The telephones of old Hollywood are the phones of modern television, and no where so explicitly so as in The Americans, the television period piece that takes place equidistant between the late forties and today. It’s a Cold War story, so the telephone and all its attendant threat of surveillance and paranoia comes with its portrayal. I was more late to The Americans than some, though not nearly as late as others will be, but it’s a show where such timeliness hardly seems to matter outside of the show proper. So I’m taking my time, savouring each 40-something minute episode during moments where I feel like the pleasure has been earned, or at least when attention can be paid. Since this feels like, in actuality, never, I finally got around to watching “Trust Me” tonight (the plot of which I had already gleaned from spoilers, though that also seems to matter little when it comes to this show).
The episode was directed by Daniel Sackheim, someone well seasoned in the TV procedural/detective genre (Miami Vice, Law & Order, X-Files, House M.D., to name a few) that I wasn’t surprised “Trust Me” — the best episode yet by far — was placed in his hands. Scroll down to the very bottom of his CV, and you’ll see his first television work was as an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Part II). I’m chuffed, not only because The Americans takes place during the time Hitchcock’s show then ran, but also because the use of telephones was coy and crucial as would make old Hitch proud.
In what direction does information travel on a phone? Well, if we’re following practice, that would be both ways, with two speakers — even though that doesn’t of course guarantee seamless communication. Here’s the opening scene of “Trust Me” with the first speaker being some anonymous announcer at a baseball game. No one is really paying attention here, even though the radio is foregrounded, even though the radio speaks before our main characters do.
The scene directly following it is a telephone scene — a telephonebooth scene to be exact — and it’s introduced, as we see in retrospect, with a sort of “Look at how private and isolated this conversation is!” framing.
Phillip is covertly flirting with Martha, who herself is sitting quite flirtatiously at home:
Phillip hangs up and:
Want a change in pace? Let’s check up on the kids, isolated at the mall and isolated with, yep, a payphone.
The isolation — the notion that the telephone is your ONLY RESOURCE — becomes obvious if you watch the shots surrounding this one, which are full of crowds and people passing. But this moment is beautiful and feels like it could be out of a Kelly Reichardt film.
When mom is late to pick you up, you call your mother:
Sackheim gives us these almost Gothic shots of telephone first, then delayed ring. Empty hallway first, then two different ringing phones slightly out of sync. Second telephone first, then both phones ringing, still slightly out of sync.
I love a good phone beside the bed, but I also love a good CIA office filled with not one phone…
That’s super! (Maybe someone knows the difference between a green and red telephone?)
But when you want to appear like you’re calling the Russians from not-your-office, you definitely want to go through the switchboard. And the lovely touch here — we hear the switchboard operator’s voice, as well as FBI Agent Stan’s cryptic message to the Soviet Embassy, even though we (like the messenger on the other end) are pretty much in the dark as to where this is all going. Maybe I’m just the switchboard operator, going from A to C even if I have no idea why.
The Soviet Embassy also does some double-phoning shots as well:
OK, but the best part is, as usual, back to the phone by the bed. Not Liz and Phillip’s bed, but Stan‘s. The phone rings and Stan’s wife is about to go for it when Stan’s hand comes swooping in with an interception.
The audience is privy to the voice on the other end so we realize it’s business (by the bed, I know) so all is as it should be. A to C, where no B is needed.