Dial 1119 (1950)

Dial 1119 (1950) is a psychopath hostage film noir starring Marshall Thompson as a sick young man who steals a gun and then takes a group of hostages in a cosy bar rom, tended by William Conrad in one of his rare non-cop nor killer noir roles.

The telephone number "1119" is the police emergency number used in the film, which could be classed as one of several prominent telephone noirs from the golden age of Hollywood cinema.

Delusional mental patient Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) escapes from a mental institution, intent on locating psychiatrist Dr. John Faron (Sam Levene), whose testimony sent him to the asylum. 

Wyckoff arrives by bus in the rather interestingly named Terminal City, and as he disembarks, he is confronted by the bus driver for stealing his Colt pistol. Wyckoff uses it to kill the driver.

This is a great opening, and interesting to see the open-carry policy that the bus drivers on this route follow. They obviously do need the firearms with such psychopaths as young Gunther on the go. However leaving the gun visibly tucked in to the sun visor, is not the best plan.

Noir at the bar — William Conrad in Dial 1119 (1950)

There is a suitably fascinating amount of telephony in 1940s film noir, not in the last because the telephone and its capacity for remote communication is a great plot device. The telephone offers much more to film noir however.

Psychopaths versus Open Carry in Dial 1119 (1950)

In the first, the telephone is a symbol of progress, and how that progress is creating alienation and problems, rather than being an aid or helpful device. The telephone also represents a kind of in between status, in which people can simultaneous be both present and remote. 

Plot device and alienating technology beautifully combine across the classic film noir canon, with telephone noir being an almost separate institution within the style.

Lonely streets of noir in Dial 1119 (1950)
In terms of plotting, a telephone will lead the action to a new direction and often represents a moment when the main-character has to make a decision or takes over a task. A telephone can be used for communication, but at the same time also increases risk. Moreover a telephone will often push the action to the next act and also lead us into a new environment where we get a new perspective of the action.

In full on urban noir, and in the new and unseen networks of a great city, the telephone is the brand new link between the millions of lives that make up the noir story. Over the telephone goes the most important information, and it is often the carrier of character's greatest secrets. The telephone is life and death, often, and in some cases loneliness and horror. 

Film noir is actually fairly up on technology in general, whether it's spy gadgets or automobiles, or as here the telephone. There is more than just a mere plot device at work here.

In noir they are pay phones, office phones, bedside phones, restaurant and nightclub phones — the best kind of all, the ones that are carried to a person's table. In Dial 1119 (1950) the telephone is used to communicate with the police during a hostage situation, but across the style, they are often connected to privacy and secrets. 

William Conrad — keeping bar in Dial 1119 (1950) 
The network was growing fast and there is still a wonderful mystique to the act of such communication, especially in the 1940s.

With the hat and the automobile, and of course the cigarette, the gun and the telephone must be among the most essential props of noir.

The portrayal of telephones could carry emblematic meanings. Deeper themes such as isolation and fear of technology, as well as the possibility to enhance suspense, and reflect the anxieties and difficulties of the post-war stressed out film noir world of the 1940s and 1950s.

The kinda tale told several times across the classic film noir years, repeated like a can clanking down the gutter. There was Suddenly, and there was The Desperate Hours, and the granddaddy of them all, The Petrified Forest.

In those other tales of highed-up hostage-taking gun waving criminal take-overs, the person at the centre of the storm has been a convict or thief, or some other kind of career bad guy. In Dial 1119 the story is of a sad mental patient, crazed-up and alone in a society where bus drivers just leave guns around the place on the job.

Thompson is a steep creep, emotionless unless the emotion is going to be frazzled-up anger in your face. Otherwise the psychiatric segments are important, although we don’t get a chance to give a lot of sympathy for Thompson’s mad guy routine.

The bar has a variety of patrons, like Leon Ames, and they have good backstories, sketched out of the streets, and William Conrad excels as Chuckles, blunt and rude and with a television to play with.

A crazed tale of care in the community from the B picture unit at MGM trying for a realistic type noir. Six people are trapped in a bar in the fictitious Terminal City where Thompson after killing a bus driver holds up in a bar. 

The news comes over the bar television and the other customers Virginia Field, Andrea King, Leon Ames, Keefe Brasselle, and James Bell become hostages.

The story with the kid is that he has been convicted once already of murder but was declared insane and given a life sentence at an asylum, and all of this down to the work of his psychiatrist Sam Levene. Police captain Richard Rober won't let him forget this, and they have their own epic street battles. 

You could argue that when the all-night film noir bus pulls into the station at Terminal City, we’re in for a black and painful ride. In the bar is the barman, the busboy who is an expectant father, a barfly broad, a Lothario and the young lady he has pressed into having a fling with him. Outside a crowd gathers and so does the press who sensationalise the hostage situation, which to be fair to them is already quite dramatic. 

Sam Levene and Richard Rober in Dial 1119 (1950)

Sam Levene in Dial 1119 (1950)

Telephones in film noir were frequently used to highlight the isolation and alienation experienced by characters. Many scenes depicted characters making phone calls in dimly lit, claustrophobic spaces, emphasizing the emotional distance and disconnect in their relationships.

The telephone was often portrayed as a tool of surveillance and intrusion. Characters in film noir were frequently surveilled or threatened through phone calls, adding an element of paranoia and intensifying the atmosphere of suspicion.

Unreliable Communication — telephonic noir in Dial 1119 (1950)

The femme fatale archetype used the telephone as a weapon in her strategies. Phone conversations between the femme fatale and other characters were laden with tension, deceit, and seduction, showcasing the power dynamics at play. Aficionados call it fatalistic communication. 

Sam Levene in Dial 1119 (1950)

Phone conversations in film noir were sometimes fatalistic, serving as a conduit for delivering bad news or sealing characters' fates. The ominous ringing of the telephone or the tone of a conversation could foreshadow tragic events.

Communication through telephones in film noir was frequently unreliable. Lines could be tapped, conversations overheard, or information distorted. This added an element of uncertainty and unpredictability to the narrative.

Cut to the mean and lonely streets of film noir in Dial 1119 (1950)

The handling of telephones often symbolized power dynamics within relationships. A character taking control of a phone conversation could signify dominance, manipulation, or a shift in the balance of power.

The use of telephones in film noir sometimes reflected existential angst and the characters' struggles with identity and meaning. Characters engaged in contemplative or desperate phone conversations as they grappled with moral dilemmas or faced existential threats.

Film noir often depicted breakdowns in communication, emphasizing the characters' inability to connect or understand one another. Misunderstandings, crossed wires, or deliberate obfuscation contributed to the overall atmosphere of mistrust.

In the urban landscapes characteristic of film noir, telephones were ubiquitous symbols of modernity and communication. The neon-lit signs of phone booths and offices added to the visual aesthetic of the genre, reinforcing the idea of a modern, interconnected, yet morally ambiguous world.

Virginia Field in Dial 1119 (1950)

The telephone was a symbol of modernity and progress during this period. Its prevalence in film noir underscored the rapid technological changes and the challenges posed by the modern, urban environment.

Television Announcer: And now for the benefit of the folks who tuned in late, I should like to say that this is the most traumatic spectacle I have ever had the GOOD fortune to witness

Lonely deadly mean streets of noir in Dial 1119 (1950)

Nevertheless, authors of today’s films still use the old-fashioned telephone as an essential part of the plot even in situations that do not really permit its usage. For example, in Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), James Bond is attending a large party of the world’s media elite (at the brand-new publishing building of a media giant who’s character is loosely based on Rupert Murdoch) when a suspicious man informs him that there is a phone- call for him. The suspicious man, obviously one of the media tycoon’s goons, then asks Bond to follow him in order to answer the phone in another room. Mr. Bond does not hesitate, nor does he check his cell phone to see if the batteries may be low, he simply follows the stranger. Clearly the plot requires that James Bond be lured into a back room where the media giant’s goons can rough him up, and perhaps even try to kill him. In the normally up-to- date and high-tech world of Bond-films (and especially in the media-soaked environment of this particular party) it is surprising to watch the hero being summoned to the telephone. The old trick of claiming that “There’s a call for you Mister Bond” becomes anachronistic, and yet it is still playfully used as a plot motivator, thus showing how the narrative logic of a film is often directly linked with the technology that it portrays.

from The Significance of the Telephone in Film Noir

Seminar Paper, 1998

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Free online reading

Dial 1119 (1950)

Directed by Gerald Mayer

Genres - Drama, Crime  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Thriller  |   Release Date - Nov 3, 1950 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 74 min.  | 

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