It's not much of a movie, but in the Duplass brothers' "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" a misdialed phone number — Mis-tapped? Mis-punched? Who dials anymore, anyway? — gets the bonged-out dreamer played by Jason Segel thinking he was contacted for a reason. He's already obsessed with the M. Night Shyamalan film "Signs." Surely this must be a sign as well.
Jeff takes the errant call in his temporary-bordering-on-forever lair, in his mother's basement, which he rarely leaves. In that regard the movie may as well be set in 1954, the year of "Dial M for Murder."Today we rarely see a character, even the slackest of slackers, talking on a phone (smartphone or dumbphone) that isn't just another traveling accessory, designed for communication on the run, untethered by anything like an actual cord. Think about it. If Grace Kelly had gotten that call from Ray Milland on an Android the would-be killer in Hitchcock's "Dial M" would've been running, tripping, scrambling all over the place.
In the pre-cell era, a phone call meant atmosphere. It meant a character often stepped inside a phone booth, a private universe in a public place. Even outside of the box, the movies have given us an unusual number of memorable phone calls. The greats, most of them, took place when phones could be wielded like weaponry, and were solid pieces of furniture, like Philco radios.
No single telephonic conversation on screen can beat the one placed by Peter Sellers as the president of the United States, on the horn with Soviet premier Dimitri in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). Who needs to hear what's being said on the other end of the line? Nobody. How many screenwriters and directors today would have the nerve to let the audience in on only one side of a conversation?
An aesthetic peak in the movies was reached early with the so-called "candlestick phone," the two-piece affair that bespeaks "Front Page" wisecracks and "Gimme rewrite." One of my favorite single shots in cinema is a wordless tracking shot from Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" (1940), the one in which the candlestick phones littering the Chicago Criminal Courts building press room are ringing off their hooks just after the prisoner, Earl Williams, escapes. That's how evocative those phones were, and are: They don't even need actors.
Of course that film had actors, the best. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell knew how to fling and wave a candlestick phone as more than a mere prop. They became extensions of their characters' gift of gab — instruments of joy, torture, punctuation and provocation.
In the movies, then and now, the phone is the sentry bearing news, often very bad news. In Tom Ford's "A Single Man," the 2009 film for which Colin Firth should've won his first Oscar, Firth's character receives news via the phone that his lover has died in a car accident. The time is the early 1960s. The phone is stationary. Firth is stationary as well, planted in his reading chair. The grief sinks in. The conversation is achingly civil. We see the dawning impact of the news on Firth's face, hear it in his subtly cracking voice.
A phone, in the right actor's hands, is more than something to hold, more than an increasingly sleek and wimpy way to receive information. It's a device relaying an unseen human voice. And there is eternal mystery and power in such things.
Movies on the radio and online: Michael joins a three-way "Pillow Talk"-style party line with Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen on "Filmspotting," 11 p.m. Fri. and midnight Sat. on WBEZ-FM (91.5) and via podcast at filmspotting.net.
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