As movies and TV came around long after Alexander Graham Bell made his mark, the telephone has been an inherent part of screen storytelling from the beginning (unless, of course, your story is set in the pre-telephonic era). Thus dramatic tropes – or clichés, if you prefer – were quickly developed around it, at least around the ways we had once used it. But the mobile phone changed all that, and the smartphone even more so. So let's take a trip down memory lane as I wax not-so-nostalgic about the inconveniences posed by landline life – and the conveniences it posed for filmmakers.
- Leaving home seconds before getting a crucial phone call. Missed connections are an easy way to add suspense: "Quick, call Katie and tell her not to go outside – the killer is in her parking lot!" Cut to Katie innocently walking out of her apartment and shutting the door... moments before her home phone starts to ring. Here's another variation: "I gotta tell Joe that the house is saved from foreclosure! No need for him to do anything drastic!" Cut to grim-faced Joe leaving his house on his way to rob a bank, hang himself, etc. Ring, ring... no one's there to answer. What will happen to Joe? Filmmakers have tried to adapt this trope for cell phones, but it's harder to pull off, as few people are away from their devices for long.
- "Who is this? What do you want?" Ah, the enigmatic caller who won't speak or identify himself, freaking out whoever is on the other line. (Half the time, the caller is a psychopath; the other half, the caller is simply too nervous to speak.) Again, filmmakers still employ this tactic, but who among us picks up when our iPhone says "Caller Unknown" and we're not expecting a call? Straight to voicemail you go, psycho.
- Answering machines delivering exposition. Speaking of voicemail, who has answering machines anymore? No one under 70, that's who. I've spoken before about how movies still have their protagonists pace around their apartments as they play back loud answering machine messages – from worried mothers, demanding landlords, ex-girlfriends, etc. – that spell out the protagonist's predicament: jobless, broke, single, etc. In the real world, you're un-cinematically listening to such messages on your mobile phone, playing them one at a time instead of enduring one big string of them, beep after beep after beep.
- The line's been cut! A phone line that has been intentionally severed or downed by a storm, thus preventing calls for help, serves the same dramatic purpose as today's cell phone with the dead battery or bad reception. (Full disclosure: I relied on both tropes in my film Claustrophobia, shot in 2002 when landlines were more common.) But there is a difference: the character with the cell phone will now scramble to find a battery charger, a working phone, or a better connection. All reasonable ways to add suspense, sure, but in the Old World, if the lines are down, they're down for hours – you're incommunicado and must rely on your own wits to survive the long, dangerous night.
- Where's a payphone when you need one? A cousin to the "line's been cut" trope, you've seen this scene in countless old movies set in cities (typically New York): a character desperately needs to make a phone call, a payphone is his only option, and he must race down every street to find one. Yet someone will already be in the phone booth, blithely yakking away, wasting our hero's time. Or the phone(s) he finds will be broken. Or he won't have enough change to make a call. Today, of course, payphones have all but vanished from the earth; even screenwriters have accepted that.
- Poignantly leafing through old photo albums. True, you can theoretically take your smartphone down to your local drugstore and use their machines to print your digital photos onto paper. But you only do this when you intend to frame those photos. In the old days, paper photos were your only option, so when you were feeling sentimental – or, perhaps, looking for a clue to solve a mystery – you had to leaf through them physically, either in stacks or arranged in photo albums. Today, "photo albums" consist of hundreds of images flicked through rapidly on tiny screens. I have seen contemporary films and TV shows accurately depicting the latter, but it lacks the pizzazz of someone curled up on a couch with physical photographs. And you can't flip digital photos over to discover cryptic old messages handwritten on the back of them.
- Poring through printed materials for research. Older films often sent their characters to a library or archive to look up basic information, or had them rifle through a phone book to find a person's number or address. Phone books are now as uncommon as payphones, of course, and when a movie character now goes to a library, it's only to seek tomes from a pre-digital age. Everything else you can just look up on your computer. Same goes for those old scenes of Tarantino-esque hipsters arguing and/or bonding over trivia. What was the name of that 1970s Pam Grier prison movie? Well, we could banter about it for ten minutes, or I could take ten seconds to Google it on my Android.
- Gazing into the distance, contemplating our destinies. Of course we can still gaze into the distance when our thoughts wander. But most modern folks fill their downtime by idly scrolling through their phones. Movie stars still look better staring off into space than they do hunching over their screens.
- Even so much as talking on a phone. Films and TV shows about teenagers have embraced the fact that they text a lot: you see those cute little text bubbles as on-screen graphics. But grownups also text, all the time. I still prefer voice conversations, but I too have caved in to the notion of, "I don't want to interrupt this person's day with a phone call. I'll just shoot them a text and they'll text back when they have time." Movies can't allow for this lackadaisical approach. Communication must be urgent! Also, actors like to talk, and audiences like to hear them talk. If a film or TV show devotes more than 30 seconds to people texting, it's deadly. And so thankfully screen characters still use their phones to speak to each other, just like in the old days, even as our own conversations have devolved into hi-tech telegrams.