Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The dowdy world on film

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.
Fraser . . . . . . Road . . . . . . at . . . . . . Caron."
I shall now click my mouse and send these words from the dowdy world into the future.
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comments: 6

Rachel said...

Thank you for my lovely "Memoranda" notebook from the dowdy world, Dad!

Love,
Your Daughter

Slywy said...

I think of Sorry, Wrong Number with Agnes Moorhead -- the phone, the operator at the switchboard, all part of the mystery and suspense.

And trains . . . they don't make them like they used to.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, Sorry, Wrong Number is a wonderful radio drama. "Operator!" "Operator!"

Michael Leddy said...

You're welcome, Rachel! Though I told ya that in person last year. : )

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on your blog, and I know this is an old post, but I wanted to comment.

I love technology - I embrace it fully. For example, I have transferred all of my old jazz tunes to my computer and manage them in iTunes, so I can sort based on any number of criteria. But at the same time I regret that technology has deprived us of some tangible connections to "things."

I have been thinking about writing a little article/essay that I have tentatively titled "Will Anyone Collect My Ipod?" I remember the the feeling that I had when I first discovered my mother's old '78s. They were tangible objects, with titles on them, and groves that contained the music that you could see. Some of the labels had her name written on them. I imagined her young with her girlfriends playing their records and swooning over a young Sinatra. Her recording of Moonlight Serenade was very worn - more than the rest, because it was her favorite and had bee played repeatedly.

The records were tangible objects that really represented what they contained. They were not mysterious "files" made up of bits and bytes on a hard drive where they are anonymous, and on close examination, barely distinguishable from a spreadsheed or word processing file.

Much has been gained from technology, but much has been lost, too.

Thanks for your thoughts on the "Dowdy World."

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. If you write that essay, please let me know -- I'd like to read it.

Your remembrance of things past made me think of my copy of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. It's the original LP, with two titles reversed on the back cover. My dad bought this LP in 1959, and I took it with me (with his okay) when I went out on my own. In the upper-left corner there's a bit of the cover photo missing. That blank patch goes back to when I was nine or ten and catalogued my dad's LPs for him with little pieces of paper and scotch tape. Just another example of the sort of history that's lost when we go digital.