So we have dealt with some of the films featuring libraries that won’t be troubling us any further because the appearance is even more fleeting than sightings of an English summer or an MP between elections and we have paid due respect to the most frequent library star the New York Public Library and we will eventually reach some films where libraries or librarians do indeed play a significant and even central role. First though there are number of films that are caught in a sort of cinematic limbo between significant and “Shush.”
Some brief references to libraries or librarians do have at least a passing relevance to the plot. In Pleasantville, for example, a film that features modern day characters interfering in an old black and white, 50’s TV sitcom where the monochrome is used as a metaphor for the town’s social and cultural repression behind its veneer of superficial wholesomeness. It is the library and one of its books that helps spark the gradual colouring in of the black and white town as it enjoys a spiritual and cultural awakening; the prison library plays a minor but significant role in The Shawshank Redemption for Tim Robbins who takes on the role of expanding and improving the library. I say a minor role but the library keeps him occupied for 23 years which is longer than I stuck at any one job, but then again his options were a bit limited.
In Commandments (1997) a man disillusioned with a God that has allowed the death of his wife wants to break all the commandments in revenge and needs the library to help him finds all the names for God so he can take them all in vain. As he is already pretty hacked off with God, being “shushed” by the librarian probably won’t have bothered him too much. It did bother Andrew Beckett though. Played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia Beckett’s coughing upsets the librarian and other library users in the law library where he is researching his claim for unfair dismissal because no other lawyer is prepared to take the case on, but not as much as the announcement by a librarian that he has found the book that Beckett wanted on AIDS discrimination. Beckett refuses the librarian’s invitation to move to a different part of the library and people begin to move away from him clearly fearful of becoming infected either by AIDS or perhaps just by the insensitive prejudice of the librarian. Joe Miller a fellow lawyer also using the library who has already refused to take the case is so disgusted by this behaviour that he approaches Beckett and eventually agrees to take his case which is the focus of the rest of the film.
There are lots of libraries used to find information and some of it even relevant to the plot. Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep digs out a few real facts about antique books to check out Geiger’s dodgy book store. As he returns the book to an unexpectedly attractive librarian, unexpected that is for Hollywood casting, she tells him that he doesn’t look much like a man who’d be interested in first editions but just to prove her wrong he shows just how interested he is a little later when he spends some time with Dorothy Malone’s legitimate bookstore owner, with the blinds down, having been well warmed up by the librarian’s flirting. There are many instances of consulting newspapers and searching in archives and there are plenty of people who we are told are librarians but we don’t see them at work and their role has little or nothing to do with the plot. Helen Mirren is a librarian in Cal for no obvious reason and Joely Richardson in Heading Home and her sister, Natasha in The Comfort of Strangers are two more examples as well as being the only example of sisters playing librarians in different films. This might make a good quiz question apart from the fact that there is only me and possible two other people in the entire world who know this and nobody else cares. Meanwhile Jean Simmons and Julia Roberts might be playing librarians in Mr Sycamore and Sleeping With the Enemy respectively but they have got far more important problems to deal with than libraries. Julia is probably a bit more relaxed about library discipline than some of her library colleagues, after all a few noisy readers are a minor irritant when you have gone to the desperate, extreme length of faking your own death to escape an evil abusive husband who is now trying to track you down. Jean Simmons meanwhile simply has to contend with the surreal obsession of her would be lover Jason Robards who just wants to become a sycamore tree!
We do get to see daydreaming John Simm at work ever so briefly as a librarian in Miranda (2002) but he is only a librarian so he can play the of the out-of-his-depth foil to the mysterious, glamorous and dangerous Christine Ricci. Despite the best efforts of John Hurt and Kyle Machlachan it’s not a terribly memorable film but just worth mentioning for two moments; as the seductive and elusive Miranda walks out on him overnight without warning after their passionate and unlikely affair his voice over reflects “Man meets woman, man loses woman. Man wakes up, woman has fucked off in a taxi” and urged by his friend Julian Rhind Tutt, to get over the loss and “seize the excitement of life” in the worst attempt at an accent since Dick Van Dyke’s crimes against cockney in Mary Poppins he replies “I can’t I’m a librarian”.
It’s not much of a recommendation is it and my wife did not thank me for making her sit through it either. But at least he gets the girl in the end which is not bad for a librarian. And then there are the librarians who aren’t really librarians at all, Take Tom Hanks again for example in Joe Versus The Volcano (1990). Joe is really a clerk for a large corporation but refers to himself as a librarian but once again the label librarian, as well as his desk in a drab room all by himself, is intended merely to send out the right signals needed for the plot about a loser who seems to have lost the will to live, much like the critics who were a bit lukewarm about the whole thing.
There is just one murdering librarian as far as I know thanks to the various filmographies I have searched. He is Edgar the librarian in The Tell-Tale Heart (1960) where the title librarian is again used mainly to signify rubbish-with-women as well, it seems, at choosing friends as he sees his best mate having it off with the passionate but unreciprocated love of his life and obviously in those circumstances commits justifiable homicide. It is loosely (very loosely apparently) based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story so loosely based in fact that the protagonists isn’t a librarian in Poe’s original although as I am not a fan of Poe I haven’t bothered to actually read the whole story to find out. Just for the record though there have been several other film versions and there isn’t a librarian in any of those either!
Two other intriguing brief appearances for librarians before we deal with something a bit more substantial. There is the very brief and largely insignificant but very striking appearance of the librarian in Citizen Kane as she takes reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) into the penitentiary like fortress that houses the archive of Kane’s guardian and tells him in the best bun-and-tweed-skirt tradition what pages he can read and how long he has to read them, not that it helps him very much, but it is an interesting device as the diary fades into a flashback to Kane’s early life
Finally there is the prize for the most pointless and irrelevant appearance of a librarian in film which goes to The Wicker Man. There is a single scene in a library featuring a middle aged woman from library central casting in which our doomed hero finds out what the islanders have been up to but she apparently is not the librarian. The real librarian is one of a group of islanders who celebrates pagan sacrifices although I don’t think it’s actually in her library job description especially as she doesn’t actually seem to work in the library. It is a very small role but we do see rather a lot of her mainly it seems because the Librarian is played by Ingrid Pitt who was compulsorily cast in any contemporary horror movie as the glamour interest. We can also only assume that she had a clause in her contract that said at some stage during each film she has to appear with her kit off. This might explain why Edward Woodward finds her naked in a bath tub even though this appears to have nothing to do with the plot, but then neither did Britt Eklund’s naked writhings earlier in the film but they were presumably terrific at the box office. Quite why the role had to be a librarian and why she has to expose herself in the bath tub is unclear but that is why I am a librarian and not a film director. Not only is it the most pointless appearance of a librarian though it is also the only instance I am aware of in which we see a naked librarian in a mainstream film. We will though come to a less-than-mainstream example in a later post. For the diligent researcher or indeed the diligent voyeur, images of Ms Pitt and the bathtub are still available somewhere in the undergrowth of the internet but I have resisted the temptation to follow the red-top newspapers lead and not included it here.
Bearing in mind the regular occurrence of dead bodies in libraries in literature it is strange how few appear in film in fact from all the sources I have found I can only find one and so as an example of films actually featuring libraries at the heart of the plot I offer Quiet Please, Murder from 1942 considered by some to be an early film noir but routinely ignored by everyone else. The film features several dead bodies in the same library including one that happens before our very eyes seconds into the film. “Can I take it home with me?” a smiling George Sanders asks the library janitor about a priceless copy of Hamlet and the janitor doesn’t really have any time at all to reflect on what a hostage to fortune his reply is. “Over my dead body” says the janitor jovially, realising too late, as George Sanders draws his gun that this is exactly what he has in mind. The rest of the story is almost entirely about the library, its collections and even its staff as the female librarian, Lynne Roberts becomes the sidekick to the detective investigating the case of stolen and forged priceless manuscripts, Byron Foulger’s Head Librarian causes a blackout significant in the plot whilst the library features chases and an exploration of its plans. It also features in no particular order of precedence a Nazi agent, a femme fatale and an explanation of the Dewey Decimal Classification System as well as the aforementioned characters trapped in a library with the killer. If all this sounds vaguely interesting you may also like to follow up the original short story which is apparently called Death Walks in Marble Halls by Lawrence G. Blochman but I shall understand if you want to get on with cleaning the bathroom instead.