Hanging on the Telephone

The most memorable bad phone calls in movie history

Remember when you used to have to call people on the phone? The 21st Century has made a lot of previously standard forms of communication almost obsolete and getting an important phone call used to be a big part of what pushed a movie’s plot forward. Whoever was on the other end probably had something Really Important happening, for either good or ill, and we learned to expect that whenever a phone started ringing it meant that some serious shit was about to go down.

I wonder how these kinds of conversations will happen in movies of the future—will the bad guys demand their ransom via Skype? Will the meet cutes of the future happen via Zoom? Old school as it is, the phone call is still full of dramatic possibilities. It can be menacing, romantic, cringe-worthy, heartbreaking, or a chance for some inspired comic riffing. It’s even better when the results of the conversation are a prelude to a disaster. Before every visual story turns into a Vine or a series of Instagram posts, let’s enjoy a few examples of what happened when people were left hanging on the telephone.

Taxi Driver

Travis Bickle isn’t a people person. His story is in large part about his inability to connect with other humans in a meaningful way. When he gets a crush on Cybill Shephard, she is intrigued enough to have lunch and even sportingly goes to a porn movie. But when he calls her later on, all we hear is his side of the conversation, pathetically asking about the flowers he sent. The camera turns away, to an empty hallway and an open door, as if shaking its head at Travis’s alienated cluelessness.

Dr. Strangelove

Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley has a hilarious (and most likely totally ad-libbed) one-sided phone call with the Soviet Premier who is apparently having quite a party on the other end, who is very sad that they don’t talk anymore and agrees that it’s good to be fine. The fact that what prompted this chat is news of imminent nuclear annihilation makes the whole scene that much more amusing.

Glengarry Glen Ross

The great Jack Lemmon plays washed-up salesman Shelly “The Machine” Levine whose cutthroat real estate outfit (“coffee is for closers!”) makes him increasingly desperate. Smarmy Shelly really needs a sale, any sale, and so he squirms into a phone booth (those were the days) in the pouring Chicago rain to follow up on a shabby lead, pretending that he’s got a secretary who just made room for one last call. Spoiler alert: he does get the sale but it’s not what he thinks it is.

Sorry To Bother You

Taking the desperate salesman vibe to a very different place, Boots Reilly’s film explores the heretofore untold story of telemarketing. This clip spotlights the use of the “white voice” as a way of suggesting comfort, ease, and entitlement in order to make some quick cash. I know what it’s like doing that job, and it’s no fun even when you can’t help but have a white voice. Patton Oswalt and David Cross must have had a ball at those overdubbing sessions.

Black Christmas

The horror genre alone features plenty of creepy phone calls, but this one might have inspired them. A 70’s sorority house keeps getting obscene phone calls from an unidentified but menacing presence in this atmospheric horror classic. Sisters are getting picked off, one by one, and the viewer knows only a bit more than the victims do, but even we shudder at the now famous line: “the call is coming from inside the house!”

Goodfellas

At first, Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway is almost giddy at hearing that Joe Pesci’s manic Tommy is going to be a made man at last. When he hits the phone booth at the appointed time, he gets the curt message that he won’t be seeing Tommy again anytime soon. His irate trashing of the booth does have some telltale signs of the Method—we can almost see him thinking what he’s going to do next—but his quick flicker of emotions is masterful, and we know that phone booth doesn’t have long to live.

Swingers

Jon Favreau made his name with this breezy study of arrested development and Rat Pack nostalgia. When his nervous nice guy Mike tries to get in touch with a possible love interest he wears his post-breakup delirium on his sleeve. The scene hits home with people because it’s so brutally true to life—admit it, we’ve all been cringey at some point or another. Good thing voicemails are now a thing of the past.

Punch-Drunk Love

Adam Sandler plays against type (or does he?) as Barry Egan, a mopey average joe who finds true love as sudden empowerment. After finally standing up for himself and realizing the con he’s been pulled into, he angrily confronts Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sleazy phone-sex businessman. Hoffman, who knew how to play schmucks as well as anyone, gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of his confrontation with Egan. He really nails all eleven of those harried SHUT UPs and adds some extra herky-jerky head motions just for extra effect.

 

 

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Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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