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Where would Alfred Hitchcock be with today's technology?

August 30, 2011 |  3:06 pm

Cary Grant, left, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest 
Sorry, Alfred Hitchcock, that script needs a tweak.

Impressive structure, Frank Capra, but about the premise….

Crackling good dialogue, Billy Wilder, but there’s been a technical glitch. Actually, a technology glitch.

Some of the greatest films of all time probably wouldn’t be greenlighted today without some serious script doctoring because the advent of modern technology has removed the feasibility of the plot points that so many of them turn on.

Consider the opening scene of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959). Roger (a never-better Cary Grant) realizes during a business lunch at the Plaza Hotel that he must relay a message to his mother, and therefore must send her a telegram. (For readers born after the Clinton impeachment, Google “Western Union.”) With unfortunate timing, he flags down a bellboy who is paging someone else, leading to an identity mix-up and his kidnapping by foreign spies.

A very Hitchcockian device, mistaken identity. It sets the entire plot in motion. But Hitch couldn’t have made that movie today. Not set in 2011, at least, because what successful businessman leaves the office without his 4G smartphone?

Take Capra's multiple Oscar winner “It Happened One Night” (1934). In it, Peter (Clark Gable) is a recently fired newspaper reporter (OK, change that to “recently laid off” and that does still ring true in 2011) who meets heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert), who is on the lam after a fight with her father. Set and filmed during the Depression, the road comedy features Ellie bribing Peter to keep her whereabouts secret.

How quaint. In 2011, Ellie Andrews would be a cottage industry for TMZ, National Enquirer photographers and Nancy Grace. Her photo would be all over CNN and the national news. But come to think of it, nowadays, rich girls who have fights with Dad don’t try to hide, they merely post it on Facebook or blog about it, then let the court of public opinion render a verdict.

“Double Indemnity” (1944): With cellphone records and embedded GPS, it would take Edward G. Robinson’s claims adjuster all of 10 minutes to figure out that Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) were having an affair in Wilder’s film noir about a life insurance scam. And the plot to make it look like hubby fell from the train? I’m betting that once Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner builds up enough speed to break your neck in a fall between San Diego and Los Angeles, its doors can’t be opened for that fatal shove.

“Body Heat” (1981): This steamy thriller from Lawrence Kasdan is another take on the faked-death scheme. But with all the forensic science advances, it wouldn’t take long for Abby from “NCIS” and Dr. Warner from “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to deduce that Matty (Kathleen Turner) had assumed another woman’s identity and that body isn’t hers. Probably a Facebook search of her high school site and a simple DNA test would clear her poor besotted lover Ned (William Hurt) in less than a week.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948): Bedridden Mrs. Stevenson (Stanwyck) is somehow connected to an ongoing phone call between two men planning a murder. Turns out, they’re talking about her murder. So, quick, call 911, right? No, she spends much of the movie on the line to an operator. She has no call waiting. And, of course, she’s in an upstairs bedroom, so when the killer knocks the phone downstairs off the hook, she’s out of luck. Give her a cellphone plan with anytime minutes and unlimited texting, and there’s no movie.

“The Terminator” (1984): One of the first things the futuristic machine (Arnold Schwarzenegger) does after warping back in time (after stealing clothes and those iconic shades off some bikers) is go to a phone booth and tear the Sarah Connor listings out of the white pages. Good luck finding a phone booth in L.A. today ¬— especially one with a current phone book.

Classic period films, obviously, aren’t affected by technology advances — a western is set in the Old West regardless of what year it is made, same with 19th century English dramas and the like. And fantasies are set in an alternate reality so don’t have to adhere to modern rules. And science fiction? Well, yes, many older sci-fi films can be comical in retrospect (you don’t shoot a rocket into space by putting it on tracks that run up a hillside, boys), but they get credit at least for thinking outside the box.

Contemporary movies, though, are a trickier lot. It’s totally possible that future technology would date — perhaps hilariously — some more recent technology-dependent films, such as  “Eagle Eye” (2008), “Enemy of the State” (1998), “Disclosure” (1994), “The Matrix” trilogy (1999-2003), etc. Actually, it’s already happened — the AOL modem dial-up in 1998’s romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail,” anyone?

When you consider all the changes in medical technology, computer technology, social technology in the past couple decades, there are probably plenty of other films out there that would be tripped up by today’s online, linked-in capabilities. Let us know if you can think of others and how you’d write around the outdated plot points.


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--Linda Whitmore

Photo: Cary Grant, left, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." Credit: MGM