Thursday, May 10, 2007


In Scorsese’s latest, The Departed, the image of a character using a cell phone is pervasive. It accelerates the pace of the storytelling, allowing its two snitching protagonists to double-deal their dual masters ever more quickly and effectively. But, much more than that, cell phones are imbued with a certain power in the film, given both narrative weight by the makers of the film and great importance by the characters within it.

William Costigan has two cell phones because he has two lives. As he sits in his apartment, alone, brooding and drinking, he stares at the two phones lying on the table in front of him. Which one
will ring? Who will he have to answer to, the gangsters he works for or the cops he really works for? The split in Costigan’s personality is represented with perfect simplicity by the image of his two phones. Blindsided by a surprising turn of events, Costigan clutches to his cell like a security blanket as he barks new information to his true masters. That cell phone is the only link he has to his “real identity.” Without it, and the ability to call in and set up meetings, he isn’t even really a cop at all.

The power that his boss, Captain Queenan, holds over Costigan through the cell phone extends further: he sends text messages through which he controls Costigan’s actions. The texting isn’t one-way in this relationship. Queenan has direct contact with his undercover agent, receiving new information even as the crimes are being committed. But that which can work for us often works against us. When Queenan dies, he is survived by his cell phone and it contains information that he never would have revealed. When Costigan’s doppelganger, Collin Sullivan, is later asked how he figured out his identity he answers (in what sounds like a joke), “Caller I.D. on Queenan’s phone.”

Of course, films—especially
military and police procedurals—have always commented on the ways in which technology changes the mechanics of warfare, manhunts, crime investigation, etc. But not since the days of The Conversation (1974) and Blow-Up (1966) (or even Blow-Out [1981]) have the technologies themselves been dealt with so obsessively. The characters in The Departed are each as attached to their phone as Harry was his headphones or Thomas his camera. The difference here is that Scorsese doesn’t let his film meditate on the implications of the technology, or how it can be used against you just as easily as by you. He just offers scene after scene of that usage: orders being sent, information being exchanged discretely.

The safety of the phone call betrayed: Sullivan’s girlfriend suspects something is fishy after answering his phone. The technology of the cell phone as an alibi: Costigan doesn’t show up when he’s called, and he claims, “I was in the supermarket with no signal!” When the gangster Frank Costello is shot, he whips out his cell phone to call Sullivan, his mole in the police department. Sullivan holds up his cell phone in a gesture that imparts the phone almost talismanic import, its ring spewing from it, Sullivan walking slowly through the warehouse looking for Costello. Sullivan is literally using his cell phone ring as a protective shield. After he kills Costello, the gangster’s phone rings. Sullivan answers it and Costello’s girlfriend makes a mistake that all of us have made: she assumes that the person answering the cell phone is the person whose identity she attaches to that phone number. When she hears a different voice, she knows she is wrong, says, “Who is this?” Sullivan tells her that they’ve lost Costello, and hangs up the phone.

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