moment to question the caller, only to have her phone immediately give the two ring signal. Hepburn despairs.
4. Lost Highway (1997)
Bill Pullman is at a party where he meets a strange, pale-skinned man with no eyebrows. No Eyebrows says he and Pullman have met before. Pullman asks where. No Eyebrows says at Pullman's house. Pullman says no, he'd remember if No Eyebrows had been to his house. No Eyebrows says, "Oh, I've been to your house, alright. In fact, I'm there right now." Pullman gives him a confused stare. He couldn't possibly mean what it sounds like he means, so what does he mean? No Eyebrows says, "Here, call me," and hands Pullman a phone. Pullman calls his own number. It rings once, then No Eyebrows's voice answers, "I told you."
3. His Girl Friday (1940)
Half the movie takes place in the press room at the county jail where ex-newspaper woman Rosalind Russell is trying to cover one last story. She and fellow journalists are shouting on the phones to be heard over each other. At different points Russell and Cary Grant are talking on two phones at once, putting down the receiver of one, yelling at each other, yelling into the phones, hanging up phones, trying to get connected to the someone at the paper. It's a deliciously chaotic din.
2. Sneakers (1992)
The gang is trying to make contact with the spooks in D.C., but are afraid that they'll just get tossed into jail if they're tracked down. They route their calls through a bunch of different satellites. As Robert Redford talks to Darth Vader on the other end, his team is using a polygraph to register whether Vader is telling the truth, and also following the progress of the spooks tracing their call all over the globe. The trace is getting closer. Redford asks if Vader can guarantee his safety. Vader says he can, but Dan Aykroyd shouts, "He's lying!" and it's a race to see if Redford can hang up the phone before the final leg of the call is traced.
1. Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
Hope Davis is set up on a string of blind dates by a personal ad her mother posted in the paper. Each suitor is more eccentric and less attractive than the last. When she calls to arrange a meet-up with one such suitor, Kevin, Kevin's brother Alan answers the phone. Hope: "Kevin?" Alan: "No, you want my brother. [yells for his brother] He's coming." Then there is this great moment, while Hope waits for Kevin to come to the phone, and Alan waits for Kevin to come to the phone, and they are both just listening to each other in silence. At first, they are waiting. But then, in the silence, they connect. They both get these curious looks on their faces, as if to ask, "Wait, who are you?", but then Kevin comes to the phone and the connection is lost. It's wonderful.