How to Ruin a Good Plot

by | October 13, 2022 | General | 1 comment

I enjoy watching old mystery/thriller movies and crime shows. There are some clever plot twists and devices used in those classics by Alfred Hitchcock and his peers, or old episodes of “Law & Order,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Columbo.” Most of us watch these for nostalgia and comfort, but often find ourselves laughing when we see an AM/FM clock radio, an answering machine or a tape recorder. “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds…” Remember that? It started me thinking about how some of those stories would lose their appeal in the current techno climate. Full disclosure: I am not poking fun at the classics or how they made use of tech that was available at the time. This is merely a whimsical piece that ponders “What if…?”

“Psycho” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most memorable thrillers but if it were made today, I’d have one word: TripAdvisor! If Marion Crane had looked up the Bates Motel before pulling in for the night, she might have read some complaints about the creepy desk clerk who worked there. She also might have put off that shower until the next morning. Another terrific Hitchcock film is “North by Northwest.” A New York ad man is mistaken for a spy, set up for murder, then chased halfway across the country while he tries to clear his name. Done today, the nasty enemy agents would take his photo on their cell phone, do an online search and realize he isn’t the guy they’re after. That doesn’t mean they still wouldn’t grab him for the hell of it, but it’s less likely. The murder they frame him for would also be captured on a dozen cell phone videos, thus proving his innocence.

In Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder,” the killer plans to strangle Grace Kelly with a telephone cord. Has anyone seen a landline phone with a cord lately? If you have a phone in your home, it’s probably a cordless model. Poor Princess Grace would have to meet her demise by some other manner, like a good old-fashioned length of rope. Being a lifelong photography buff, I have to smile each time I see the camera equipment Jimmy Stewart uses to spy on his neighbors in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” I realize those cumbersome telephoto lenses were cutting edge in the mid-fifties, but it’s still amusing to see them in action. Regarding the voyeuristic tone of this movie, you have to wonder if the neighbors being watched would react any differently today.

A couple of other con artist/false identity thrillers would actually be easier to sell with current tech, but they wouldn’t be as good. If they remade “Charade” (1963), smooth criminal Cary Grant would have an easier time getting over on naïve Audrey Hepburn as he changes identities like some people change socks. If it were as easy as posting a fake online background when he springs a new name on her, though, it wouldn’t have the same impact without his trademark charm that went along with the con. The same with the true story “Catch Me If You Can.” The Frank Abagnale character wouldn’t be able to pull off those elaborate impersonations if all someone had to do was run his name and likeness through Facebook or Google to find out who he really was. With today’s security measures, he wouldn’t be able to impersonate an airline pilot and get through a TSA checkpoint. At least, we hope not!

The early 1970s brought a slew of tough cop movies, along with then-current crime solving methods. If they used modern technology, most of them might not be as effective. The mounting suspense in “The French Connection” came from watching the cops following the drug smugglers all over the Big Apple, without the aid of things like cell phones. It was all done on foot and by car. At times they got careless and were nearly discovered, but that just added to the tension. If they had used traffic cams or GPS to track the bad guys, it wouldn’t have been as exciting.

That same year gave us Clint Eastwood’s rogue cop “Dirty Harry.” There’s a suspenseful sequence when he has to deliver the ransom money to the killer, and the guy runs Eastwood all over San Francisco on foot, from one public payphone to the next to be sure he isn’t being followed. It’s exciting, but when was the last time you saw a payphone? They didn’t have the benefit of tracking devices then, and the two-way communication set-up Eastwood and his partner used was about as effective as a kid’s walkie-talkie set.

Speaking of digital media, think how the teen romance “Sixteen Candles” would be now. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, Samantha’s milestone birthday wouldn’t have been forgotten by her friends, and the whole plot would have been rendered moot. “Sleepless in Seattle” would have a different look today, because Meg Ryan could Google search Tom Hanks to locate him instead of conducting a coast-to-coast trek to meet the lonely widower from the radio call-in show. Another Hanks and Ryan rom-com, “You’ve Got Mail,” would be different, too, because anonymous chat rooms have been replaced by Zoom and Snapchat. And I have to comment on the cute-meet thing between Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” He gets lost in LA, sees Roberts on the street corner, and asks her for directions. GPS much, Richard?

The holiday favorite “Home Alone” would now have to incorporate cell phone reminders, ringtone cameras and home security devices for realism. It wouldn’t be as much fun as watching Macauley Culkin outwit the bad guys with kid logic, though. All of those teen slasher flicks like “Scream” and “He Knows You’re Alone” would now be anti-climactic, thanks to caller ID. It kind of takes the suspense out of waiting to see who the mystery stalker is when you could hit redial and harass them back, doesn’t it? And the weepy romance “An Affair to Remember” would have a new outcome if Deborah Kerr could have texted Cary Grant that she was running late for their date at the Empire State Building. That way, she wouldn’t have been hit by a car while crossing the street to meet him. Of course, this would have deprived moviegoers of the opportunity to have a good cry at the ending.

I think this thing with modern tech has finally gotten to me. I was watching an old episode of “Law & Order,” and the cops were identifying the suspect by typing the blood found at the scene. Blood typing? That’s the best they could do? I found myself yelling “DNA!” at the screen.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author. His books range from romantic mystery/thriller to contemporary erotic romance. He is also a freelance photographer. When he isn't pursuing those two careers he can often be found in The Florida Keys, indulging his passion for parasailing between research and seeking out the perfect Pina Colada.

1 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Tim!

    You’re right – a lot of classic plots would fall apart if transplanted into modern times. Indeed, I had this issue with my thriller Exposure, originally written before cell phones.

    On the 50th anniversary of Rosemary’s Baby a few years ago, I had occasion to watch the film again. It actually held up pretty well, except for the section where Mia Farrow is trying to run away, desperately seeking a phone booth so she can call the supposedly friendly doctor…

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