I sometimes refer to what I call "the dowdy world" -- meaning modern American culture as it was before certain forms of technology redefined everyday life. The dowdy world is a place with dictaphones, rotary phones, afternoon newspapers, "radio programs," and telegrams. In the dowdy world, a fountain pen is an everyday tool, not a jewel-laden collector's item. And yes, there are payphones. In the dowdy world, even a crime boss has to drop a nickel to make an important call.
I sometimes like watching a movie just for the pleasure of getting in touch with the dowdy world in all its black-and-white splendor. Few movies have given me as much of this odd pleasure as The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 film about the FBI infiltration of a Nazi spy-ring in Manhattan. It's part thriller, part police-procedural, told in documentary fashion with a solemn narrative voiceover. The movie was recently released on DVD, billed as film noir, which it's not. (But noir sells.)
The House on 92nd Street pleases even with its opening credits -- presented in the form of a typed document, the pages held at the top by a big shiny clasp. As the scenes go by, one sees file cabinets, file trays, card files, desktop blotters, rocking blotters, desk sets, ledgers, teletype machines, typing stands, pencils, fountain pens, and rubber stamps. These objects are sometimes the focal points of scenes, as when a morgue attendant reads through the pocket notebook found on a body and the camera closes in on its pages. At other times, these objects -- which may well have been virtually invisible to a 1945 audience -- take on a curious importance just by virtue of their antiquity. Look at that fountain pen, I say to myself. It's right there, so big that it's easy to identify as a Waterman.
The follow-up movie The Street with No Name (1948) has similar delights. In this film the FBI is after crooks, not Nazis. A teletype machine -- spitting out a directive signed "J. Edgar Hoover" -- is the first speaking character in the movie. An enormous wooden card file sits on the desk of a bail bondsman. Look at that card file, I say to myself. It's the bondsman's database, and he pops the hood and retrieves a card in less time than it would take to point and click. A stapler, the dowdy kind, shiny steel, with a knob to push down on, is strangely prominent in a shot of an FBI staffer. And everyone seems to have a pencil at hand -- or else is gesturing for one, as when Inspector Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), taking a phone call, needs to get down an address. He then speaks the words, telegram-style, as he writes them:
"Anderson . . . . . . Manufacturing . . . . . . Company.I shall now click my mouse and send these words from the dowdy world into the future.
Fraser . . . . . . Road . . . . . . at . . . . . . Caron."
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