Writing about the best movie scenes involving phones is paradise for a film geek: phones are second only to people as cinema’s greatest and most common subjects. That makes the following five scenes as far-flung and varied as film itself. Here are five great movie scenes involving phones—for everyone from the art-house snobs to the popcorn-munching cineplexers.
1. The Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal calls Clarice on a payphone.
(Spoiler warning) 1991’s sleeper hit and surprise Best Picture Oscar winner, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, is a masterpiece of suspense and a truly intelligent outlier in the horror genre. The final scene, in which FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) receives a phone call from a recently escaped Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), encapsulates everything that is so perfect about the film. Watch for Hopkins’ chilly punning (“I’m having an old friend for dinner”), the psychological intensity of Starling and Lecter’s relationship, and the tidy plotting that allows Lecter to escape after helping nab Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). All of this couldn’t have been possible without the drama of the phone call.
2. Mean Girls. The four-way call.
A frenetic set piece in Mean Girls involves Cady (Lindsay Lohan) being tricked into trash-talking another friend who is quietly listening in on a four-way call. The scene becomes brilliant when the call transforms from a practical joke on Cady into a full-fledged battle between the girls, where allegiances and power change hands every few seconds. Director Mark Waters filmed this difficult scene by covertly slowing down and speeding up the footage of whichever girl wasn’t talking at that moment, allowing the tightly paced comedic ballet of this scene to move like clockwork.
3. The Departed. Sullivan text messages Costello through his pocket.
The Departed is Martin Scorsese’s wicked oh-some Boston crime drama that finally won the master director his first Oscar statue, a good 30 years after he was actually supposed to. Oh well. In this crazy scene, Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan, a mole in the Massachusetts State Police, sends a text message to his boss Frank Costello with a warning about monitored phone activity. The issue is Sullivan can’t send Costello a message out in the open, right in front of all the cops. So he types and sends the message while the phone is in his pocket. Is there anything you can’t do, Matt Damon?
4. Bringing Up Baby. Susan calls David for help.
Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby is the second-greatest screwball comedy (bested by Preston Sturge’s The Lady Eve), and the antics truly kick off when Susan Vance (the lovely Katharine Hepburn) frantically calls bozo paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant). A leopard named Baby is on the prowl in Susan’s apartment, and she could be eaten any moment! David—just seconds before wanting nothing to do with Susan—cries that he’ll be there shortly to rescue her. Ace move, Susan.
5. Swingers. Mikey leaves too many messages on Nikki’s answering machine.
Swingers, the film that made stars of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau features the most uncomfortable phone scene imaginable. Mikey (Favreau) just got a girl’s number at a club, and as soon as he gets home he proceeds to call her about seven times in a row to leave a series of messages that sound increasingly desperate. This is a primer on answering machine etiquette, and catnip for junkies addicted to awkward situations.
What are some of your favorite movie phone scenes?
Originally published Jul 18, 2014, updated Aug 12, 2020