South Street librarian

Pickup on South Street (1953), a film noir minor classic starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter, includes a brief library scene that combines microfilm, a pickpocket, and the first African-American librarian portrayal on film — all in less than a minute!

A well-known pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Widmark), picks the wrong purse one day on the subway, accidentally stealing a roll of microfilm a lady (Peters) was on her way to deliver. As you do. This leads to a clash between the police and a Communist gang — OF COURSE — while Skip schemes amongst all the chaos.

Skip discovers the microfilm in his stash and has the idea to visit the public library in order to get a close look at the microfilm. Very clever! About 25 minutes in, he skips (har har) up the stairs to the New York Public Library, where we get a shot of a sign that reads, “Newspapers on Microfilm — Apply Here.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'

The camera then pans over two white gentlemen behind a library counter, both in white shirts and ties. The older gentleman is flipping through a book with a male patron, as seen above. Skip moves down the counter to a African-American male, also outfitted in the standard white shirt and tie.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'

Microfilm Library Clerk:  May I help you?

Skip:  Yes. I’d like to see a copy of the New York Times, January 5, 1947.

Microfilm Library Clerk [hands him a card and pencil]:  Fill this out, please.

The microfilm library clerk, played by Jaye Loft-Lyn, is portrayed as friendly and competent, a classic Information Provider. No fuss, no muss. The scene lasts only seconds, ending up in the Class IV category. Although the length of the scene is short, it is significant, as I mentioned before, in that it is the earliest film I have come across so far to include an African-American reel librarian. Too bad the role is uncredited.

The next scene cuts to Skip rolling the stolen microfilm onto the library microfilm reader, looking TOTALLY nonchalant and unsuspicious while doing so.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'Pickup on South Street'

Although the public machine is used for illicit reasons, Skip did end up a satisfied library patron! 😉

I also watched the remake ofPickup on South Street (1953) — I am NOTHING if not thorough, and it’s all for you, dear readers!  —  a tedious 1967 affair called The Cape Town Affair, which changed the locale from New York to Cape Town, South Africa, and starred James Brolin as pickpocket Skip McCoy. Instead of going to a local library, Skip goes to a fellow thief (one who has ripped off a camera store) to view the microfilm. A decidedly inferior remake in every way, including in its decision to nix the opportunity of showcasing a library onscreen.

Pickup on South Street vs. Remake

Click collage for image sources

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