Rewind: Will Technology Kill Old-Fashioned Suspense?

Movie peril is harder to pull off in the cellular age.

In "Cellular," a smashed rotary telephone can reach only one number. The dialer is kidnap victim Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) and the recipient is Ryan Hewitt (Chris Evans). Convinced that this is no joke, Hewitt races against time — and roaming charges — to rescue the entire Martin family. Can you hear him now?

As technology advances, it becomes increasingly difficult for screenwriters to place protagonists in old-fashioned peril. Recall how many movies start from the premise of someone stranded by the side of the road or lost somewhere. In the digital era, however, almost everyone's packing his or her own phone. With cellular technology still in its maddening dark ages, it's relatively easy to accept that the victim can't get service or the phone's charge has run out. But that conceit's going to get old as fast as "the line's gone dead" did in the rotary age.

Several classic movies have used the telephone as a central plot device. In 1948's "Sorry, Wrong Number," a bedridden Barbara Stanwyck accidentally cuts in on a party line to overhear her own murder being plotted. Stanwyck then spends an aggravating night on the phone, negotiating with cranky operators while trying to get through to the proper authorities (the more things change, the more they do indeed stay the same).

In Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film "Dial M for Murder," a former tennis pro played by Ray Milland plots to murder his wife (Grace Kelly) to gain her inheritance, as well as some revenge for her affair with a writer (Robert Cummings). Milland blackmails an old acquaintance into doing the dirty deed and concocts a plan involving a late-night phone call. With the killer strategically hidden behind the curtains near the phone, Milland dials home, which brings Kelly into place. If she lived in an era where she was able to turn off the ringer on her cordless phone, Milland may not have been able to come up with his (unsuccessful) plot.

Based on an urban legend, 1979's "When a Stranger Calls" concerns a babysitter (Carol Kane) who receives a series of threatening phone calls. The calls escalate until the sitter discovers not only that the kids in her care have been killed, but that (all together now) "the call is coming from inside the house!" Today, even if the house didn't have caller ID, the sitter could've star-69'd the first call, seen the number, and gotten the heck outta there. End of film!

In fact, many classic films would be drastically altered by today's technology. In "Rear Window," Jimmy Stewart could've called Grace Kelly's cell to warn her of wife-killer Raymond Burr's return to the apartment she was searching. "A Streetcar Named Desire" 's Stanley Kowalski could've drunken-text-messaged his wife "STELLA!!!" to come home instead of disturbing his neighbors by screaming it from the bottom of the wrought-iron staircase. Elizabeth "Maggie the Cat" Taylor could've just snooped the Internet browser history on her husband Paul "Brick" Newman's computer to confirm her suspicions concerning his sexuality in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Maybe if poor Janet Leigh would've had GPS tracking in her car in "Psycho," she wouldn't have gotten lost and ended up at the Bates Motel and I'd be able to take a shower without locking the door.

Then there's pretty much every slasher film from "Halloween" on, in which every person hiding in a closet could've called 911 and at least had the cops on the way before they were punished for their promiscuity. And if he had had a really good coverage plan, ET actually could have phoned home.

When the Joel Schumacher sniper thriller "Phone Booth" was released last year, the most unbelievable plot point (of many) was the existence of a working full-sized public phone booth in the middle of Manhattan. Heck, a joke was made about the demise of those boxes more than 20 years ago, in 1978's "Superman," when Clark Kent, trying to find a place to change into the man of steel, could only find waist-high open phone kiosks.

Yet filmmakers seem reluctant to give up the old-fashioned telephone as prop. The aesthetic appeal of their loud, jarring rings and physical heft has been evident in such recent films as "The Matrix" and "The Ring." Those grand old chunks of machinery are certain to become relics, and while cell phones and Blackberries have their own special charms, they're just not the same. It brings to mind Jerry Seinfeld's bit about not being able to dramatically hang up on someone with a cell phone. Instead of slamming down the phone, the hard clash of plastic on plastic causing the actual bell inside the housing to resonate, you press the little red button gingerly — because if you push it too hard, it breaks.

Modern technology may be convenient, fast, sometimes sleek, and maybe even sexy, but it's not dramatic. As our conveniences become ever smaller, they lose the physical interactions that often spark drama or humor. A hands-free world is gonna make movies just a little bit duller.

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