Film: Dial M for the movies

After this Sunday, scriptwriters' lives will never be the same again. You can blame satellite phone technology

It's given us more classic moments, plot twists and pure iconic images (Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck have been known to claw for it once or twice) than any other piece of technology apart from the car. It's not iconic in itself: it's an invisible, unthanked facilitator. Unlike that fun, gas-guzzling, free-wheeling symbol of macho Hollywood aspirations, it operates on an etheric level: it is dialling-tone Yin to the roadster Yang. Unlike the car, its essentially feline nature is always changing. And, by the time this weekend is over, Hollywood's relationship with the telephone will never be the same.

On 1 November, the 66 satellites of the global Iridium phone system flare into life at a cost of $5bn (pounds 3bn). This new technology will mean you can phone anyone from anywhere in the world. Whether you are astride an oil rig in Sumatra, stranded in the Arctic or caressing orchids in the depths of an Andean jungle, your mother/bank/double-glazing salesman will be able to dial your digits.

Isolation will no longer exist as an absolute concept. As a result, films such as Harrison Ford's desert island tale, Seven Days, Seven Nights, will be obsolete. The joke about Anne Heche's irritating NYC yuppie character trying to use her cellphone to dial for help when Ford crashes their plane on an unmapped island will, actually, not be a joke any more. Now she can dial for help, and book that Aveda facial on 5th Avenue. Just as the boys in Lord of the Flies could use theirs to phone out for pizza after killing Piggy.

In fact, we've been here before, several times. The advent of the automated telephone exchange removed that wonderful source of Thirties and Forties plot device, the eavesdropping telephonist, from the scriptwriter's arsenal. Hollywood adapted (and discovered bugging). A few decades later, the answerphone proved a godsend to comedy writers: the retrieval of an embarrassing phone message from someone's flat remains staple comedic fare even now.

The mobile phone, though initially the size of a small nuclear device, threatened to destabilise tried and tested plotlines - in horror movies, especially. How would the slasher movie recover from not being able to cut people off from the outside world, with victims cowering in their houses as zombies chewed the phone lines without?

Indeed, a case could be made that the mobile phone helped kill off the teen horror movie until quite recently. But the truth is that even mobile phones (and that includes the new Iridium system) can be nobbled. One of this week's releases, the excellent and thought-provoking Funny Games deals with the mobile phone problem very neatly: without giving too much away, the two sociopaths visit their victims before the onslaught and "accidentally" knock the victim's mobile into a kitchen sink full of water. Much of the frantic activity of the ensuing horror revolves around the victims trying to dry out the mobile phone with a hairdrier. But it's no good: they're prisoners in their expensive, barricaded holiday house.

In other words, far from diminishing plot potential, new phone technology simply adds a new set of possibilities (as e-mail is now doing in films such as Wenders's The End of Violence, or the lacklustre Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Net).

And the thriller has benefited more than any other genre. Femmes fatales, such as Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, use the mobile phone's sleek form as a fashion accessory, almost like some kind of sex toy (especially that cute little Startac model, or the lissom new chrome Nokia).

The X-Files, too, would be impossible without FBI-issue mobiles: most of Mulder and Scully's breathy, noirish relationship is conducted over cellulars, and it's the key to the creation of moody scenarios and fragile links between people.Terrorists, cranks and psychos revel in its untraceable qualities. But are they untraceable? Recent movies such as Eraser (1997) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man (1998) involve major mobile tracing efforts, a technically dubious feat with current mobile technology, which will, however, be possible with satellite phones. Remember that it was the satellite phone (which till now has required a dish to operate) of the Islamic fundamentalist that the Cruise missiles locked on to earlier this year, in Clinton's Afghanistan attack. Dial M for Mandatory Air Strike - on a screen near you, soon.

Actually, Dial M for Murder just got remade as A Perfect Murder, and it's a wonderful reprise for that arch-priest of the bourgeois "cellular" crime, Michael Douglas. Ever since Wall Street (where in one famous beach scene, he appears to be pressing a refrigerator to the side of his head) his saggy face has been the very image of on-the-hoof executive sleaze, as he flicks the pocket mobile open. When he uses two mobiles simultaneously to create an ingenious alibi in A Perfect Murder, he later discards one out of the car window into the street - like a murderer disposing of his murder weapon. Which is, in any real sense, what it is. You can be certain Hitchcock would have pounced on the mobile phone with ghoulish pleasure: he above all would have understood its essential, manipulative nature.

The first phone numbers that were allocated in most countries were generated from the first few letters of the owner's name, and in a way we have returned full circle. Whether it's the "phone number for life" technologies, or the self broadcasting pinpointing ability of the Iridium phone, we are now suddenly tagged by our phones rather than concealed by them. Once again, it is the thriller that will benefit, and the action movie especially, since now remote terrains will be encompassed by a communications network. The role of landscape in such movies will become necessarily more complex. Some will eschew the mobile altogether: one can't imagine the rather tweedy Hannibal Lecter using anything else but a payphone to make calls to Clarice (as he does at the end of Silence of the Lambs). Will James Bond get a satellite phone? You would have thought so. And yet, it would destroy his whole image as a loner and a maverick, what with having Judi Dench on the blower all the time as he's skiing past some Albanian soldiers trying to steal the world's weather.

One genre will lose out - for a bizarre reason. SETI (search for extra- terrestrial intelligence) scientists have already complained that the radiation net of the satellites will block out space radiation - from the signatures of dying stars to the communication efforts of extra-terrestrials. So no more Jodie Foster in Contact (1997), hands cupped over earphones, delicately listening to the sound of ET in a field of satellite dishes - indeed, no more "ET phone home" either. It's going to take a lot more than kitchen foil and Drew Barrymore's Cabbage Patch doll to summon the mother ship now.

And no more Species type scenarios, where scientists receive a make-your- own alien blueprint zapped in from outer space. In one trip of the switch, we have abolished isolation on the planet: but now we are more isolated than ever. You can be sure Hollywood will milk that for everything it can get.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?