Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone on March 7, 1876. That means that tomorrow Bell’s invention will celebrate its 139th anniversary. Nearly a century and a half of communication against separation. But, for us cinephiles, the telephone can function in more ways than one.
Really, phone calls are counter-intuitive to the purpose of theater and cinema. Ideally, characters should be seen together, interacting within the same frame or stage, but every so often, a movie uses a phone call to unexpected effect, sometimes multiplying narrative influence, enhancing emotional impact, or inventing an entirely new method of moving a story.
With that in mind, let’s discuss the ten best movie phone calls.
10. Lost Highway – “I told you I was here.”
In a career filled with general eeriness, David Lynch has two film scenes that stand alone in their ability to function as individual nightmares. The most obvious is the man behind the diner in Mulhulland Drive (I just peed a little typing that), and the second is this: the creepy Mystery Man at the party in Lost Highway (I just peed out the rest). The pale, bald, grinning stranger approaches Fred (Bill Pullman) at a party and insists that he is currently at Fred’s house, even though he’s standing just in front of Fred. To prove the point, the man urges Fred into the creepiest phone call in film history. A lot happens before and after in the movie, but this individual exchange functions just fine as a short vignette.
09. Anchorman – “Glass Case of Emotion.”
Oh, good. A welcome tonal shift. I know that drunk party goers of the 2000s quoted all of the charm from Anchorman, but if you can watch Burgundy’s comically heightened reaction to the presumed loss of his dog Baxter without cracking a smile, you have very strong will and even stronger cheek muscles. If you aren’t smiling, you’re trying not to smile.
08. The Impossible – “I Will Find Them.”
And no more smiling. The 2012 hyper-drama The Impossible is emotional pornography (there’s nothing wrong with that). Henry’s (Ewan McGregor) mid-movie phone call to his in-laws recalls the similarly devastating phone call placed by Brad Pitt in Babel in that it becomes an illustration of distance, panic, and helplessness put forth by a man trying his best to get through an unimaginable situation. This entry is a two-fer: the first phone call ends in an incomprehensible expression of grief which is then made even more heartbreaking by the kindness of the strangers insisting on a second call to clear things up.
07. When a Stranger Calls – “Have you checked the children?”
Perhaps the most straightforward phone call on the list. No trickery here. Just a malicious caller with a cryptic message and Carol Kane’s reaction. In execution, the 1979 horror film might not hold up so well, but conceptually, thanks in large part to Kane’s wide, panicked eyes, it informed the nightmares of babysitters for decades to come.
06. Dial M for Murder – The Murder Set-Up
In this Hitchcock classic, it wasn’t the content of the call that mattered, but the act of answering. Before cell phones took over, landlines dictated that phone calls be answered from a very specific spot, which allowed for Hitchcock’s inventiveness to take over. Like many of the legendary director’s more crafty methods, The use of the phone call as a place marker for Margot’s murder is a plot device whose influence is traceable throughout film history, most notably in 2002’s Phone Booth and, in the most breathtaking application, 2005’s Munich, when the wrong person rushes to answer a sniper-watched phone.
05. Ransom – “GimmebackmahSON!”
Remember when we all used to applaud Mel Gibson’s ability to go from zero to batshit insane at the flip of a switch? Remember how we thought it was acting ability? Those were fun times. Gibson has always been notable for his skills of emotional expressiveness and this high tension exchange in Ransom, in which he negotiates his son’s return with a kidnapper played by Gary Sinise, showcases every single emotional tool at Gibson’s disposal, climaxing in that trademark righteous anger that used to be a crowd favorite.
04. Taken – “A Particular Set of Skills”
There used to be a hell of a kick behind this now dead and beaten horse. Unfortunately, the lethal Liam genre may have played its best card shortly after it started. Bryan Mills’ calm, controlled demeanor as he addresses his daughters’ kidnappers was intimidating in a way audiences weren’t used to. The former agent’s reserved approach is a promise of disciplined justice, the perfect brief touch of characterization of a man about to effortlessly kill every single criminal in France.
03. Swingers – “I just got out of a six-year relationship…”
The first time Nikki’s machine cuts Mike (Jon Favreau) off mid-message creates an easy moment to relate to. The second time, the return call is amusing in its awkwardness. But as the machine continually interrupts him, things become painfully uncomfortable for the viewer. There aren’t many moments in film that make me feel so helpless as a spectator.
02. Dr. Strangelove – “It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call”
The comedy is in the timing. The bumbling search for the right terms. The pauses. The careful word selection meant to minimize the severity of a very severe situation. Viewers only hear half of the conversation here but President Merkin Muffley’s (Peter Sellers) reactions offer so much more satirical value than anything the USSR President might actually be saying. Dr. Strangelove is a movie about the absurdity of politicians and international politics, and this scene, likely the funniest phone call in all of film, is the clearest expression of that absurdity.
01. Scream – “What’s your favorite scary movie?”
This one is longer than you might remember. The doomed top-billed starlet almost flirtatiously engages a menacing voice on the other end of the phone. It becomes a short term game of cat-and-mouse wherein the cat doesn’t have to show up on screen. Here, Wes Craven’s use of the phone call allows for the blind arrival of his killer, and what could be scarier than knowing a killer is nearby without knowing where? This legendary introduction alone earned every chapter in the revitalizing franchise.