Monday, March 30, 2009

Confessions On Tape


There must be something eternal about a guilty conscience, something that the guilty need to make eternal by recording their confessions for posterity.

In the recently discussed “Make Haste to Live” (1954) (see post here), Dorothy McGuire leads us to the flashback by setting herself down in her darkened office after hours, yanks a microphone to her mouth and starts blabbing the details of her sordid past to a reel-to reel tape recorder.



Fred MacMurray famously unburdened his guilty conscience with a Dictaphone machine in his darkened office after hours in “Double Indemnity” (1944) as he slowly bled from gunshot wounds. At the end of the film, we see several cylinders beside the machine he has used up. These old Dictaphones were like making records in wax, where the voice delivered an electrical impulse that was scratched onto the cylinders. (For more on "Double Indemnity" have a look at this post from January 2008.)

In “The Blue Gardenia” (1953), Richard Conte tries to trap Anne Baxter into a confession, and has a phone recorder and a transcriptionist standing by. He takes no chances, but gets no confession.

For that, Anne Baxter would have to be in a darkened office, all alone, talking to herself.

Would they have tapped out a text message on a Blackberry today? Speak into a mic to record their voice in digital files on their computer with Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software?

16 comments:

John Hayes said...

Somehow the new technologies just don't seem to have the same dramatic appeal, do they?

Raquelle said...

This is fascinating!

It seems like our present-day culture has gone away from recording one's own voice. It's either text or video.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John and Raquelle, thanks for stopping by. You both make interesting points about our present-day culture. We have seemed to drift away from the recorded voice. Even in everyday communication, texting and email seem to have replaced just picking up the phone (even though cell phones make talking on the phone a portable way of communication and therefore just as convenient).

Texting doesn't seem to have as much dramatic appeal, I agree with you John. Quite the opposite, many people view people texting or talking on a cell phone with some annoyance.

Of course, it's a pain to lug around that old Dictaphone.

Laura said...

When recently watching KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY, in which Susan Peters makes a "record" of her voice to send to her soldier husband, I started reminiscing to my children about my grandfather's old Dictaphone machine. He was a surgeon, and when he retired he gave me his machine which recorded on little red records, which were about the size of 45s (there's something else modern kids don't know about!). My friends and I (circa '70s) used to love playing with it -- including making scary-sounding "records" we played when the door was being answered on Halloween.

Thanks for a great retrospective on recordings in film!

Best wishes,
Laura

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Laura. Thanks for sharing this terrific bit of trivia on Dictaphone records! I love this kind of stuff. How, to your recollection, was the sound quality?

Lolita said...

Haha, interesting comparison of films! I like.

Laura said...

I recall the sound quality as being a bit "tinny" but otherwise very good.

As a child it felt really special making records -- more so than using the tape recorder which I think I got a couple years later. My friends and I used to play with the tape recorder a lot too; although my children have listened to story cassettes on tape I don't think they used the tape recorder to create things ("shows," or randomly recording the family at dinner, etc.) as my friends and I did when we were young. Might be a reflection on the changing interest in types of technology which is noted in comments above. And of course, they don't need to put music on tape because they use iPods instead, LOL.

Best wishes,
Laura

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

That's interesting. We had tape recorders and played with them also, singing songs, reading things. Pretending to interview each other. Taping off the radio or TV. Reel to reel first, then later cassette.

I wonder if using cell phones to videotape silly stuff (or other kinds of incidents) is what took the place of goofing around with tape recorders.

Moira Finnie said...

Very interesting topic, Jacqueline. Here are a few examples of other uses of recordings in older films that have always intrigued me. If these are confessions, I'm not sure that the speaker knew that they were making them, but they are an interesting part of these tangled plots marinated in a heavy sauce of Freudianisms:

Nightmare Alley (1946): Mind Reader Tyrone Power and his adventures on the dark side of the Carny world eventually land him in some pretty posh company, including that of psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker, who's wonderful as the best educated femme fatale in movies--though beyond redemption). Walker and Power are soon fleecing the rich, based in part on the material gleaned from the recordings that the appropriately named "Lilith" has made of her unwitting patients.

The Unsuspected (1947): Claude Rains is a big man on radio, specializing in examining lurid murders in this later work from Michael Curtiz. Rains likes to rehearse his radio programs at home on his recording equipment. He also enjoys manipulating a houseful of malcontents, including Audrey Totter and Hurd Hatfield, among many others. Too bad that one night Audrey ties one on and has a fight with hubby Hurd, all recorded for his later use by Claude. Fun if weakly plotted.

Whirlpool (1949): One of Otto Preminger's lesser film noirs with Richard Conte as a psychiatrist, his kleptomaniac wife Gene Tierney and Barbara O'Neil as Conte's patient. Disc recordings on (I think) 78rpm discs are stored in Conte's closet. When evil hypnotist José Ferrer tries to get his mitts on them, trouble follows. The script by Ben Hecht is rife with some pretty ludicrous plot turns, but the shrink vs psycho angle is well done and the recordings and the sanctum sanctorum where they are kept is presented as "cutting edge" technology.

I'm sure that I'll remember a few more. Thanks for writing this...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Moira, this is excellent! You've scrounged up some terrific examples. I didn't realized that recorded confessions (intended or not) was such a commonly used plot device. "Whirlpool" is new to me. Keep 'em coming. "Marinated in a heavy sauce of Freudianisms." Lovely.

K. said...

I watched Double Indemnity a couple of weeks ago for the umpteenth time. I'm happy to report that it's still great. Body Heat was such a tepid remake...

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, K. I agree with you that "Double Indemnity" holds up really well. I like your remark that "Body Heat" was "tepid." Funny.

Thom said...

Great post idea, Jacqueline. Double Indemnity is a favorite of this noir fan. I'm going to hunt down the pictures suggested by Moira too.

Though not really a confession, the earliest use of a recording device to gather evidence in a movie might be the phonograph recording machine that's connected to the criminals' Dictaphone in Traffic in Souls (1913). It helps bring down the white slavery trade because the criminals record their illegal business transactions with the machine. My favorite example though is The Conversation (1974) in which the recording a confession (of a love affair) is absolutely integral to the plot.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Thom, thanks for stopping by. I like your "Traffic in Souls" description. I've not seen the movie nor even heard of it. Leave it to you and Moira to come up with the good stuff.

Thom said...

Hey Jacqueline. Sharing movies is one of the best parts of blogging, isn't it? Traffic in Souls is a social problem/crime drama picture. It was one of the earliest feature-length films I could get my hands on when I was blogging the early silent era. It earned a lot of attention because it's supposed to be an exposé on white slavery drawn directly from a gov't investigation--just goes to show that the "ripped from the headlines" gimmick goes back pretty far and has been successful for a long time. Half the flick shows how the crimes are committed and the other half has our heroine solve the crime. I was most surprised by the use of technology to crack the criminal conspiracy in the film. It's worthy of a look when you have the time.

Incidentally, I need to catch up with your blog 'cause I haven't much face time with the computer lately. I'm planning to read all of your ladies of film noir posts over the weekend.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Wow, I have got to see that movie. Thanks for intending to spend part of your busy weekend with me. I'd better vacuum this place.