Welcome to Oldfield

Reel Librarians  |  DVD case for 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)In a small Tennessee town named Oldfield, a local librarian and historian (Vincent Price, in one of his later roles) retells four horror stories to a nosy reporter — stories that reveal the town’s “long history of violence.” The library and its records serve as a framing device for the other stories in From a Whisper to a Scream (aka The Offspring, 1987), similar to the structure of the 1993 film Necronomicon, Book of the DeadThat film is based on a series of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories; this film raises a glass — literally — to Lovecraft, as well as Poe, “those two masters of horror.”

A classic tale, this is not. The most frustrating thing about the film is that you can see how it could have been a decent film, had its production values been higher and the different stories bound more closely together. The film’s fatal flaw is that for a film whose premise is based entirely on place, its stories have a total lack of place. The stories, although set in different time periods, could be set almost anywhere:

  • The first tale is modern-day, and its only sense of location is that it’s a town with some kind of factory or shipping business.
  • The second story takes place in a swamp filled with voodoo magic (more like Louisiana than Tennessee).
  • The third story takes place in the 1930s at a creepy carnival.
  • The fourth and final story could be anywhere in the U.S. South at the end of the Civil War.

The films opens on a woman being executed by lethal injection (we later find out she’s a serial killer who’s been murdering people since she was seven years old). A reporter present at the execution (Susan Tyrrell) then drives to Oldfield to interview the woman’s uncle, Julian White (Vincent Price).

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

She walks through decaying, crumbling hallways until she stumbles upon the equally decaying, crumbling library. The room is filled with books, antique furniture, books piled over a big desk, and red velvet curtains. The librarian/historian sits in a red leather chair, his own personal throne amidst a crumbling empire. His more formal, professorial attire — a tweed coat, shirt and tie, pocket square — blends in with the shabby library interior. In an amusing review from the Movie Librarians website, A. G. Graham states, “I found the library fascinating — it looks like an antique store threw up to create a set,” and concludes, “If nothing else, watching this film will make you itch to go dust your books.” 😀

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Julian White is not pleased at this late visitor, stating, “The library is closed, and I want to be alone right now.” But as she continues to ask questions, both about the town and about his niece, he relents and starts providing information and stories about the town’s history.

  • “You could read the whole history here yourself.”
  • “I have something I want to show you. These are the original town records. If you read these, you’d find out what kind of people settled here, what kind of lives they chose to live. It goes back to the Civil War.”
  • “Oldfield’s history is written in blood.”

He is a classic Information Provider, a supporting but necessary role; therefore, his portrayal joins the Class III category of reel librarian films.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

The reporter also gets in a few choice zingers in reference to the library:

  • “The atmosphere of this library is getting to me, but I don’t think it would drive me to commit murder.”
  • “Tonight, your niece becomes another sickening entry in your library.”

The librarian reveals the history of the librarian before him, who used to bring young girls to back room for “romantic interludes” — until one night, a husband “dealt with their indiscretions with an axe” and buried both of them under the floorboards. “At night, I swear, you can sometimes hear the lovers’ screams.” Too bad there are no flashbacks to that Naughty Librarian. 😉

There is not much scope or depth to this reel librarian, but Vincent Price manages to inject what dignity he can into the role. Julian is a watcher of history, not a participant in life. As he states late in the film, he “was lucky enough to sit back and watch the murderous parade pass by” from the (seemingly) safe walls of his library. But is that safety an illusion?

The films ends on a twist — but one could also argue the film ends where it begins. “Welcome to Oldfield” indeed.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'From a Whisper to a Scream' (1987)

And now I have to go dust my books… 😉

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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

The ultimate Information Provider

The action comedy RED (2010) features one of the most textbook examples of the Information Provider reel librarian character type. It’s a cheeky, action-packed film, with funny, committed performances by all the leads, including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. They all play RED agents, which stands for “Retired but Extremely Dangerous.” Someone has been a hit out on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), so he teams up with his fellow retired agents to get revenge — and romance along the way with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

About a half-hour or so into RED (2010), Frank and Sarah follow up a lead in New York from a reporter who had been killed. When they question the reporter’s mother, they come across an odd number written on back of a postcard:

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The next scene cuts to Frank and Sarah outside frosted glass doors that read “Downtown NYC Campus Branch” library. (By the way, no such library. The film credits list the Toronto Reference Library as the location for the library scene; the director most likely was playing off the NYU name.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Sarah:  Why are we here again?

Frank:  Because those number on Stephanie Chang’s postcard are actually the call number for a book.

Sarah:  Call numbers start with letters.

Frank:  In Library of Congress, yeah. In Harvard-Yenching, it’s a classification for Asian literature.

Sarah:  How could you possibly know that?

Frank:  [Starts speaking Mandarin]

They use that call number — which points to a book in the Christianity section, by the way, because you know I looked that up! — to find a book, inside of which they find clues to a hit list. Which leads to the next plot point as well as the next RED character… libraries and reel librarians really are so useful to propel plots forward. 🙂

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

NOTE:  By the way, the Harvard-Yenching classification system was begun in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The Library of Congress (LC) system was not capable at the time of classifying those kinds of materials, so other libraries around the world followed suit by using the Harvard-Yenching system to catalog their own Asian-language collections. Through the 1970s and 1980s, however, the LC system added extensive subject headings for Asian and other languages and literatures, and most U.S. libraries now classify Asian-language materials under the LC system. You can read more about the Harvard-Yenching classification system here and more about the Harvard-Yenching Library here.

I was impressed by Frank’s knowledge of call number systems, but the reel librarian fun doesn’t stop there!

In the next scene, which takes place at CIA Headquarters, a director gives a file number to agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) to look up info about Frank Moses. “That’s a file number. You need to visit the back room. You’re going to meet the Records Keeper.”

William Cooper’s reaction to the “back room” is an incredulous, “I didn’t even know this place existed.”

The records keeper (Ernest Borgnine), wearing a cozy grey sweater and a scowl on his face, turns and replies, “It doesn’t.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The back room of records is a room full of metal file cabinets, although the entrance looks like a bank vault.

The records keeper pulls out a large file labeled RED, its contents heavily blacked out with marker. The Records Keeper then fulfills his Information Provider role, providing exposition about what “RED” means to both the young agent as well as to the audience.

William Cooper:  You gotta be kidding me.

Records Keeper:  Frank Moses was one of the most effective black op agents we’ve ever had. … He was truly gifted.

William Cooper:  Why was he retired?

Records Keeper:  He got old. Some thumbsucker came along and tagged him “RED”

William Cooper:  Red?

Records Keeper:  RED. R-E-D. Retired:  Extremely Dangerous.

Records Keeper:  Yeah. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Contrast the spare look and feel of the CIA archives and records room, as seen above, with the files of another RED agent Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who is the next stop for Frank and Sarah.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Just a litttttttle bit different than the CIA files, eh? 😉

Almost halfway into the film, Frank Moses goes back to break into the CIA, with help from the Russian spies. We find out more info about the “back room” from Frank, as he reveals the records room is in the lowest basement level. He also reveals the record keeper’s name, which is Henry.

Henry’s reaction to Frank is very different from how he greeted the younger agent:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Henry:  Mr. Moses. [shakes his hand] It’s been a long time.

Frank:  I’m going to need to see that Guatemala file.

Henry:  Guatemala? Uh huh. I think I can help you.

Henry:  You know, it’s been a whole new world around here since you left. Guatemala.

Frank:  You know you’re gonna catch hell for this.

Henry:  After what I’ve seen? [They both laugh.]

Henry then proceeds to warn Frank about the young CIA agent out looking for him. A true Information Provider to the end, and Frank thanks him warmly.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Although Henry makes no more appearances in the film, and does not get mentioned by name again, there is one final mention of the “back room” in the film.

Toward the end, agent William Cooper captures and interrogates Sarah, and he throws down the Guatemala file down on the desk. We get a closeup of its stamp, which reads “Archives copy.”

William:  Frank left this for me. Where did he get it from?

Sarah:  The secure records depository of the CIA.

William seems surprised at this, but Sarah has a total poker face as she reveals the truth. Perhaps Henry will “catch hell for this,” but along with Frank, we wish this Class III reel librarian the best.

RIP, Ernest Borgnine, rest in peace.

An FBI librarian

I had watched The House on Carroll Street (1988) many years ago, and I recently had the opportunity to rewatch it in order to revisit my notes about its minor reel librarian character. Everything about the film is minor, even though it features some major stars (Jessica Tandy, Jeff Daniels, Mandy Patinkin, etc.) and tackles the heavy-hitting subject of McCarthyism. Kelly McGillis, fresh off her role in Top Gun, stars as Emily, who gets involved in an FBI investigation after refusing to give names to a 1951 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Emily also gets intimately involved with FBI agent Cochran (Jeff Daniels).

There isn’t much to tell about the plot, except it involves a lot of running, dark alleys, red lipstick, retro waves, fedoras, and dark grey suits.

One of those dark grey suits is filled by an FBI librarian (played by William Duff-Griffin), who runs some stills and footage for FBI agent Cochran about three-quarters of the way through the film. The middle-aged, portly, white male — complete with glasses and receding hairline — shows off his technical skills by handling the projector as well as answering the telephone. [Tongue firmly in cheek.]

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

He also shows himself to be a man of few words as he answers the telephone: “Library. Wentworth speaking.”

He then turns to Cochran to tell him that the boss wants to speak to him, which leads to the next plot plot; we learn that Cochran has meddled too much and has been taken off the case.

The FBI librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds and therefore ends up in the Class IV category of reel librarians. He serves as a typical Information Provider.

The film also includes a earlier scene set in a bookstore. Emily suggests the bookstore as a place to meet up with a suspected spy, thinking that it would be a safe place that no one else would think of. Wrong! They get caught immediately, and a chase scene ensues in the bookstore, complete with toppling bookcases and turned-over book carts.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

And what is the main clue for how to distinguish between a bookstore and a library onscreen, as mentioned in last week’s post? That’s right, there are no call numbers on the books in the bookstore! 🙂

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

So long, dear readers, and I’ll see y’all next week!

A magical librarian

A couple of years ago, when I started this blog, I received a reader comment adding the TV movie The Color of Magic (2008) to my Master List. The TV movie is adapted from two of Terry Pratchett’s books, the 1983 work of the same name (although it is spelled in the English way, The Colour of Magic, the first in his famous Discworld series) and the second book in the series, The Light Fantastic. About a year ago, a work colleague recommended Terry Pratchett’s book Men at Arms to me, as it is another book in the series that features the librarian character. I haven’t read The Colour of Magic yet, but I did enjoy Men at Arms, especially Pratchett’s sense of humor. So when on a recent trip to the public library I spied a DVD of The Color of Magic, I checked it out.

Reel Librarians  |  DVD case of 'The Color of Magic'

I had been warned that this TV movie was bad — even my work colleague, who loves the Discworld series, said it wasn’t very good. It is overlong, as it was conceived and developed as a two-parter. It’s also very cheesy in execution and special effects. Where the tone of the books is funny and whimsical, the movie feels silly and belabored; the filmsuffers from a lack of charm that is evident in Terry Pratchett’s writing. So, yes, this was another instance in which I watched this film so YOU DON’T HAVE TO. 😉

I also did not understand the general plot — this TV movie suffers from too.much.plot. — until I read this very detailed synopsis entry of the film in the Discworld Wiki site. This entry is SO detailed, but if you are unfamiliar with the Discworld books, suffice to say that (SPOILER ALERTS):

  • The Octavo is the greatest of all spell books and very dangerous, and it lives in the cellars of Unseen University.
  • Wizards keep killing — or attempting to kill — each other, because that’s what wizards do.
  • Tim Curry plays an evil-minded wizard named Trymon (no big casting stretch there) and wants to rule with help from the Octavo’s spells.
  • One wizard, Rincewind (played by David Jason), is the worst of the wizards because he can’t remember any basic spells or even to show up on time to wizard meetings.
  • Rincewind is therefore expelled at the beginning of the movie, which wreaks havoc because his mind inadvertently contains a spell from the Octavo. (This is also why he’s the worst wizard and can’t remember any other spells.)
  • Sean Astin ambles cluelessly through the movie as Twoflower, a rich tourist who hires Rincewind as his guide. They go on adventures outside the city but eventually come back for the final showdown against Trymon.
  • The Head Librarian starts out in human form… and then gets turned into an orangutan. Yes, an orangutan. Even in primate form, he continues to be Head Librarian of Unseen University.

The Librarian is played in human form by Nicholas Tennant, and in “Orang Utan” form by actor Richard da Costa, who also plays the Luggage. (That is a very strange sentence to write.)

Books also lead other, secret lives in the L-Space in the Discworld series — and as a member of the Librarians of Time and Space, the Librarian of Unseen University has an understanding of L-Space and its powers. It is no wonder that this TV movie highlights the Octavo, as Brian Cox (!) narrates that the “greatest of all spell books, locked and chained deep in the cellars of the Unseen University, the spells imprisoned in its pages lead a secret life of their own. And Rincewind’s departure … has left them deeply troubled…”

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The next scene involves the Head Librarian, deep in conversation with the Arch Chancellor. The Head Librarian reveals a lot of plot in this scene — and indeed, provides plot details throughout to several characters — so his primary role in this TV movie is that of an Information Provider.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Librarian also reflects the fear others have of Trymon, who is power-hungry and trying to bump off any wizard in his way to the “room at the top.”

Librarian:  … I’m just glad he doesn’t want to be Head Librarian.

Trymon [who’s been eavesdropping and bursts into the room]:  Perish the thought, Horace. And I am looking for a book.

The next shot reveals the Unseen University Library in all its dusty, disorganized glory. The Librarian retrieves the book Room at the Top:  How to Succeed at Wizardry! (first chapter:  “Knife in the Back”) for Trymon and continues the theme of the previous conversation.

Librarian:  The position of Head Librarian isn’t one that really appeals to you, sir?

Trymon:  No. [smirks]

Librarian:  Oh, good.

Trymon:  It is quite possible that the next Arch Chancellor may well smile upon those who understand the importance of things being well organized.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

A rumbling, creaking sound from the cellars — the groans of the Octavo — interrupt this conversation.

Trymon:  Is everything in order down there?

Librarian:  Oh, yes, absolutely. Everything is in alphabetical order, in fact.

GROAN.

The Librarian, at least while in human form, comes off as quite cowardly and sniveling. He reacts in fear, and I don’t think it’s an accident that camera angles play up his diminutive form. (For more on the Librarian character in the books, click here.)

Reel Librarians  | Screenshots from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

In fact, I grew so tired of the Librarian cowering in and around Trymon — all the while supplying him with the information he needed to move forward with his evil plan — that almost halfway through the TV movie, I shouted out, “I am SO READY for the Librarian to turn into an orangutan!” And, yes, that is another strange sentence to say out loud and write.

The movie complied, as at the end of the first half, the Librarian gets accidentally gets turned into a primate by a spell released by the Octavo. The Arch Chancellor and the other wizard rush to the library, to be greeted with the Librarian sitting on his desk. Not at his desk, but ON his desk.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Even if I hadn’t know the Librarian got turned into an orangutan — he’s already in his primate form in Men at Arms — I could have guessed where the plot was going, based on the number of bad puns he slips in before the accident:

  • Better not monkey around with it [the Octavo], or who knows what will happen.
  • It’s the Octavo. It’s going really ape.

I was relieved that after he got turned into an orangutan, his vocabulary became limited to variations of “Ooook!”

The Librarian does not have as many scenes in the second half of the TV movie, but he does help Trymon find another book in the library. Trymon threatens him and also gives him a banana for his troubles (“it’s not as if bananas grow on trees”) — which proves to be his own downfall. Literally.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

At the end of the film, Trymon holds all the spells but the final spell in the Octavo and is engaged in a battle with Rincewind and the bumbling tourist, Twoflower, at the top of the tower. The camera then cuts to a close-up of the Librarian with a banana in his mouth (oook?), and then we get a lovely wide shot of the tower in silhouette. And who in the world would be able to scale a tower like this… but an orangutan librarian?!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

And that banana? Well, a banana peel just HAPPENS to find its way underneath Trymon’s foot as he prepares to send one final spell toward Rincewind. Trymon is then blasted by his own ricocheted spell!

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

Although Rincewind gets all the glory, it’s the Librarian who actually ended up saving the day! (Typical.) At the end, as Rincewind and Twoflower make their way out of the tower, the Librarian drops over the side of the wall and toward Rincewind. (Apparently, Richard da Costa studied real orangutans in a zoo to learn how they moved — not that it helped.) Rincewind hands the Librarian a banana and tells him to “Go on, you sort this all out.”

I think HE ALREADY DID. Ungrateful wizard. Ooook, indeed.

Reel Librarians  | Screenshot from 'The Color of Magic'

The Head Librarian is a minor character who appears in short scenes throughout The Color of Magic (2008), and therefore winds up in the Class III category of reel librarians. I’ve already mentioned how he fulfilled the role of Information Provider, and considering the bad puns and overly crude portrayals — both in human and ape form — he also serves as Comic Relief. We are definitely laughing AT him, even if that laughter could be characterized as nervous laughter. Plus, his last trick with the banana peel is the oldest, broadest slapstick humor there is, right?

Until next week … and make sure you look where you step! And be nice to librarians while you’re at it. Bananas optional. 😉