It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) dir. Frank Capra
“What’re you trying to do, steal my girl?”
An iconic scene from an iconic movie, in which George and Mary talk to Mary’s husband on the phone. George and Mary have somewhat of a romantic history. In the moments leading up to the phone call they shared a rather unfriendly exchange, with neither of them quite willing to admit their feelings for each other. When Mary’s husband asks her to put George on the phone, the pair are forced to stand right beside each other in order to both be able to hear what he is saying. The tension created by their physical closeness to one another proves to be too much, as the scene eventually builds to a passionate kiss between the two. In this scene, the constraints of a 1940s phone are used to great effect, as the phone both literally and figuratively works as a means of bringing George and Mary together. Unfortunately, in a present day version of this story, Mary would likely just put the phone on speaker, allowing them to stay at a safe and comfortable distance.
When a Stranger Calls (1979) dir. Fred Walton
“Why haven’t you checked the children?”
When A Stranger Calls is an early example of the phone being used as a device for horror, as it makes the anonymity of who’s calling something to be feared. In this movie, a babysitter named Jill is tormented by an unknown caller, who repeatedly asks her to check the children. The building of tension in the opening twenty minutes of the film is remarkable, climaxing with the reveal that the calls are ‘coming from inside the house’. What the beginning of this film does is make the simple thought of answering the phone scary. The very normal sound of a phone ringing is also brilliantly made to be tense, as its breaking of silence can’t help but instil anxiety.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) dir. John Hughes
“I wanna see this dead grandmother first hand”
One of the most iconic prank calls, in which Ferris, with the help of Cameron, try to trick Mr Rooney into getting Sloane the day off school. What makes this prank so brilliant is how Mr Rooney handles it. Rooney rightfully suspects that Ferris is behind the call, but after his confidence in this suspicion leads him to insult the caller claiming to be Sloane’s father, another call comes in – from Ferris. The chaos as the panicked Rooney’s assistant, Grace, tries to prevent any more abuse is fantastic and results in a hilarious zoom on Rooney’s face as he realises what he’s done – or what he thinks he has done. This chaos continues as Rooney tries to fix the situation, with Ferris and Cameron ultimately succeeding in getting Sloane out of school.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) dir. Wes Anderson
This series of phone calls involves The Society of the Crossed Keys working to help out Gustave and Zero, in what is a very ‘Wes Anderson sequence’. The sequence is very playful; one very funny recurring joke involves several hotel concierges asking their lobby boys to take over while they answer calls. Throughout this sequence, The Grand Budapest Hotel’s already stacked cast has several popular Anderson regulars join in, none more notable than the one and only Bill Murray, who in the end gets Gustave and Zero out of trouble.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) dir. Sean Durkin
“Martha, what’s wrong?”
Martha Marcy May Marlene tells the story of a young woman named Martha, who flees from a dangerous cult and struggles back into life with her older sister. This phone call comes very soon after Martha has fled, as she calls her sister on a pay phone by a small restaurant. Martha is very reluctant to share any significant information, despite having made the call in what would seem like a cry for help. Throughout the call, the camera remains on Martha, played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen, slowly tracking in on her paranoid face. This means we get no visual on her sister, Lucy, only her worried questioning – ‘where are you?!’. Not being able to see Lucy really stresses the distance between the pair on the phone, which, similarly to the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, can be felt on both a literal and emotional scale.
Mean Girls (2004) dir. Mark Waters
“If someone said something bad about you, you’d want me to tell you, right?”
In Mean Girls, Cady Heron describes a phone call as something to be ’survived’. This is less like the survival of Jill in When A Stranger Calls, and more like a sort of social survival. The specific type of phone call being referred to is a ‘three-way call’, in which three people can all be on the same line. The stand out phone call in the film actually turns out to be a four-way call, as Cady and Gretchen attempt to turn Karen against Queen Bee, Regina. This is captured through a shifting split screen with all four parties, allowing us to see all of the characters speaking and reacting. Some great jokes come from this phone call style, such as Karen not properly switching lines, and accidentally saying ‘she’s so annoying’ to Gretchen, rather than Regina, to which Gretchen responds ‘who is?’ before Karen realises her mistake.
Lost Highway (1997) dir. David Lynch
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
A ‘mystery man’ approaches Fred at a party and claims to be in his home ‘right now’. This scene from Lost Highway is one of David Lynch’s most nightmarish, as Fred calls his home phone to which the mystery man somehow answers, despite still standing directly in front of him. Upon being asked how he did this, the mystery man breaks into laughter – both in front of Fred, and through the phone – before composing himself and walking away. This short phone call truly takes the idea of a phone being used as a device for horror to the nightmarish and surreal extreme.
Anchorman (2004) dir. Adam McKay
“Let me say something, let me say something…”
This second cry for help from a pay phone on this list certainly takes a more comedic angle, with Ron Burgundy’s downfall beginning after watching his dog and best friend, Baxter, get punted off a bridge. Ron is hysterical when he calls Brian Fantana from a ‘glass case of emotion’, leading to a hilarious struggle, as Brian attempts to understand Ron’s growingly unreadable screams.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) dir. Edgar Wright
’She’s America…she’s American’
This scene, in which Scott talks to his ex-girlfriend, Envy, on the phone, takes a very visually stylised approach to a rather basic conversation. The camera circles Scott as the lower half of Envy’s face is super imposed beside him, with some extremely dramatic lighting cues, differing the more conventional split screen style, as shown in Mean Girls. The highly stylised visuals and performance from Brie Larson as Envy clash brilliantly with the signature awkward stuttering of Michael Cera’s Scott. What this unconventional take on a phone call does is add a comical sense of drama and stakes to what is really just an awkward conversation with an ex-girlfriend.
Dr Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) dir. Stanley Kubrick
“Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly, you probably wouldn’t have even got it”
Due to a base commander going a ‘little funny in the head’, Peter Sellers’ President Muffley must call the USSR President to warn him of an approaching nuclear attack. Throughout the call a round table full of men listen in silence as the only sound comes from the awkward small talk of the president, while he prepares to break the news. The USSR president is neither seen nor heard during this scene, yet the writing and performance of Sellers results in a very clear image of who he is. Where the comedy of the Scott Pilgrim phone call comes from the over exaggerated drama of a largely trivial conversation, this scene finds humour in downplaying what is ultimately a conversation about the end of the world.