Positive portrayal of a reel librarian in ‘Curse of the Demon’

The librarian is the “normal” person who represents a rational point of view, undisturbed and unperturbed by any supernatural influence.

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!

Opening title card of Curse of the Demon (1957)
Opening title card of Curse of the Demon (1957)

*SPOILER ALERT*

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.”

Outside the British Museum in Curse of the Demon (1957)
Outside the British Museum in Curse of the Demon (1957)
The iconic Reading Room of the British Museum, as filmed in Curse of the Demon (1957)
The iconic Reading Room of the British Museum, as filmed in Curse of the Demon (1957)
Researchers in the British Museum Reading Room in Curse of the Demon (1957)
Researchers in the British Museum Reading Room in Curse of the Demon (1957)

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!

First glimpse of the librarian in Curse of the Demon (1957)
First glimpse of the librarian in Curse of the Demon (1957)

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.

A positive portrayal of a librarian in Curse of the Demon (1957)
A positive portrayal of a librarian in Curse of the Demon (1957)

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!

Getting shushed in Curse of the Demon (1957)
Getting shushed in Curse of the Demon (1957)

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.

The librarian inspects a card in Curse of the Demon (1957)
The librarian inspects a card in Curse of the Demon (1957)

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).

End credits of Curse of the Demon (1957)
End credits of Curse of the Demon (1957)

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.


Sources used:


‘Blackmail’ and the British Museum

The final chase scene takes place in the British Museum, culminating in the Round Reading Room.

My Irish counterpart, Colin @ Libraries at the Movies, posted some thoughts on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail a little over a year ago — and I’m just now getting around to rewatching this early Hitchcock film. Admittedly not his best film, it was a big commercial hit and was the first British sound film as well as the first example of sound dubbing. Blackmail also includes quite a few experimental touches and echoes of what would become Hitchcock trademarks, and the film features the Round Reading Room of the British Museum. The Round Reading Room — which, alas, was relocated in 1997 — was also the model for the Library of Congress Reading Room.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The final chase scene takes place in the British Museum, culminating in the Round Reading Room.

British Museum sign in Blackmail
British Museum sign in Blackmail

Although no librarian is featured, landing this film in the Class V category, there are several shots of the library. These shots include a birds-eye view overlooking the famous vista, as well as some behind-the-bookcase chase scenes.

Round reading room in the British Museum Library
Round reading room in the British Museum Library
Chase in the British Museum
Chase in the British Museum

The finale is atop the library dome, and Hitchcock gets to show off his amazing visual style, silhouetting the blackmailer and the policemen scurrying across the dome. Finally, in his panic, the blackmailer falls through the dome. The policemen rush up and look over the shattered glass, where one can make out shapes of the round bookshelves far below.

Chase atop the Round Reading Room dome in Blackmail
Chase atop the Round Reading Room dome in Blackmail

As a librarian, I did gasp out loud and shout at the screen, “No! He’s ruined the library!” Perhaps only a librarian would be so horrified at the thought of a body crashing through a library ceiling. I mean, imagine the gore and mess below with the library resources and furniture!

But that’s the genius of a good director. At his best, Hitchcock created suspense and horror by what he didn’t show.

Bird's-eye view of the Round Reading Room in Blackmail
Bird’s-eye view of the Round Reading Room in Blackmail

So why did Hitchcock feature the British Museum and the Round Reading Room? Colin makes a good case that:

“The library is significant because of where it is — the only way out is up, and up is where Hitchcock characters go to fall or jump off things. The director cares nothing for the library qua library.”

I agree, Hitchcock chose the library because of its visual impact — but what an impact! It’s a pretty powerful statement that the British audience watching this film would have felt immediately connected to the Round Reading Room — and even those American audience members who would have recognized the design behind the Library of Congress. It’s also a study in contrasts; the library’s history of tradition and conservatism is emphasized even more by being tainted by the blackmailer and the indignity of a police chase.

Although based on a play of the same title by Charles Bennett — who also penned some of Hitchcock’s best British films, including 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1935’s The 39 Steps, and 1936’s Secret Agent — I have not been able to locate a full-text version of the original play to doublecheck the setting of the final act. The play, which apparently was based on real life events, was a commercial flop in 1928 and starred Tallulah Bankhead. If you’re able to locate a copy of the original play, please let me know!


Sources used:


  • Blackmail. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anny Ondra, John Longden, Cyril Ritchard. British International Pictures, 1929.
  • British Library” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license
  • Higgins, Colin. “Blackmail (1929).” Libraries at the Movies, 14 March 2012.
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