Friday 19 September 2014

Dial 'M' for Murder: the role of the telephone in 20th century film and fiction - by Christina Koning

Having just published a novel – Line of Sight (Arbuthnot Books, 2014) – in which the telephone plays a key role, I’ve been thinking about the significance of this particular piece of technology, invented (or at least patented) in 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, but only in common domestic use for around a hundred years. It wasn’t until after the First World War, that the telephone became ubiquitous in middle-class households; right up until the late 1960s in Britain, there were still those who, for reasons of economy, were obliged to make their calls from public telephone boxes. I can still recall when these were activated by the magical pressing of ‘Button A’, followed by the insertion of the necessary coins, to connect the call. ‘Button B’ could be pressed to return the coins, if it wasn’t possible to connect the call (i.e. if no one answered).

As late as the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for people to share a ‘party line’ with another subscriber, affording regular opportunities of ‘listening-in’ to others’ conversations – a privilege of which the switchboard operator could always avail herself (and they were nearly always female), if she felt so inclined. Calls could be – and frequently were – ‘cut off’ at a crucial moment. Love affairs could be thrown into crisis, financial ruin precipitated, and even murder committed, by means of this most seductive, but also potentially treacherous, instrument.

All this offered rich potential for novelists and film-makers – in fact, it’s hard to imagine how the literature and cinema of the mid-to-late twentieth century could have managed without the telephone – thedeus ex machina whose ringing could herald delight – but more often, meant disaster. Think of any Humphrey Bogart film – The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye – and you think of Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe, sitting in his office, with his feet on the desk and a fifth of whisky in the side-drawer, talking on the phone to whichever dimwitted police sergeant or duplicitous dame he’s currently trying to outsmart.

Think of Grace Kelly, in Hitchcock’s Dial ‘M’ for Murder, hearing the phone ring in the study, and going to answer it – unaware that she is about to confront her would-be murderer. Or, skipping forward a couple of decades, but staying with the film-noir mood, think of Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, in Chinatown, with sticking-plaster on his nose and a telephone receiver clamped to his ear, trying to make sense of the lies and half-truths he’s been fed about the Mulwray case. Yes, the telephone and the murder mystery were made for each other.
There are a number of reasons for this. One (to stay with cinema a moment) is that the telephone and the cinema are roughly contemporaneous. Both represent the ‘modern’ world of change, speed, transience. A letter takes time to write – and read. A phone call can be made in a few minutes. Similarly, the narrative pace of a novel can seem slow, by contrast with the quick-fire cutting between scenes to be found in cinematic story-telling. And one other obvious reason why phone calls are so important a part of most screenplays is that they offer a very condensed way of imparting information. When the plot is a thriller, this is all the more essential. Keeping the suspense going means not slowing down your story with unnecessary explanations. Dialogue – in films and novels of the 1930s and after – is markedly crisper, snappier, and more concise than that to be found in, say, your average nineteenth century novel.

Which brings me to my ‘top ten’ of fictional telephone conversations. It’s no accident that they all belong to the same period: from a few years after the First World War to a decade or so after the Second World War (roughly, 1925 – 1965) – a Golden Age, when the telephone was essential to communication. And what telephones they were! None of your flimsy little hand-held devices, but large, sculptural Bakelite objects – usually black – the sound of whose ringing was full of foreboding and whose receivers felt heavy as lead in the hand. These (and the ‘Candlestick’ instruments which preceded them, one of which features on the cover of Line of Sight) had a dramatic presence in their own right. No wonder they so often appeared as harbingers of doom in the darker films of the inter- and post-war periods.

So here’s Chandler, in The Long Goodbye (1953):

I was about ready to hit the hay when Detective-Sergeant Green of homicide called me up.

‘Thought you might like to know that they buried your friend Lennox a couple of days ago right in that Mexican town where he died. A lawyer representing the family went down there and attended to it. You were pretty lucky this time, Marlowe. Next time you think of helping a pal skip the country, don’t.’

‘How many bullet holes did he have in him?’

‘What’s that?’ he barked. Then he was silent for a space. Then he said rather too carefully: ‘One, I should say. It’s usually enough when it blows a guy’s head off…’

This hard-bitten, laconic mood is even more pronounced in Simenon’s 1931 story, The Bar on the Seine. Here, as in other police procedurals of the era, conversations – whether carried out on the telephone or otherwise – have a staccato, minimalist quality. These are not people who waste words, or indulge in fancy phrase-making. For them, the telephone is the perfect medium to convey the bleak truths they need to convey. In this story, Maigret finds himself defending a man condemned to the guillotine:

Maigret was talking to the examining magistrate on the phone.

‘Hello! Yes! Just give me another ten minutes… His name? I don’t know yet… Yes, of course I’m serious. Do I ever joke about these things?’

He put down the receiver and started walking up and down his office.

That’s as emotional as Maigret ever gets. And – just to round off this trio of thrillers, before moving on to other kinds of telephone calls in fiction, here’s Le Carré's 1964 novel, Call for the Dead, in which George Smiley makes his first appearance, investigating the mysterious death of a former agent:

The telephone was ringing upstairs. Smiley got up.

‘Excuse me – that will be my office. Do you mind?’

Smiley walked slowly upstairs in a state of complete bewilderment. What on earth should he say to Marston now?

He lifted the receiver, glancing mechanically at the number on the apparatus.

‘Walliston 2944.’

‘Exchange here. Good morning. Your eight-thirty call.’

‘Oh – Oh yes, thank you very much.’

He rang off, grateful for the temporary respite.

This call – like many to be found in detective fiction – turns out to have a bearing on the plot, which isn’t always the case in every novel. Some telephone conversations seem to have no apparent point at all, other than to tell you what kind of characters you’re dealing with – and that they do very well. Take this passage from Vile Bodies, Waugh’s 1930 satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ of Jazz Age London. We really learn all we need to know about Adam and his inamorata, Nina, from this bright, seemingly vacuous, conversation:

Presently the telephone by Adam’s bed began ringing.

‘Hullo, yes.’

‘Lady to speak to you… Hullo, is that you, Adam?’

‘Is that Nina?’

‘How are you my darling?’

‘Oh, Nina…’

‘My poor sweet, I feel like that, too. Listen, angel. You haven’t forgotten that you’re going to see my papa to-day, have you… or have you? I’ve just sent him a wire to say you’re going to lunch with him. D’you know where he lives?’

‘But you’re coming too?’

‘Well, no, I don’t think I will if you don’t mind… I’ve got rather a pain.’

Or consider this very different, but no less eloquent, piece of character description – from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel, The Heat of the Day, in which the loving, if slightly exasperated, relationship between a mother and her grown-up son, on leave from the war, is conveyed entirely through one side of a telephone conversation:

‘Hullo?’ she said –  whoever it was had failed to press Button A. Then – ‘Oh – you – oh, darling!… You are, are you? For how long?… However, that’s better than nothing. But why didn’t you tell me? Have you had any dinner?… Yes, I’m afraid that might be best: I don’t think I’ve got anything in the flat. How I wish you’d told me… And directly after that you’ll come straight here?… Of course; naturally; don’t be so idiotic… Yes, there is just at the moment, but there soon won’t be… No, no one you know… Soon, then – as soon as ever you can!’

She hung up, but remained to black-out her bedroom…’

Of course this passage tells us a great deal more than the fact that Stella loves her son. Because the conversation is being overheard by a man she has every reason to fear – the government agent, Harrison, in charge of delving into the past of Stella’s lover, Robert. Harrison, it transpires, is in love with Stella. All, or at least some, of this is conveyed in that superbly understated ‘No, no one you know’, in answer to her son’s (implied) question as to whether anyone is there with her at that moment.

It’s nuances such as these which make telephone conversations in books and films (and plays) so compelling. There are so many layers of meaning, and shades of intonation – all put across to the listener, and of course the reader, in the fewest possible words. Still sticking with the mood of wartime paranoia, consider this telephone conversation from Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943), in which a man driven half mad by guilt after the death of his wife, reaches out to another lost soul:

‘I want to speak to Miss Hilfe.’

‘Who is that?’

‘A friend of hers.’ A disapproving grunt twanged the wires. He said sharply,’Put me through please,’ and almost at once he heard the voice which if he had shut his eyes and eliminated the telephone-box and ruined Holborn he could have believed was his wife’s. There was really no resemblance, but it was so long since he had spoken to a woman, except his landlady or a girl behind a counter, that any feminine voice took him back… ‘Please. Who is that?’

‘Is that Miss Hilfe?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

He said his name as if it were a household word. ‘I’m Rowe.’

There was such a long pause that he thought she had put the receiver back; he said, ‘Hullo. Are you still there?’


‘I wanted to talk to you.’

‘You shouldn’t ring me.’

‘I’ve nobody else to ring…’

The bleakness of the last line is characteristic of Greene’s style, of course, but it is also typical of many such moments of communication – or non-communication – in works of fiction of the period. Wartime London (note the glancing reference to ‘ruined Holborn’ in the above) was a place of darkness and shadows; of transients, ‘passing in the night’, on their way to unknown destinations. Here, from Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, published in 1941 and subtitled, with grim humour, ‘A story of darkest Earl’s Court’ – is the following exchange between the hapless and hopeless George Harvey Bone (one of those characters who is always referred to by his full, and rather awkward, name), and Netta, the mercenary minx with whom he is desperately in love:

He pressed button A and heard his pennies fall. He said ‘Hullo.’

‘Hullo,’ she said. ‘Yes!’

She was in a temper all right. He could tell because there was an exclamation mark, instead of a note of interrogation, after her ‘Yes’. Funny how she got into these tempers – after being so peaceful and saying ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s so big that he’s so silly’ the night before – but oh, how characteristic! He knew his Netta all right by now.

‘Oh, hullo, Netta,’ he said in studiedly polite and and gentle tones, though of course this would only add to her fury. ‘This is me.’

‘What? Who is it?…’

‘This is me. George.’


‘Have I interrupted you in your bath or something?’

‘No, I was asleep. What do you want?’

‘Oh, I’m awfully sorry. I was ringing up about today – that’s all.’

‘What do you mean – “today”?’

‘I mean this evening.’

‘What do you mean – “this evening”? What about this evening?’

And so the ghastly conversation drags on, with poor George getting himself increasingly tied in knots, and the poisonous Netta pretending not to understand what he is trying to say, but understanding it all too well. As often as not, telephone conversations in films and books can show us relationships that are not working, as well as those that are. In this passage, from Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), the ringing of an – unanswered – telephone says all there is to say about a marriage that has gone sour:

The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy scepticism, was able utterly to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind…’

The unanswered call is of course from Tom’s mistress, about whom the ‘sceptical’ Jordan Baker has just been telling Nick, the narrator. Sometimes, a telephone only has to ring to bring about a change of mood – sharply conveyed, in this instance, by Nick’s irrational desire to look his fellow guests in the face, ‘and yet avoid all eyes’.

Even though the ‘shrill metallic’ sound of the telephone seems made for such moments in fiction, bringing with it unwelcome news, as often as not, it would be a pity to end this little survey of best telephonic exchanges in novels without a couple which aren’t to do with murder or mayhem. So here is a typically winsome exchange, from E.F. Benson’s Lucia’s Progress (1935), in which the eponymous Mayoress of Tilling and all-round social butterfly, Emmeline Lucas, talks to her darling friend and confirmed bachelor, Georgie Pillson, (who is feeling rather out-of-sorts):

‘I’m beginning to see my way,’ she thought, and the way was so absorbing that she had not heard the telephone bell ring, and now Grosvenor came in to say that Georgie wanted to speak to her. Lucia wondered whether Foljambe had seen her peeping in at his window this afternoon and had reported this intrusion, and was prepared, if this was the case and Georgie resented it, not exactly to lie about it, but to fail to understand what he was talking about until he got tired of explaining. She adopted that intimate dialect of baby-language with a peppering of Italian words in which they often spoke together.

‘Is zat ‘oo, Georgino mio?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ said Georgie in plain English.

‘Lubly to hear your voice again. Come sta? Better I hope.’

‘Yes, going on all right, but very slow. All too tarsome. And I’m getting dreadfully depressed seeing nobody and hearing nothing.’

Lucia dropped dialect.

‘But, my dear, why didn’t you let me come and see you? You’ve always refused.’

‘I know.’

There was a long pause. Lucia with her psychic faculties alert after so much Bridge felt sure he had something more to say, and like a wise woman she refrained from pressing him. Clearly he had rung her up to tell her something…’

And here, from a novel whose actual publication date of 1960 doesn’t prevent its belonging unquestionably to the 1920s – P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves in the Offing – is the way that telephones ought always to be answered:

I was about to reach for the marmalade, when I heard the telephone tootling out in the hall and rose to attend to it.

‘Bertram Wooster’s residence,’ I said, having connected with the instrument. ‘Wooster in person at this end. Oh hullo,’ I added, for the voice that boomed over the wire was that of Mrs Thomas Portarlington Travers of Brinkley Court, Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich – or, putting it another way, my good and deserving Aunt Dahlia. ‘A very hearty pip-pip to you, old ancestor,’ I said, well pleased, for she is a woman with whom it is always a privilege to chew the fat.

‘And a rousing toodle-oo to you, you young blot on the landscape,’ she replied cordially. ‘I’m surprised to find you up as early as this. Or have you just got in from a night on the tiles?’

I hastened to rebut this slur…’

It’s passages like these, with all their economy and wit, which make one regret the passing of the Golden Age of Telephones. A rousing toodle-oo to you, too.


Leslie Wilson said...

A highly enjoyable post! Oh, those Bakelite phones, which seemed so clunky and square when the new plastic ones came in, and now seem so stylish. I can still vividly remember lifting it and hearing 'Number please?' In Kendal, we only had a 2-digit number. But what you say about the role of phone in fiction is very perceptive. There is something else, too. Hearing only one side of a conversation can add to suspense and tease the reader by withholding information - always so important.

Leslie Wilson said...

When I say 'square' I mean in the 60s sense of old-fashioned, sad, unstylish....

Carol Drinkwater said...

What a fun post!

Mary Hoffman said...

I love this post! The History Girls are always surprising me by the new angles they find on recent and not so recent history.

Karen Maitland said...

Really enjoyed this post, especially the idea that the telephone ringing was a harbinger of doom. I still view my phone the same way and stare at it with deep suspicion if it ever rings.

Sue Bursztynski said...

An enjoyable post. I've been reading June Wright's Murder In The Telephone Exchange, a novel written in the 1940s and set in Melbourne. It's set in a place which couldn't exist in the 21st century, so is a piece of fascinating historical fiction(though contemporary hen it was written)in its own right, for the part telephones play.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Er, I meant that a telephone exchange couldn't exist, not Melbourne(although I do sometimes wonder...;-D)

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