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showing results for: April, 2009

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  • "Text 'M' for murder": The classics meet the digital age

    In this remake of the Hitchcock classic, Tony Wendice texts 'M' for Maida Vale, his telephone exchange, and for murder
    In this remake of the Hitchcock classic, Tony Wendice texts 'M' for Maida Vale, his telephone exchange, and for murder

    Matt Richtel writes in the New York Times that the mobile phone has thrown a wrench into literary plotting. Thanks to digital technology, a simple text message would tell Romeo – spoiler alert – that Juliet was only sleeping. Rick would know right away that Ilsa was running late. And Kevin’s parents would discover that he was home, alone.

    If Richtel’s complaint is true, then mobile telephony means no more star-crossed lovers, missed connections, or lost children, and no remakes of some movie greats. If Ray Milland wants to murder his wife, a phone call won’t bring her to the writing desk, where the killer waits behind a curtain, since her cell phone is probably on her nightstand. Want Shane to return? Just press 5 to leave your callback number. Want  to know what Rosebud means? Google it.

    Swann about to strangle Margot in Dial M for Murder 

    Capt. Lesgate, also known as Swann, pops out from behind a curtain to after an unsuspecting Grace Kelly. How do you remake Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, “Dial M for Murder,” in a world without land lines?

    Richtel argues that some of today's writers feel more comfortable writing historical fiction because a lot of older technology worked so slowly that it was useless for advancing plot. But for anything set in the present, the fact of all-email-texts-and-internet, all-the-time, means that characters are never out of touch and information is just a click away: Deborah Kerr can text Cary Grant from the E.R.; Gilligan can google.map his way off the island; and Scarlett O’Hara can take the “Which Civil War general are you?” Facebook quiz tomorrow.

    Occasionally an old story upgrades easily, like Pride and Prejudice 2.0, or as the author now calls it, austenbook:

    a facebook-style parody of Pride and Prejudice

    There are no cell phones in Harry Potter, where only magic, not technology, can be trusted (true, Dudley has computers, but like a true Muggle, he’s always breaking them). But for most stories set in the here-and-now, traditional plot devices like missed connections or stranding on a desert island only succeed when a digital technology conveniently fails. Just as the heroes of the old horse operas had to throw their guns at the bad guys when they ran out of bullets, today’s protagonists must cope with a less dramatic but more literal deus ex machina: lo batt, denial of service attacks, and “404 File Not Found” messages.

    Harrison Ford's cell phone displays  

    Harrison Ford, as Pres. Jim Marshall in “Air Force One” (1997), experiences Lo Batt while getting instructions from the ground on how to retake his plane from hijackers. 

    For example, suspense builds in “Air Force One” when Harrison Ford’s phone battery goes dead, and “Slumdog Millionaire” works in part because a cell phone gets left in a car.

    Richtel’s surely overstating his case against technology, since many contemporary stories (and pretty much all science fiction) incorporate the digital world seamlessly, if not always realistically. No office scene in police procedural or on TV is complete without a PC on the desk. The cell phones on “Law and Order” and “The West Wing” never go dead, never drop a call, always have full bars. Whether it’s “CSI” or “The Closer,” crime techs can always crack passwords, and their version of Photoshop always enlarges grainy surveillance footage into hi-res images where license plates are legible and perps look just like their 8 x 10 glossy head shots.

    Not only do today’s writers take the challenges of technology in stride, if yesterday’s authors were working today they’d also adjust their plots to fit the present without missing a beat. Take Homer, for example. Richtel predicts an easy, Circe-free return from Troy to Ithaka thanks to google.maps. But no smartphone would keep Odysseus from getting delayed at Athens airport (ATH) on his way back to Kefalonia (EFL; there’s no airport in Ithaka, but there's a daily bus from Kefalonia to Ithaka, which can be found at http://www.kefalonia-ithaka.com/itaka.php); he’d have no trouble programming an avatar to fool his friends when he did get back to town; and he’d prove his true identity to Penelope by reminding her how much trouble he had assembling that bed from Ikea before he left for Troy.

    As far as upgrading “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” to the age of text, that’s simple. Tony finds his old pal Swann, fallen on hard times, spoiler alert, through classmates.com, then responds to Swann’s used-car ad on Craig’s list. Tony lures his wife Margot out of the bedroom with a text message asking her to TiVo a program because he’s delayed at the club, and while not everything in the remake needs to be digital, Margot turns the tables on Swann, who comes out from behind the very traditional curtains to strangle her, by killing him, not with a scissors from her mending box, but with an antique letter-opener that she got for Tony as a surprise birthday present on eBay.

    After Margot’s conviction for murder and just before her impending execution, Margot’s “partner” Mark Halliday (played by an ageless Robert Cummings) finds the payoff money hidden not in Tony’s suitcase but in his PayPal account. And in a typical, Hitchcockian turn of fate, Chief Inspector Hubbard independently tumbles to Tony’s guilt when a password, written on a slip of paper in what turns out to be Tony’s overcoat, not his own, won’t unlock Tony’s computer screen.

    Screenshot of an    

    A case of mixed-up passwords proves the downfall of Tony Wendice in the 2009 remake called “Text ‘M’ for Murder.”

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