Tech's Influence on Mysteries

I kinda miss flip phones

Mystery Mob! 

This week I rewatched Departed for probably the thousandth time in my life. It’s one of those movies that not only holds up each rewatch, but becomes better with each rewatch. 

This time around, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the flip phone usage. It dates the movie, squarely in a ~10 year range, and I like that. I like thinking that some youngsters might watch the film in 30 years, and they’ll ask “what the heck is the deal with the flip phones?” I’ll tell them how we used to have to text by using the numbers on the phone, scrolling through each letter in threes. I’ll tell them how we used to have to pay per text message. Oh, and I’ll tell them about the greatest phone game of all time - snake. 

But, here I am rambling. The point is, the technology in a mystery can stamp it in a specific time period, like a scribbled date on the back of a Polaroid. Sometimes, this means the mystery would only work in that time period. I mean, how many mysteries and thrillers of the past would be moot in the smartphone era?

But for me, the dated technology doesn’t take away from a good story. In fact, it can make it fun to watch again and again while the times do what they always do: continue to change.

So I decided to break down my favorite three instances of technology in a mystery or thriller film/tv show, and highlight how the film just nails its chosen tech. 

Chinatown

Chinatown (1974) is an American neo-noir mystery directed by Roman Polanski. You’ll find it on many lists of the best noir or the best whodunits or the best detective films. And although made in the 1970s, it’s set in 1937 in Los Angeles. And that’s what makes it great. 

I know what you’re thinking - “dude, 1937? Isn’t this about tech?” And yes, in fact it is.  

There’s one scene in particular that I’d like to highlight here. J.J. Gittes, a private eye played by Jack Nicholson, is tasked with tailing a husband suspected of cheating (at least, ostensibly - it’s a typical mystery where a small assignment at the start ends up being something much larger, but I’ll not spoil anything). But back to the point here. There’s a scene where Gittes follows a lead to a certain spot. And Gittes, without wanting to wait there all night, wants to know how long the man stays. But it’s 1937. How do you do that with the tech available? 

Pocket watches. He takes two pocket watches, making sure they’re set at the same time. He keeps one. The other, he places right under the mark’s car tire. So, when the man leaves, he’ll be forced to smash the watch. And then when Gittes returns, he compares the smashed watch to the unbroken one he kept, thus figuring out the time lapse. It’s genius. 

Sherlock, BBC TV series

If you haven’t yet seen the BBC series adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, honestly what are you doing with your life? It’s set in modern day London with Benedict Cumberdoodle as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as John Watson. No other Holmes adaptation comes close (sorry, Robert Downey, stick to Iron Man). 

The tech that BBC’s version does so well (and has since been copied by many shows and films) is something we take for granted: text messaging. There’s two parts of this I’d like to highlight. 

First, the way the series portrays the texts is so well done -- a character looks at their phone but instead of just panning the camera down to the phone screen, the actual text just flies up onto the screen. It allows the audience to continue to take in the entire scene (and the character reactions). It’s fantastic: 

The second instance isn’t really an instance at all. It’s an entire episode that involves a phone screen’s passcode. I won’t go into it in too much detail because it’s one of the most fun episodes in the series and spoiling it would be rude, but I’ll give you the below screenshot. Sherlock has only three tries to unlock the phone’s four digit code, and its solution a masterpiece. 

The Departed 

I’ve already rambled about the flip phones in The Departed in the intro a bit, so I’ll keep this one short. In the film, there’s a scene where Billy Costigan Jr. (an undercover cop played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is sitting at home. While there, someone calls his cell phone - a phone that he’d previously only used to communicate with the police captain who ran the undercover scene (Martin Sheen). But he knows it’s not Martin Sheen calling (won’t tell ya why...spoilers). 

But anyway, someone calls the phone. Only doesn’t ring. It vibrates. And vibrates some more. And the momentum of the vibration sends it scooting across the table. And, to me, that vibration and the ensuing scene is just the pinnacle of flip phone suspense. Check it out here.  

What’s your favorite? 

Any uses of tech in mysteries that you loved? Let us know in the comments (I’m sure there are plenty I’m not thinking of). 

As always, 

Stay ‘spicious 

- Andy and Mark

Leave a comment

Pssst. Hey! You. Yeah, you, the one still reading. Question: are you a true fan of Mystery and Crime? If so, join our official Mystery Nibbles Facebook group and our official SubReddit. We discuss all the goods: mysteries, crime, and anything ‘spicious.

(And also, if you want to sponsor one of our upcoming newsletters, just reply to this email.)