The Significance of the Telephone in Film Noir

Seminar Paper, 1998

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Telephone-Conversations as Turning Points of the Story

III. The Significance of the Telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number

IV. Conclusion


I. Introduction

In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives. It is the servant of our common needs - the confidante of our inmost secrets. Life and happiness wait upon its ring - and horror - and loneliness - and death!1

Film Noir, with its claustrophobic, dark and estranged atmosphere, often explores the themes of secrecy and longing. Noir characters long for something they think they need, either to fill a gap in their lives or to break out of the normality of their everyday routine. The means to achieve this outbreak are usually found in money or, just as often, in wild romance and danger. The Noir hero is bored or unsatisfied with his existence and easily falls for the temptations of the femme fatale and for the potential easy (but dangerous) money in the Noir world. In trying to overcome the ‘normal’ life (thereby violating the morals of society), the Noir hero resorts to secrecy, eventually tripping over his own crimes and becoming the victim of his own greed. If he is ‘lucky’, he gets a new chance and is embraced back into society by a loving girl and/or forgiving friends (which, of course, could be seen as an even bigger punishment!). If he is not so lucky, he becomes entangled in an even larger web of lies and deception, doomed, if not to lose his life, then at least to experience real physical and emotional pain. Indeed, everyone in Noir is betrayed. Nobody in this dark and threatening atmosphere can be relied on, and yet the fate of the Noir hero in this world of secrecy is dependent upon his relationships to those people around him. These, the crucial but mostly dysfunctional relationships of Noir characters, are revealed not only by the narrative of the film, but often become visualized by the camera-view, by the lighting, or by other cinematographic means.

One of the most effective means with which the classic Film Noir achieves its desired effect is through the use of the telephone. The medium of the telephone can perform four major functions within the logic of the Noir plot: First of all, it suits perfectly the demands of showing two opposing environments, in other words of displaying the underlying alienation between people :

In itself, the urban telephone system is an invisible labyrinth: of voices, disembodied emotions, projections, manipulations, and deflections, of connections and cross- connections as intimate - or impersonal - as one desires; and it is also a tangible labyrinth of lines, cables, and wires, above and below the city streets. Telephones can be used to make confessions or probe for facts, to inform or misinform, to persuade or be persuaded, to intimidate.2

Although they talk to each other and are actually connected over telephone-wires, Noir characters are spatially separated, a fact which, in the Noir world, symbolizes the all-to-present threat of relating in a virtual and thus uncertain manner. In films like Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948), the entire plot is recounted with the help of sixteen telephone conversations and through the various flash-backs of the people talking in these calls. The main character, Leona Stevenson, is unable to leave her bedroom and is therefore not able to take part in the lives of the people related to her. The only way she can get connected is over the phone but, as she is soon to find out, this connection is a mere technical one. Relationships and friendships she thought she had do not really exist, and she is doomed to the realization that hers is only a virtual power that can be taken away at any point. The telephone asserts its function as a deceptive connector against whose ultimate power the leading lady is helpless.

In addition to its role as a symbol of dysfunctional relationships, the telephone and its incessant ringing can also serve to represent a real threat to the characters in the Noir world. In other words, the telephone’s presence implies a permanent source of potentially bad or shocking news. An intentionally unanswered phone-call or a telephone ringing unanswered in an empty room can cause more terror in the audience than a grim face or an explicit murder-scene. Indeed, in the same manner as a piercing fire alarm signals a fire out of control, the shrill and sudden sound of a phone ringing carries with it a message of doom. The sound of a telephone is designed to draw immediate and urgent attention to itself, and in the already haunted atmosphere of Film Noir, this usually means trouble for the leading men and women.

The telephone performs a third distinct function, most notably in those Noir films featuring a hard-boiled detective solving crime cases completely on his own. In movies of this kind, the telephone appears to serve as a means of real communication and the exchange of information. And yet, as it is depicted in films such The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), it is in fact not an interaction between two persons having a telephone conversation, but rather a single person (mostly the hardboiled detective) receiving information that he must then process on his own. The telephone, again, is not connecting people but ultimately leaving them on their own.

The final and most important function of the telephone in Film Noir is its role in bringing about crucial turning- points in the plot. In the first half of my paper, I will explore this fourth function and show how the telephone is used to precede and motivate major plot twists and turns in several major Film Noirs. My goal is to demonstrate that the telephone in Film Noir is used not only as a means of symbolizing the alienation of characters, of portraying a potential threat to Noir characters, and of providing a means of (often unsuccessful) communication of information: The telephone is in fact most important in its function as an essential part of narrative development and of effective story-telling in Film Noir.

In the second half of my paper, my analysis will focus on the ultimate example of a Telephone Film Noir, namely Sorry, Wrong Number, which effectively combines all four above-mentioned functions and who’s leading role may be said to be that of the telephone.

II. Telephone Conversations as Turning-Points in the Story

Turning-points play a crucial role in every movie. Linda Seger describes six different qualities of turningpoints in her book Making a Good Script Great:

„- It leads the action to a new direction.
„- The central question is raised again and it makes us curious for the answer.
„- Often it is a moment when the main-character has to make a decision or takes over a task.
„- It increases the risk.
„- It pushes the action to the next act.
„- It leads us into a new environment and we get a new perspective of the action.3

In Film Noir these turning-points are often directly preceded by telephone-calls. In Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), the lead character and narrator Joe Gillis lives together with a former film-star, Norma Desmond played by Gloria Swanson, who was a former silent-movie star herself), in a gigolo-like relationship. When he overhears his rich benefactress making an anonymous phone- call to Betty Schaeffer, whom Norma suspects to be his girlfriend, Joe grabs the phone from Norma’s hand and asks Betty to come to the mansion. In this case, the telephone is abused by Norma, who uses its anonymity to seek out information on Joe that he would otherwise not give her. When Joe discovers Norma’s scheme, he decides to diffuse the situation by inviting Betty, over the phone, to see for herself the circumstances in which he and Norma live.

These events represent a major turning-point in the story. Up until this point, Joe had managed to live a kind of double-life: During the day he stayed at home with Norma Desmond, while at night he worked on a script together with Betty. He had tried on a previous occasion (at a New Year’s Eve party) to escape his bizarre life with Norma, but he had been unsuccessful. On that occasion, as he calls Norma’s butler to ask him to arrange his departure, he learns that Norma has just tried to commit suicide. As a result of this, he cancels his plans to leave and returns to her. After the following incident with Betty, however, Joe realizes that he is in a dangerous situation and that he has to make a decision to either stay or to cut off his relation to the outside world. Thus, the central question is raised again: Will he manage to leave his destructive relationship to Norma and get back to his old life again? Instead of denying everything, Joe invites Betty to the house to tell her the truth about his life. At the same time he knows he will have to sacrifice his love for her in order to save her from being drawn into this abnormal situation. These events lead directly to the climax: Joe decides to leave the mansion in order to restore his pride and to get his life back, but he ultimately gets shot by Norma, who has in the meantime been driven completely insane by the thought of her young escort’s love for another woman.

In the case of both the first and second conflict, it is a phone-call that leads to the turning-point. If one approaches it from a different perspective, these turning points are not only plot developments, but they also prevent a certain action from happening. In Joe’s case, it was his last attempt to break out of Norma’s clutches that led to his demise. If there had not been the chance to use the telephone, thus provoking a direct confrontation between himself, Norma, and the outside world (represented by Betty), he might have had considered his action a little bit longer and things would have taken a turn in another direction.

As these examples show, the telephone is a perfect means of provoking decisions and of suddenly steering a story in a different direction. While the mise-en-scène can visually reveal a potential different direction of the action, the telephone performs a crucial role by connecting it with another string of the plot. In Sunset Boulevard, the New Years Eve party of Joe’s friends (at which he tried for the first time to break free from Norma) takes place in a small completely overcrowded place and is visually contrasted to the gigantic but completely deserted mansion of Norma Desmond. By being on the phone, Gillis is literally between these two locations and worlds and has to decide in which direction he wants his life to go. Without the telephone, a similar development would only be possible if, for example, the butler entered the party to inform Gillis about Norma’s suicide attempt; his appearance at the party would of course be misplaced and thus produce a similar effect, but it might have also turned the whole scene into something silly by confronting the butler with the party-folks, and this would ridicule the seriousness of Joe Gillis’ predicament. By using the means of a telephone call, the effect of opposing the two scenes is markedly stronger.

At this point, it is necessary to provide examples from other classic Film Noirs to compare and contrast the importance of the telephone in guiding the narrative. In Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), the final turning- point takes place when the main character, played by James Stewart, receives a phone-call that he picks up only by accident, believing it is a friend calling him. By telling the caller, who is actually the villain, what has happened, he reveals his identity to the murderer and thus becomes a target himself.

In D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1949) the turning points produced by telephone calls are used in a slightly different way. They do not really turn the plot in a completely different direction but rather provide the main character, Frank Bigelow, with new information at key points in the story (for example, when he does not know where to look for the reason of his murder anymore). Thus the telephone calls become a means of transporting the story.

Frank Bigelow decides to leave his office for a short ‘vacation’ in San Francisco. At least that is what he tells his girlfriend/fiancee, Paula. It soon becomes clear that the secret purpose of this vacation is to get away from her and to have fun with other women. The first thing he does when he arrives at his hotel is to call Paula just to tell her that everything is fine and that he will be back with her soon. During this phone call, he has already started flirting with some other women who are dancing in an adjoining hotel-room. It seems that he wants to make sure that after his short escapade there will still be a place he can come back to. Here the telephone is used in the same way as in the films described above; it is a means of deception and of opposing two different environments - namely the loving girlfriend at home (who is of course blond) and the attraction of other women dancing to jazzmusic in the other hotel-room.

The interesting part of this scene is that Frank Bigelow already gets absolution from the sins he is obviously planning to commit through Paula. She tells him that “there is nothing you can do that you will ever have to feel guilty about.“ For a short moment Frank seems to reconsider his plan, but he is then pulled back to the party-scene and - following the logic of Film Noir - consequently becomes punished for his misbehavior. The telephone is therefore the means by which the Noir hero gains confidence in his own doomed actions, but also the means by which the audience is shown that he will probably not get away with his intentions. Just when Bigelow gets stuck in his investigations, Paula calls him and provides him with new clues that help him to go on, but these are also clues that bring him one step closer to his fate. Interestingly, the viewer is in the privileged position of being able to see the speakers in their respective environments at both ends of the telephone wire. Thus the viewer is not forced to take part in either the Noir hero’s downfall or in the rejected girl’s sorrow, rather we can simply enjoy the film from a distance.

In the final phone call, it is again the case that two opposing environments are confronted: Frank is threatened by three gangsters while he for the first time tells Paula that he loves her. He now regrets that he had to go through this experience to realize what he was risking. As he finds out in the end, he probably wouldn’t have been murdered if he had stayed at home and gotten into contact with a man named Phillips earlier.

As we have seen, telephone calls are always crucial to the plot in Film Noir. Unlike other parts of the story that can sometimes stand for themselves or are only important for the special scene that they are in (for example shower scenes or conversations with a taxi driver), scenes that involve a telephone conversation almost always introduce turning points or are substantial to allow the story carry on. The best and most explicit example of the significance of the telephone in the narrative and atmosphere of Film Noir is Sorry, Wrong Number by Anatole Livak.

III. The Significance of the Telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number

In Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, 1948) Leona Stevenson, daughter of the owner of a huge pharmaceutical company, accidentally overhears a conversation on the phone of two men planning a murder for that evening. What she doesn’t realize is that the murder being planned is actually her own. In the following phone calls, she slowly finds out that her husband, Henry (a formerly poor man who is now vice-president of her father’s company), has become more and more dissatisfied with his life due to a lack of freedom and challenges. Being emotionally controlled by and financially dependent on and his wife, the marriage inevitably starts to disintegrate and ultimately leads to his plan to kill her .

The film employs six competing narrative voices, the first belonging to the film’s heroine, the pharmaceutical heiress Leona Stevenson. She does not, however, dominate the narrative, but rather organizes the story by motivating and linking the other narrative voices. Aside from Leona, the story is told to us through the voices of her husband Henry, his secretary Miss Jennings, Leona’s college friend Sally Hunt Lord, Leona’s physician Dr. Alexander, and Henry’s accomplice Waldo Evans.

There are sixteen phone calls in the film, half of them coming from Leona as she lies ill, yet elegantly dressed and smoking in her bed in her large New York home. She is suffering from a heart disease that makes it impossible for her to pursue a normal life. At the beginning of the film, Leona confidently makes several phone calls and seems to enjoy using her illness and the medium of the phone to control others and to get what she wants. In the course of the film, however, she may be said to become a victim of both the phone and her illness. Rather than Leona terrorizing the operator and her acquaintances over the phone, it eventually becomes the phone which terrorizes her with its constant ringing and its messages of death.

In her different telephone conversations, it becomes clear that there is web of deception affecting each one of the characters in their relationships to one another and, of course, affecting Leona the most in the end. For example, Leona’s father tells her over the phone that the family home in Chicago is “like a morgue” without her (which is in many ways true considering all the stuffed animal trophies there). As the conversation continues, the audience realizes that a wild party is going on in the background of this apparently “dead” house from which her father is calling. This deception demonstrates that the father uses the possibility of the telephone to provide Leona with ‘wrong’ information in order to manipulate her in a way that serves his aim of getting her back. This is not really a major abuse of the telephone, but it gives us a glimpse into its possible abuses. As well, the audience is once again a privileged viewer who is able to see both ends of the wire and to detect any lying that is going on.

As the viewer eventually finds out, Leona’s heart problem is psychosomatic, the result of her efforts to manipulate her father’s and her husband’s sympathies. She has heart-attacks only when she doesn’t get what she wants from her father or when her husband shows any signs of independence. The desire to control others has, in effect, led her to surrender control over herself, over her own body, resulting in a kind of mind-body split. Leona seems estranged from her own body and, as a result, from the people surrounding her. Consequently, her attempts to get into real contact with other people over the phone are doomed to fail.

The telephone seems to have always been an essential device with which Leona was able to remain in control and to live her life. As Marshall McLuhan notes in „Understanding Media“

Physiologically there are abundant reasons for an extension of ourselves involving us in a state of numbness. Medical researchers like Hans Selye and Adolphe Jonas hold that all extensions of ourselves, in sickness or in health, are attempts to maintain equilibrium. Any extension of ourselves they regard as “autoamputative,“ and they find that the autoamputative power of strategy is resorted to by the body when the perceptual power cannot locate or avoid the cause of irritation.4

Leona definitely cannot locate the ‘cause of irritation’, namely the cause of her heart problems. Her illness is psychosomatic, but she is not aware of this fact. She has voluntarily built up a network that both supports her strategy and one that, at the same time, keeps her trapped inside of it. The telephone as an extension of our bodies and our senses, as McLuhan sees it, may have helped her, but in the end she becomes a victim of the ‘autoamputative’ network she has built.

This film’s story revolves completely around the various phone-calls that are being made. It uses the telephone to introduce the plot (when Leona first hears of the planned murder), to show her relationship to other persons (the telephone-conversation with her father), to transport the story (Leona calls the police after overhearing the murder call), and for several turning points (her getting new information over the phone) and the climax (the final conversation when Henry admits his plan and tries to help her). Each way with which the telephone has ever been used in Film Noir is shown in this picture (except for her actually being killed with the telephone!) It starts with an unanswered phone and ends with Leona’s dead hand slipping from her phone and the murderer picking up saying the title giving line “sorry, wrong number“.

IV. Conclusion

As I have shown, the medium of the telephone is a crucial tool in the narrative of Film Noir.

Film Noir is filled with telephones of all kinds: pay phones, office phones, bedside phones, restaurant and nightclub phones that are brought to one’s table. Not surprisingly, telephones are often connected to questions of privacy and secrets; they are emblematic of the mystique of communication in a world which is clamorous with sound and at the same time, at its deepest levels, eerily silent.5

These “questions of privacy” and the complex web of “secrets”, which form the very foundation of the Noir plot, were best displayed through the enigmatic medium of the telephone, and they represent a phenomenon that seems anachronistic in today’s films. In other words, in an age of wireless phones, instant messaging and email, the shrill sound of an analog telephone bell ringing on a detective’s desk or beside the bed of a doomed heiress seems no longer possible as a cinematic technique and plot motivator.

Nevertheless, authors of today’s films still use the old-fashioned telephone as an essential part of the plot even in situations that do not really permit its usage. For example, in Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), James Bond is attending a large party of the world’s media elite (at the brand-new publishing building of a media giant who’s character is loosely based on Rupert Murdoch) when a suspicious man informs him that there is a phone- call for him. The suspicious man, obviously one of the media tycoon’s goons, then asks Bond to follow him in order to answer the phone in another room. Mr. Bond does not hesitate, nor does he check his cell phone to see if the batteries may be low, he simply follows the stranger. Clearly the plot requires that James Bond be lured into a back room where the media giant’s goons can rough him up, and perhaps even try to kill him. In the normally up-to- date and high-tech world of Bond-films (and especially in the media-soaked environment of this particular party) it is surprising to watch the hero being summoned to the telephone. The old trick of claiming that “There’s a call for you Mister Bond” becomes anachronistic, and yet it is still playfully used as a plot motivator, thus showing how the narrative logic of a film is often directly linked with the technology that it portrays.



„- De Palma, Brian. Mission Impossible. Paramount Pictures, 1996
„- Hitchcock, Alfred. Rear Window. Paramount Pictures, 1954
- Huston, John. The Maltese Falcon. MGM/UA, 1941
„- Litvak, Anatole. Sorry, Wrong Number. Paramount, 1948
„- Maté, Rudolph. D.O.A..
„- Spottiswoode, Roger. Tomorrow Never Dies. United Artists, 1997
„- Wilder, Billy. Sunset Boulevard. Paramount Pictures,1950
„- Winkler, Irwin. The Net. Columbia Pictures, 1995


„- Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night. New York: Owl Books, 1997.
„- Copjec, Joan (Edit.). Shades of Noir. London: Verso, 1993
„- Mc Luhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. London: Routledge&Kegan Paul Ltd., 1964
„- Monaco, James. Film verstehen. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995
„- Muller, Eddie. Dark City. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998
„- Seger, Linda. Making a Good Script Great. Hollywood: Samuel French,1994


1 Litvak, Anatole. Sorry, Wrong Number. 1948

2 Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night. P. 92

3 Seger, Linda. Making a Good Script Great. P. 46

4 Mc Luhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. P. 42.

5 Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night. P. 92.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Significance of the Telephone in Film Noir
Free University of Berlin
HS - Film Noir and the Imaginary
1,0 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
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Significance, Telephone, Film, Noir, Film, Noir, Imaginary
Quote paper
Götz Kihr (Author), 1998, The Significance of the Telephone in Film Noir, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 6/23/2002

    Re: Formatierung.

    Änderungen in der Formatierung können durch die Konvertierung zu HTML vorkommen - an der Interpunktion und Rechtschreibung ändern wir aber grundsätzlich nichts - die Konvertierung verläuft automatisch.


    |Götz Kihr schrieb:
    ||Die Fehler in der Interpunktion und in der
    ||Formatierung sind nicht von mir verursacht
    ||und in der Originalversion des Textes nicht
    |Alle Fehler und Auslassungen sind erst durch die Bearbeitung durch diese
    |Webpage entstanden.
    |Götz Kihr

  • guest on 6/22/2002


    Die Fehler in der Interpunktion und in der Formatierung sind nicht von mir verursacht und in der Originalversion des Textes nicht vorhanden.
    Alle Fehler und Auslassungen sind erst durch die Bearbeitung durch diese
    Webpage entstanden.

    Götz Kihr

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