‘The Lie Detector’ First Look: ‘American Experience’ Documentary Reveals History Of Device That Claimed To Nail Liars Dead To Rights

EXCLUSIVE: Get ready to strap yourself in for a fascinating night of documentary with the premiere of The Lie Detector.

The film directed by Rob Rapley and executive produced by Cameo George explores the history of a device that purported to discern whether a person was telling the truth by measuring physiological responses to probing questions. It debuts as part of the long-running PBS series American Experience on Tuesday, January 3 at 9 p.m. The film will also be available through PBS.org and the PBS video app.

“Today, the lie detector is little more than a curiosity to the general public,” a summation of the film notes. “But for decades, the device was an inescapable feature of American life, used by police, the government, the CIA and the FBI, and more than half the retail businesses in the country. Designed to ferret out Communists, cheats, criminals and homosexuals, it was used on millions of ordinary people, changing tens of thousands of lives forever. Yet in most of these circumstances, the results were little better than guesswork. Never fully accepted in any other country, the lie detector remains a uniquely American phenomenon.”

Actor Andre Braugher narrates the film, which explores the role of three men in creating the ostensible truth meter: Police officer John Larson, Larson’s assistant Leonarde Keeler, and psychologist William Marston. The latter of the three, Marston, not only made a name for himself with an early version of a polygraph, but occupies a curious place in the history of the entertainment business. He and his wife created the comic book character Wonder Woman, later transformed into a superheroine of TV and movies. And as the exclusive clip above reveals, Marton also brought his “love meter” device to Hollywood, where it became incorporated into audience testing of motion pictures.

The science behind his invention was always dubious.

“Although [the ‘Marston Deception Test’] was simply a blood pressure cuff and useless as a lie detector, Marston promoted it as almost infallible,” a summary of the film states. “Over the years, Marston would use his lie detector for everything from advertising to marriage therapy — always one step ahead of his creditors, and sometimes the law.”

PBS describes American Experience as “television’s most-watched history series, bringing to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. American Experience documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 30 Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards and 19 George Foster Peabody Awards.” 

Cameo George is the series executive producer. American Experience is produced for PBS by GBH Boston. 

Watch the exclusive clip from The Lie Detector above.

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