It’s October, which means it’s scary movie time!
I recently rewatched the 1957 black-and-white minor cult classic, Curse of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Dana Andrews as psychologist John Holden. The film is based on the story “Casting the Runes,” written by Montague R. James. The film begins with Holden learning of a colleague’s sudden death, and he decides to continue his colleague’s research — and unwittingly becoming the next target of a satanic cult!
The film, which is more a psychological thriller, still holds up quite well. The special effects of the demon monster (which even made it onto some of the movie posters!), however, detract from an otherwise-good film. It came as no surprise to me when I learned that Tourneur didn’t want to show the monster at all; after all, it is a psychological film, and showing the monster undermines the whole point of the film. The studio insisted on including the monster and, allegedly, added the effects in post-production without Tourneur’s knowledge or consent. It’s the only clunker in the film.
What is NOT a clunker, thankfully, is the depiction of the reel librarian! 🙂
About 15 minutes into the 95-minute film, Holden goes to the British Museum to research books mentioned in his colleague’s research notes. The entire scene in the museum’s Reading Room lasts about 4 minutes, although the librarian appears in less than a minute total in the scene.
The Reading Room, also highlighted in Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail, served as the model for the Library of Congress Reading Room (but was, alas, relocated in 1997). The library is so well-known that at the beginning of this scene, the cabbie drops him off and directs to the library, which is “straight through.”
The scene cuts immediately to Holden at a library desk, books and notes scattered about, and an older white male brings him a stack of books. As he sets them down, the librarian tells him that one book he requested, The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons, is not available.
Side note: I looked up that title in WorldCat, an online catalog of libraries worldwide — y’all knew that I would right?! — and there is no book by that title. There, is, however, a listing for a 2015 music CD of that same title, of instrumental chamber music by John Zorn and others. Interesting!
Holden: What does ‘not available’ mean?
Librarian: It should be in our restricted section. The only known existing copy. Over 400 years old, you know. It seems to be missing. Most peculiar. I’m having it checked.
The librarian promises that he’ll do his best to trace it, writing down information on a card, which he puts in his pocket before turning and walking away.
I included a clip of this scene in my Reel Librarians conference presentation this past spring, as an example of a positive onscreen depiction of a reference librarian! The librarian is polite, very knowledgeable, and efficient.
The library scene continues after the librarian walks away and Holden turns back to his notes. The film’s antagonist, Dr. Julian Karswell, has been watching Holden in the library and takes the opportunity to introduce himself.
Karswell: I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation with the librarian. You’re interested in seeing The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons, is that it? I have a copy I’ll gladly put at your disposal.
Holden: Then the British Museum didn’t have the only copy?
Karswell: Apparently not, Dr. Holden. I have what is perhaps the finest library in the world on witchcraft and the black arts.
At this point, another patron shushes them!
Karswell then takes the opportunity to invite Holden to his place in the country, saying, “The book’s there.” He then purposely pushes a folder off the table (planting a piece of paper that will be a crucial plot point later on!) and then hands Holden his card.
When Holden examines the card, he sees shiny writing on it, including the name of his colleague. He rubs his eyes, and that’s when the same librarian comes up and asks if he can help him. (Such a conscientious librarian!) Holden asks the librarian about the handwriting on the card, but he doesn’t see any writing. He walks away, holding two thick books in his arms, and that’s the last we see of the librarian or British Museum Reading Room library.
John Salew plays the role of Librarian in this Class III film, and he fulfills the role of Information Provider. This library scene serves many purposes: it helps start off the film’s plot, provides means to introduce the protagonist and antagonist to each other, and propels the plot forward with the card and the paper Karswell secretly put into Holden’s folder of research notes. The librarian also serves as a kind of control group amongst the group of scientists and psychologists; he is the “normal” person who represents a rational point of view, undisturbed and unperturbed by any supernatural influence.
One last note: The original short story, “Casting the Runes” by Montague R. James, is available to read in full online. The story was first published in 1911 in James’s second collection of ghost stories, entitled More Ghost Stories. The story does include several mentions of the British Museum, its Manuscript Room, and “the British Museum people” (those would be, ahem, librarians).
Thank goodness the role in the film is correctly listed as “Librarian” — instead of “British Museum person” — and we get to enjoy a positive, although brief, portrayal of a reel librarian in Curse of the Demon.