“The Third Degree”

To give someone the “third degree” is to subject a person to an intensive and prolonged police interrogation that could include the use of physical force and/or mental torture for the purpose of obtaining confessions, testimonies, and other information.

Three detectives interrogating a suspect in a dimly lit room.

The “ noir” “third degree” of our nightmares. Broad brim hats? Check! Bright overhead light dangling in dark room? Check! Prison bars in the background? Check! Rubber truncheons and brass knuckles? In the imagined scene to follow.

For example, in the bad old days:

“Okay boys, the D.A. wants a confession. Rough him up, give him the “third degree”, and none of that “I know my rights” stuff in this precinct.”

Or an impending “third degree” in a light-hearted vein.

“I dunno, Frank. It’s pretty late, you’re pretty drunk. When you get home, your significant other is bound to give you the third degree.”

A turn-of-the-century post card with the image of a husband getting the third degree from his wife who is pointing to a clock and the late hour.

Cute, and ready with the third degree, from a turn-of-the-century post card.

 

Origins

Portraits of Harry Truman and Fred Flinstone in their Freemason garb.

Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, was a Freemason. And apparently, so was Fred Flintstone.

Emerging from American big city police argot from around the turn of the 20th century, the term “third degree” drew on a familiarity with the rituals of Freemasonry, a semi-secret fraternal order which enjoyed immense popularity at that time and is still pretty popular now.

The expression “third degree” referenced a lengthy Freemason ceremony whereby an individual received the high order of Master Mason. In this ritual, supplicants were required to undergo extensive questioning, handle “sacred” objects, and display knowledge of clandestine handshakes and other activities and artifacts.

In other words, initiation into the Masons’ Third Degree was a secretive, time-consuming procedure in the same sense that an elaborate police interrogation would be.

 

Third Degree in Films

Perhaps the most recent depiction of the “third degree,” almost by the book, was in the animated feature The Lego Movie (2014).

“Third degree” scene from The Lego Movie.

“Third degree” scene from The Lego Movie. Chris Pratt voices the falsely accused Emmet, Liam Neeson voices The Bad Cop.

But perhaps the most glamorous interrogation appears in the haunting movie mystery Laura, released in 1944.

An interrogation scene from the movie Laura.

Laura. Gene Tierney as Laura, Dana Williams as Det. Lt. Mark McPherson. And that theme music! Click to see trailer.

Laura—now there was a dame!

 


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