Tag Archive | Dictaphone

The Eldritch Voice: H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Phonography

Weird Tales CoverWelcome to the last installment of Sonic Shadows, Sounding Out!’s limited series pursuing the question of what it means to have a voice. In the most recent post, Dominic Pettman encountered several traumatized birds who acoustically and uncannily mirror the human, a feedback loop that composes what he called “the creaturely voice.” This week, James Steintrager investigates the strange meaning of a “metallic” voice in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, showing how early sound recording technology exposed an alien potential lingering within the human voice. This alien voice – between human and machine – was fodder for  techniques of defamiliarizing the world of the reader.
 
I’ll leave James to tell us more. Thanks for reading!

— Guest Editor Julie Beth Napolin

A decade after finding itself downsized to a dwarf planet, Pluto has managed to spark wonder in the summer of 2015 as pictures of its remarkable surface features and those of its moon are delivered to us by NASA’s New Horizons space probe. As scientists begin to tentatively name these features, they have drawn from speculative fiction for what they see on the moon Charon, giving craters names including Spock, Sulu, Uhuru, and—mixing franchises—Skywalker . From Doctor Who there will be a Tardis Chasma and a Gallifrey Macula. Pluto’s features stretch back a bit further, where there will also be a Cthulhu Regio, named after the unspeakable interstellar monster-cum-god invented by H. P. Lovecraft.

We can imagine that Lovecraft would have been thrilled, since back when Pluto was first discovered in early 1930 and was the evocative edge of the solar system, he had turned the planet into the putative home of secretive alien visitors to Earth in his short story “The Whisperer in Darkness.” First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1931, “The Whisperer in Darkness” features various media of communication—telegraphs, telephones, photographs, and newspapers—as well as the possibilities of their manipulation and misconstruing. The phonograph, however, plays the starring role in this tale about gathering and interpreting the eerie and otherworldly—the eldritch, in a word—signs of possible alien presence in backwoods Vermont.

In the story, Akeley, a farmer with a degree of erudition and curiosity, captures something strange on a record. This something, when played back by the protagonist Wilmarth, a folklorist at Lovecraft’s fictional Miskatonic University, goes like this:

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young! (219)

The sinister resonance of a racial epithet in what appears to be a foreign or truly alien tongue notwithstanding, this story features none of the more obvious and problematic invocations of race and ethnicity—the primitive rituals in the swamps of Louisiana of “The Call of Cthulhu” or the anti-Catholic immigrant panic of “The Horror at Red Hook”—for which Lovecraft has achieved a degree of infamy. Moreover, the understandable concern with Lovecraft’s social Darwinism and bad biology in some ways tends to miss how for the author—and for us as well—power and otherness are bound up with technology.

weirdtalesThe transcription of these exclamations, recorded on a “blasphemous waxen cylinder,” is prefaced with an emphatic remark about their sonic character: “A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH” (219-220). The captured voice is further described as an “accursed buzzing which had no likeness to humanity despite the human words which it uttered in good English grammar and a scholarly accent” (218). It is glossed yet again as a “fiendish buzzing… like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species” (220). If such a creature tried to utter our tongue and to do so in our manner—both of which would be alien to it—surely we might expect an indication of the difference in vocal apparatuses: a revelatory buzzing. Lovecraft’s story figures this “eldritch sound” as it is transduced through the corporeal: as the timbral indication of something off when the human voice is embodied in a fundamentally different sort of being. It is the sound that happens when a fungoid creature from Yuggoth—the supposedly native term for Pluto—speaks our tongue with its insectile mouthparts.

Yet, reading historically, we might understand this transduction as the sound of technical mediation itself: the brazen buzz of phonography, overlaying and, in a sense, inhabiting the human voice.

For listeners to early phonographic recordings, metallic sounds—inevitable given the materials used for styluses, tone arms, diaphragms, amplifying horns—were simply part of the experience. Far from capturing “the unimaginable real” or registering “acoustic events as such,” as media theorist Friedrich Kittler once put the case about Edison’s invention, which debuted in 1877, phonography was not only technically incapable of recording anything like an ambient soundscape but also drew attention to the very noise of itself (23).

For the first several decades of the medium’s existence, patent registers and admen’s pitches show that clean capture and reproduction were elusive rather than given. An account in the Literary Digest Advertiser of Valdemar Poulsen’s Telegraphone, explains the problem:

telegraphoneThe talking-machine records sound by the action of a steel point upon some yielding substance like wax, and reproduces it by practically reversing the operation. The making of the record itself is accompanied by a necessary but disagreeably mechanical noise—that dominating drone—that ‘b-r-r-r-r’ that is never in the human voice, and always in its mechanical imitations. One hears metallic sounds from a brazen throat—uncanny and inhuman. The brittle cylinder drops on the floor, breaks—and the neighbors rejoice!

The Telegraphone, which recorded sounds “upon imperishable steel through the intangible but potent force of electromagnetism” such that no “foreign or mechanical noise is heard or is possible,” of course promised to make the neighbors happy not by breaking the cylinder but rather by taking the inhuman ‘b-r-r-r-r’ out of the phonographically reproduced voice. Nonetheless, etching sound on steel, the Telegraphone was still a metal machine and unlikely to overcome the buzz entirely.

In his account of “weird stories” and why the genre suited him best, Lovecraft explained that one of his “strongest and most persistent wishes” was “to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis.” In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” Lovecraft put to work a technology that was rapidly becoming commonplace to introduce a buzz into the fabric of the everyday. This is the eldritch effect of Lovecraft’s evocation of phonography. While we might wonder whether a photograph has been tampered with, who really sent a telegram, or with whom we are actually speaking over a telephone line—all examples from Lovecraft’s tale—the central, repeated conundrums for the scholar Wilmarth remain not only whose voice is captured on the recorded cylinder but also why it sounds that way.

auxetophoneThe phonograph transforms the human voice, engineers a cosmic transduction, suggesting that within our quotidian reality something strange might lurk. This juxtaposition and interplay of the increasingly ordinary and the eldritch is also glimpsed in an account of Charles Parson’s invention the Auxetophone, which used a column of pressurized air rather than the usual metallic diaphragm. Here is an account of the voice of the Auxetophone from the “Matters Musical” column of The Bystander Magazine from 1905: “Long ago reconciled to the weird workings of the phonograph, we had come to regard as inevitable the metallic nature of its inhuman voice.” The new invention might well upset our listening habits, for Mr. Parson’s invention “bids fair to modify, if not entirely to remove,” the phonograph’s “somewhat unpleasant timbre.”

What the phonograph does as a medium is to make weird. And what making weird means is that instead of merely reproducing the human voice—let alone rendering acoustic events as such—it transforms the latter into its own: an uncanny approximation, which fails to simulate perfectly with regard to timbre in particular. Phonography reveals that the materials of reproduction are not vocal chords, breath, labial and dental friction—not flesh and spirit, but vibrating metal.

Although we can only speculate in this regard, I would suggest that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was weirder for readers for whom phonographs still spoke with metallic timbre. The rasping whisper of the needle on cylinder created what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky was formulating at almost exactly the same time as the function of the literary tout court: defamiliarization or, better, estrangement. Nonetheless, leading the reader to infer an alien presence behind this voice was equally necessary for the effect. After all, if we are to take the Auxetophone as our example—an apparatus announced in 1905, a quarter of a decade before Lovecraft composed his tale, and that joined a marketplace burgeoning with metallic-voice reducing cabinets, styluses, dampers, and other devices—phonographic listeners had long since become habituated to the inhumanity of the medium. That inhumanity had to be recalled and reactivated in the context of Lovecraft’s story.

dictaphoneTo understand fully the nature of this reactivation, moreover, we need to know precisely what Lovecraft’s evocative phonograph was. When Akeley takes his phonograph into the woods, he adds that he brought “a dictaphone attachment and a wax blank” (209). Further, to play back the recording, Wilmarth must borrow the “commercial machine” from the college administration (217). The device most consistent with Lovecraft’s descriptions and terms is not a record player, as we might imagine, but Columbia Gramophone Company’s Dictaphone. By the time of the story’s setting, Edison Phonograph’s had long since switched to more durable celluloid cylinders (Blue Amberol Records; 1912-1929) in an effort to stave off competition from flat records. Only Dictaphones, aimed at businessmen rather than leisure listeners, still used wax cylinders, since recordings could be scraped off and the cylinder reused. The vinyl Dictabelt, which eventually replaced them, would not arrive until 1947.

Meanwhile, precisely when the events depicted in “The Whisperer in Darkness” are supposed to have taken place, phonography was experiencing a revolutionary transformation: electronic sound technologies developed by radio engineers were hybridizing the acoustic machines, and electro-acoustic phonographs were in fact becoming less metallic in tone. Yet circa 1930, as the buzz slipped toward silence, phonography was still the best means of figuring the sonic uncanny valley. It was a sort of return of the technologically repressed: a reminder of the original eeriness of sound reproduction—recalled from childhood or perhaps parental folklore—at the very moment that new technologies promised to hide such inhumanity from sensory perception. Crucially, in Lovecraft’s tale, estrangement is not merely a literary effect. Rather, the eldritch is what happens when the printed word at a given moment of technological history calls up and calls upon other media of communication, phonography not the least.

I have remarked the apparent absence of race as a concern in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but something along the lines of class is subtly but insistently at work in the tale. The academic Wilmarth and his erudite interlocutor Akeley are set in contrast with the benighted, uncomprehending agrarians of rural Vermont. Both men also display a horrified fascination with the alien technology that will allow human brains to be fitted into hearing, seeing, and speaking machines for transportation to Yuggoth. These machines are compared to phonographs: cylinders for storing brains much like those for storing the human voice. In this regard, the fungoid creatures resemble not so much bourgeois users or consumers of technology as scientists and engineers. Moreover, they do so just as a discourse of technocracy—rule by a technologically savvy elite—was being articulated in the United States. Here we might see the discovery of Pluto as a pretext for exploring anxieties closer to home: how new technologies were redistributing power, how their improvement—the fading of the telltale buzz—was making it more difficult to determine where humanity stopped and technology began, and whether acquiescence in this changes was laudable or resistance feasible. As usual with Lovecraft, these topics are handled with disconcerting ambivalence.

James A. Steintrager is a professor of English, Comparative Literature, and European Languages and Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He writes on a variety of topics, including libertinism, world cinema, and auditory cultures. His translation of and introduction to Michel Chion’s Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise will be published by Duke University Press in fall of 2015.

Featured image: Taken from “Global Mosaic of Pluto in True Color” in NASA’s New Horizons Image Gallery, public domain. All other images courtesy of the author.

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Sound and Sanity: Rallying Against “The Voice” — Mark Brantner

DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks — Tom McEnaney

Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918 — Brían Hanrahan

DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks

READERS. 9:00 a.m. April 2nd. Entering the next installment of SO!’s spring series, Live from the SHC, where we bring you the latest from the 2011-2012 Fellows of Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, who are ensconced in the Twin Peaks-esque A.D. White House to study “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.”  Enjoy today’s offering from Tom McEnaney, and look for more from the Fellows throughout the spring. For the full series, click here. For cherry pie and coffee, you’re unfortunately on your own. –JSA, Editor in Chief

“I hear things. People call me a director, but I really think of myself as a sound-man.”

—David Lynch

From March 6-April 14 of this year, David Lynch is presenting a series of recent paintings, photographs, sculpture, and film at the Tilton Gallery in New York City. The event marks an epochal moment: the last time Lynch exhibited work in the city was in 1989, just before the first season of his collaboration with Mark Frost on the ABC television series Twin Peaks. At least one painting from the exhibit, Bob’s Second Dream, harkens back to that program’s infamous evil spirit, BOB, and continues Lynch’s ongoing re-imagination of the Twin Peaks world, a project whose most well known product has been the still controversial and polarizing prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

photo by Flickr user svennevenn

These forays into the extra-televisual possibilities of Twin Peaks began with the audiobook Diane…The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper (1990). An example of what the new media scholar Henry Jenkins and others have labeled “transmedia storytelling,” the Diane tape provided marketers with another way to cash in on the Twin Peaks craze, and fans of the show a means to feed their appetite for FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, aka Kyle Maclachlan’s Grammy nominated voice praising the virtues of the Double R Diner’s cherry pie.

Based on the reminders Cooper recorded into his “Micro-Mac pocket tape recorder” on the show, the cassette tape featured 38 reports of various lengths that warned listeners about the fishy taste of coffee and wondered “what really went on between Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys.” As on the program, each audio note was addressed to Diane, whose off-screen and silent identity remained ambiguous. For the film and audio critic Michel Chion, Diane is an abstraction, or the Roman goddess of the moon. Others claim “Diane” is Cooper’s pet name for his recorder. The producers delivered their official line in the 1991 book The Autobiography of Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes, “as heard by Scott Frost,” (the brother of Lynch’s co-creator), where Cooper says, “I have been assigned a secretary. Her name is Diane. I believe her experience will be of great help.”

Whatever her identity, on the show Diane became the motive for Cooper’s voice recordings, and these scenes laid the groundwork for the audiobook. However, unlike the traditional audiobook, which reads a written text in its entirety, Cooper’s audio diary cuts away parts of the story, and includes additional notes and sounds not heard on the show.

The result is something like a voiceover version of Twin Peaks. And without the camera following the lives of the other characters, listeners can only experience the world of Twin Peaks as Diane would: through the recordings alone. Strangely, the inability to hear anything more than Cooper’s recordings opens up a new dimension: even as eavesdroppers we come closer to understanding Diane’s point of audition, the point towards which Cooper speaks in the first place.

Back on the show, Cooper’s notes to Diane track his movements as he tries to solve the mystery of who killed the Twin Peak’s prom queen Laura Palmer. Strangely—and not much isn’t strange in Lynch’s work— in some sense this mystery has already been solved by the show’s second episode, where Laura whispers the name of her killer to Cooper in a dream.

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However, Laura’s whisper remains inaudible to the audience, and Cooper forgets what she said when he wakes up in the next episode. Much of the remainder of the program, full of Cooper’s reports to Diane, was spent trying to hear Laura’s voice. Thus, Diane, the off-screen and silent listener, became the narrative opposite to Laura, whose prom queen photograph closed each episode, and whose voice became the show’s central fetish object. Moreover, this silent relationship changes how the audience hears Cooper’s voice. Rather than a chance to relish in its sound, Cooper makes his recordings because of Laura’s voice from the grave, and directs them to Diane’s ears alone. In other words, Cooper and his recordings become a conduit to Laura/Diane rather than a solipsistic memoir about his time in Twin Peaks.

This triangulation becomes more obvious, if no less complicated in a typically labyrinthine Lynchian plot twist. As I mentioned, the Diane tape makes Cooper’s reports into a kind of voiceover. Critics have interpreted them as a parody of film noir, a genre whose history Ted Martin argues in his dissertation is defined by the relationship between voiceover and death: “Noir’s speaking voice moves from being on the verge of death to being in denial of death to emanating immediately, as it were, from the world of the dead itself.” Fascinated by this history, Lynch tweaks it through the introduction of a mina bird, famed for its capacity to mimic human voices. Discovered in a cabin at the end of episode 7, season 1, the police find the bird’s name—Waldo—in the records of the Twin Peaks veterinarian, Lydecker. The combined names—Waldo Lydecker—happen to identify the attempted murderer of Laura Hunter responsible for the voiceover in Otto Preminger’s classic noir film Laura (1944). On Twin Peaks, Cooper’s voice-activated dictaphone records Waldo the bird’s imitation of Laura Palmer’s last known words, which also happen to be Waldo’s last words, as he is shot by one of the suspects in Laura’s death.

If we follow this convoluted path of listening, we can trace a mediated circuit—from Laura to Waldo to Cooper’s voice recorder—which locates the voice of the (doubled) dead in the Dictaphone, thereby returning that voice to its noir origins in another classic of the genre: Double Indemnity (1944) (see SO! Editor’s J. Stoever-Ackerman’s take on the Dictaphone in this film here). More than a mere game of allusions, this scene substitutes Cooper’s voice with the imitation of Laura’s voice, inverting the noir tradition by putting the victim’s testimony on tape. And yet, while Waldo tantalizes the audience with an imitation of the sound of Laura’s voice, it ultimately only reminds the listener of the silent voice: Laura’s voice in Cooper’s dream.

The longer this voice remained out of range of the audience’s ears, the more it produced other voices—from Cooper’s recordings to Waldo to the dwarf in the Red Room.

Eventually, however, the trail of tape and sound it left behind ended with the amplification of Laura’s whisper, which became as much the “voice of the people” as Laura’s voice. After all, ABC instructed Lynch and Frost to answer the show’s instrumental mystery (“Who killed Laura Palmer?”) because of worries about the program’s declining ratings 14 episodes after Laura’s first inaudible whisper. The audience’s entrance into the show through the mediation of marketers mimicked the idea behind the Dianetape, but with a crucial difference: now the audience tuned in to hear their own collective voice, rather than to hear what and how Diane heard. Laura’s audible voice was audience feedback. It was the voice they called for through the Nielsen ratings. The image of her voice, on the other hand, was an invitation to listen. And Cooper’s voice-activated recorder, left on his bedside, placed in front of Waldo, or spoken into throughout the show remained an open ear, a gateway to an inaudible world called Diane. Although critics and Lynch himself have compared the elusive director to Cooper, perhaps its Diane who comes closest to representing Lynch as a “sound-man.”

David Lynch, August 10, 2008 by Flickr User titi

Tom McEnaney is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His work focuses on the connections between the novel and various sound recording and transmission technologies in Argentina, Cuba, and the United States. He is currently at work on a manuscript tentatively titled “Acoustic Properties: Radio, Narrative, and the New Neighborhood of the Americas.”

Play it Again (and Again), Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film (Part One on Noir)

Being a teacher, I can’t resist giving out a summer reading list. Being a researcher, I can’t help but want to share the projects that I am working on–which right now includes excavating the cultural history of the magnetic tape recorder in the United States. So, in honor of the Summer Solstice tomorrow (marking the official start of the season) I compiled a three-part summer series for Sounding Out! that does both: “Play it Again (and Again) Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film.”

My summer sound studies A-V list encourages you to fill your idle hours watching the “top 6” featured appearances of the magnetic tape recorder in film, in chronological order (2 each month, with a bonus “supporting role” nod rounding out each post). Not only will “Play it Again (And Again) Sam” help you beef up your cinema buff credentials, but it will trace a little-known history, asking you to consider how the recorder tangled its thin brown plastic tape so effectively into the warp and weft of our twentieth-century lives. You’ll find that my “top 6” list reveals much more human desire than technological determinism; the representations I examine express a complex mixture of fear and fascination, optimism and regret, change and stasis. Often a tool of the powerful, sometimes a weapon of the weak, the tape recorder was a cold war domestic product that could never truly be domesticated. As you will see in this spoiler-free three part series, interactions with the tape recorder remixed America’s workplaces, schools, homes, public spaces and private moments, ultimately shifting how the world was heard (and heard again and again).

Memento (Soul II Soul) 2008 by Christian Marclay, Photo by Nathan Bowers

So, load up your Netflix queue, shake up your Jiffy Pop, and take a much-needed couch-break from the heat and humidity with these oh-so-cool black-and-whites from the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, we can’t start our films without some “Coming Attractions”: look for part two on July 18th (spotlight on Walter Murch) and part three (the 1980s) on August 15th.

1. Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944, Directed by Billy Wilder)

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) speaks his sordid tale into the dictaphone

Okay, so it is actually a dictaphone that appears in this film and the tormented insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) is “putting it on wax” rather than magnetic tape, but this once ubiquitous, now long forgotten recording device has such a haunting presence and a structuring role in this grim noir confessional that, like Neff himself, I am suddenly willing to break my own rules. Outside of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) elaborately sculptured coiffure, the key image of Double Indemnity is Neff’s lips murmuring his murderous late night confessions into the dictaphone’s horn, a physical and metaphorical stand in for the ear of his hardnosed boss (and the true object of his desire) claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).

The dictaphone was Billy Wilder (director/screenwriter) and Raymond Chandler’s (screenwriter) deliberate addition to the filmscript; James M. Cain’s 1943 novella was essentially Neff’s scrawled confession to the reader of his almost-perfect plot to kill Phyllis’s husband and reap double insurance rewards. The introduction of the dictaphone transformed the standard noir flashback voiceover into an even-more intimate exchange of anxious aspiration, guilty pleasure, and homosocial desire channeled through Neff’s tense vocal grain and fierce grip on the machine’s cord. A familiar office machine made strange by Neff’s late-night admissions, the dictaphone mediates the entire film, transforming the audience into eavesdroppers, listening in to an act of recording made for Keyes’s ears only. After stumbling into his office and jamming a cylinder into the machine, Neff begins, sternly: “Office memorandum. ‘Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word ‘confession.’ I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose.” Sound, in the form of Neff’s heated breath pressed through the dictaphone’s curves and into our waiting ears, is the perfect device to exorcise the unseen desire in a film that tests the boundaries of darkness.

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2. Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955, Directed by Richard Brooks)

Screen Capture by JSA

Most people remember Blackboard Jungle for its seductive visual representations of juvenile delinquency, stoked by the sound of Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” the song (written in 1952, recorded in 1954) that opened and closed the film (and became a smash hit as a result, as I discussed in a previous archival blog post here). I’d like to add an often-overlooked image to the film’s legacy, that of teacher Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) plunking a bulky case down on his desk and triumphantly announcing “This is a tape recorder!” A cutting edge device at the time—magnetic tape was only introduced in the states after World War II, largely through the efforts of Bing Crosby and Les Paul—Dadier’s recorder is part and parcel of the technological milieu of the 1950s, which evoked positivistic fascination with “progress” even as it was shaped by existent fears and inequalities.

At the point of almost giving up on his surly working class, ethnic, inner-city students to seek a cushy job in the segregated suburbs, Dadier brings in the reel-to-reel as a Hail Mary attempt to quell his students’ noise and remake them into good Cold War citizens once and for all. As he tells them, “We all talk, but nobody listens.” From the moment he enters the classroom, the students continue to defy the white male authority embodied in Dadier and housed in his machine—“Did you bring your cosmetics to school, Chief?” taunts one student (Gregory Miller, played by Sydney Poitier)—and they undermine his assignment by selecting the “noisiest” student in the class to make a recording: Puerto Rican Student Pete Morales. As I have discussed on this blog and in print, the concept of “noise” has a racialized edge, particularly in the 1950s, when Cold War cosmologies of colorblindness and “enemies within” ruled the day. Sound was an efficient way to separate “Us” from “them”—the noisy dissident from the quiet citizen—without making explicit reference to visual markers of race. And, let me tell you, Morales’s obscene, heavily-accented speech—peppered with “stinkin’”s, 14 of them in total—really makes Dadier’s spools spin. To hear more on the tape recorder in 1950’s American life and this film, see my essay “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in a Blackboard Jungle: Race, Cold War Liberalism and the Tape Recorder” forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound (September 2011).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tr7n9Wxmcf4]..

And. . .in a supporting role:

Kiss Me Deadly (Parklane Pictures, 1955, Directed by Robert Aldrich)

Hammer Screens His Calls: Screen Capture by Michael Leddy

The byzantine stairwalks and gingerbread Victorians of Los Angeles’s defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood are not the only ghosts you will encounter in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Our first glimpse of Mike Hammer’s (Ralph Meeker) space-age Wilshire Boulevard bachelor pad includes a shot of his wall mounted, reel-to-reel answering machine, quite a technological marvel in 1955; it would be over 15 years before Phone Mate introduced the first commercially viable home model in 1971. His recorder manages to look both ridiculously large yet streamlined–and to twenty-first century audiences, old yet futuristic. However, it also allows the hunted, haunted private detective to take just a little more control of his tailspin of a life. After the jarring ring of a telephone call, the spools spin, and a sultry female voice intones: “This is Crestview 5-4124. Mister Hammer, whom you are calling, is not available at present. If you wish to leave a record of your call, please state your message at the sound of the tone.” His back inevitably against the wall, Hammer brings a suave tension to an act that has now become mundane: call screening. Removing the small surprise of who’s on the line, Hammer uses his recorder to listen just a step ahead, pacing an increasingly mysterious world given over to the dangerous riddle of the “whatsit” that leaves so many in the morgue by the film’s end. For a more general take on sound in this film (with a brief mention of Mike Hammer’s tape recorder), see Noira-Blanchè-Rougi’s November 2009 blog post, “The Use of Sound in Kiss Me Deadly.”

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