Law librarian sighting in ‘The Pelican Brief’

Book cart? Book props? Yep, that’s our reel librarian.

I recently rewatched The Pelican Brief (1993), based on the John Grisham thriller of the same title and directed by Alan J. Pakula. I didn’t have a copy of the film itself, so I checked out a (double-sided!) DVD from my local public library.

Don’t you just love the fact that after you read on the back that The Pelican Brief is a “heart-stopping, spine-chilling, adrenaline-pumping, run-for-your-life thriller” … you then see a photo of Julia Roberts studying in a library?! Research CAN BE adrenaline-pumping, y’all! 😀

DVD covers for The Pelican Brief (1993)
DVD covers for The Pelican Brief (1993)

If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen this legal thriller, it stars Julia Roberts as law student Darby Shaw, who uncovers the reason behind the recent assassinations of two Supreme Court justices and, therefore, unwittingly becomes a target herself. Denzel Washington co-stars as Gray Grantham, a well-known and respected newspaper reporter who joins Darby in her quest to uncover the truth. Sam Shepard also shines in a supporting role as law professor Thomas Callahan, who is also dating Darby.

Here’s a trailer to (re?)familiarize yourself with this star-packed movie:

The Pelican Brief (1993) Official Trailer – Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts Thriller Movie HD” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

The research process begins

At almost 17 minutes into this 141-minute movie, Darby begins musing theories aloud to Thomas about the recent assassinations of the two Supreme Court justices. Next stop? The library, of course! (But we don’t yet get to see the library. But patience, dear reader, we’ll get there. 😉 )

A couple of minutes later, Thomas follows up with Darby. Their ensuing conversation provides a peek at how Darby’s mind works, and highlights the planning and prep work of her research process.

Thomas: Where have you been?

Darby: The library. I studied a printout of the Supreme Court docket. I even made a list of possible suspects. And then threw it in the garbage because they’d be obvious to everyone. 

Thomas: Then you looked for areas Jensen and Rosenberg [the two Supreme Court justices who have been assassinated] had in common.

Darby: Exactly. … Everyone is assuming the motive is either hatred or revenge, but what if the issue involved old-fashioned material greed? A case that involves a great deal of money? 

We then see Darby visiting a records office. She’s in the research process stage of gathering evidence for her thesis and seeing where evidence leads her.

Records scene in The Pelican Brief (1993)
Lady, don’t mess with me. I’m Julia Roberts, and my red curls are at their best in this movie.

I’m not classifying the woman at the counter as an archivist, as she seems to be more like a city or county clerk or office manager. Their verbal exchange is satisfying to watch Darby flex a little of her law school knowledge and know-how.

Clerk: Can I help you?

Darby: I’d like to see this file please.

Clerk: Why?

Darby: It’s public record isn’t it?

Clerk: Semi-public.

Darby: Are you familiar with the Freedom of Information Act?

Darby’s sass gets her to a back room of filing cabinets, where all the records are. We also learn of an upcoming appeals deadline of a local case, but we don’t yet know the details of this case that Darby is researching.

Records storage in The Pelican Brief (1993)
This back room of records storage makes me sad.

Law library scene #1

We then see the culmination of her research process, pulling it all together. And where’s the best place to do that? The library, of course!

We get treated to a montage of Darby in various spots in the library, first at a microfilm machine:

Microfilm research in The Pelican Brief (1993)
Remember microfilm?

And then typing on a computer in a study desk carrel, deep in the stacks:

Library research collage from The Pelican Brief (1993)
Library research montage, start at the upper left and go clockwise

The camera slides away as Darby continues to type, and the shadows darken, signifying the passage of time as Darby concentrates on finishing her research project.

Side note: I appreciated that this was filmed in a real library. How do I know? The books have call numbers! 😀 The IMDb.com Film Locations page for this movie listed Tulane Law Library, so that’s where I’m assuming this library montage was filmed. What’s missing from this scene, of course, is any recognizable librarian onscreen.

The ACTUAL Pelican Brief

And now for the finished product! Next we see a closeup of her brief — the title role — as it prints out. Darby collects the pages into a folder. It’s important for reasons of PLOT to note that Darby’s name and address are included on the cover sheet.

A closeup of the actual "Pelican Brief" in The Pelican Brief (1993)
I could not resist a shot of the ACTUAL Pelican Brief.

Alas, the moment of triumph is brief, as Darby then drops the folder onto her cluttered desk and dismisses her research. But Thomas is not so easily dissuaded.

Thomas: So, whodunit, Miss Shaw? You have some obscure suspect unknown to the FBI and the CIA and the secret service and 10,000 police departments?

Darby: I had one which I have now discarded.

Thomas: You mean, you skipped class and ignored me for a week and now you’re throwing it away? Let me see it.

Darby: Don’t laugh. It was ludicrous of me to think that I could solve it. Hubris of the young huh?

This series of scenes highlighting the research process — the description of the initial visit to the library, the local records office, and the holing up in the law library to write the brief — lasts three minutes in total screen time, representing what we hear took a week of work. I do appreciate that the movie takes pains to highlight that good research takes time and involves several steps.

Thomas later shares Darby’s brief with a former law school buddy who works in intelligence, who then takes the brief up the chain. The only problem? Darby’s theory turns out to be correct, and the baddies find out who and where she is. Thomas, therefore, unknowingly has put Darby in danger — and himself!

More than 70 minutes into the movie, after many attempts on her life (and others close to her), Darby gets interviewed by reporter Gray Grantham in Washington, D.C., and we finallllllllly get to learn all the details about what’s in the brief. (Fun tidbit: Darby’s theory all started because of a PBS Frontline special! #GoPBS)

Law library scene #2

At 92 minutes into the movie, Gray walks into a law library. (That sentence sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it?! 😉 ) This law library turns out to be the Edward Bennett Williams Law Library in the Georgetown University Law Center.

And that’s when we finalllllllly get to see a reel librarian! It’s fleeting, but we can glimpse a white, middle-aged woman pushing a cart of books as Gray walks in. Book cart? Book props? Yep, that’s our reel librarian.

Reel law librarian sighting in The Pelican Brief (1993)
Blink, and you’ll miss the reel librarian in this scene!

The law librarian, who is uncredited, serves as your basic Information Provider, helping establish the library setting. Information Providers are most closely identified by occupational tasks; in this case, that happens to be pushing a cart full of books.

But we’re not done in this law library — or with research! Gray walks over to where Darby is sitting. He taps the table and whispers to Darby to meet him “by the stacks.” Gotta love that library lingo! 😉

Researching in the Georgetown Law library
What? I’m researching!

Darby has been looking up law firms, and she is totally prepared for research with her pad of paper and pencil. We also get a closeup of the legal book she’s been looking at, open to an entry for a law firm located in the Washington D.C. area.

We then see a long overhead shot of the tables and library as Darby packs up. It makes sense that director Alan J. Pakula would insert an overhead view of a library in this film; he did the same thing with the Library of Congress Reading Room in 1976’s All the President’s Men. (Click here to revisit my analysis of that classic political drama.)

Overhead view of the Georgetown Law Library, as seen in The Pelican Brief (1993)
Overhead view of the Georgetown Law Library

The final shot in the library is Gray and Darby talking together in what presumably is a group study room in the library. This final law library scene lasts a minute long.

Private conference in one of the library's study room
Private conference in one of the library’s study room

Wrapping it up

And there we have it! A (literal) roll-by cameo of a reel law librarian, scenes in two law libraries, and extended shots of Darby going through stages of the research process. Not bad for a Class IV film, eh?

Did you remember the law libraries in The Pelican Brief? How long has it been since you’ve seen this movie? Please leave a comment and share.

Sources used

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Law libraries (and librarians) in pop culture

“The law has been such a star in pop culture that some law schools study the intersection between the courtroom and the theater and the effect of its influence on perceptions of the legal profession and court system.”

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate to enjoy a special tour of the Washington State Law Library, which has a fascinating history. Their collections also hold some gems, including an original set of the Pentagon Papers!

Pentagon Papers in the Washington State Law Library collection
Pentagon Papers in the Washington State Law Library collection

One of the displays in the public entrance to the library I enjoyed most was a “Law in Pop Culture” display, seen below. (And yes, you can also see the back of me in the photo below — I’m the one in the red jacket.)

"The Law in Pop Culture" display at the Washington State Law Library
“The Law in Pop Culture” display at the Washington State Law Library

I chatted with the law librarian who created the display — and lo and behold, she had recently written about this very topic on the Washington State Law Library blog!

Screenshot of "Leading Lady Justice — The Law in Pop Culture" blog post, Washington State Law Library blog
“Leading Lady Justice — The Law in Pop Culture” blog post, Washington State Law Library blog

The first post about this topic is entitled “Leading Lady Justice — The Law in Pop Culture,” and this part really hit home for me:

The law has been such a star in pop culture that some law schools study the intersection between the courtroom and the theater and the effect of its influence on perceptions of the legal profession and court system. After all, what we see in the movies and on TV and read in books can heavily influence how we view the real life subjects they portray. 

That last line pretty sums up the point of this Reel Librarians blog! 😀

Screenshot of "Courtroom Drama — The Law in Pop Culture Sequel" blog post, Washington State Law Library blog
“Courtroom Drama — The Law in Pop Culture Sequel” blog post, Washington State Law Library blog

The second post, “Courtroom Drama — The Law in Pop Culture Sequel,” explores some of the stories behind famous court cases depicted in film, including:

  • The real-life case behind the 1952 novel Anatomy of a Murder. I have written about the 1959 Oscar-nominated film version, starring Jimmy Stewart, here in this “Anatomy of a law library” post; the film version showcases a law library (but no law librarian, alas).
"Courtroom Drama — The Law in Pop Culture Sequel" blog post, Washington State Law Library blog
Law library in Anatomy of a Murder
  • The real-life case behind the Oscar-winning film Philadelphia . There IS a reel librarian in this film, but I haven’t yet analyzed the film for this blog. It’s on my list!

I have also written about a reel law librarian portrayal in the 1989 film Criminal Law, a legal thriller starring Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon. Can you tell which one is the law librarian from the screenshot below? Check out my “Criminal law librarian” post to find out!

Law library in Criminal Law
Law library in Criminal Law

So please check out the Washington State Law Library blog… and if you spot any more reel law librarians onscreen, let me know! 😀


Sources used:


‘Anatomy of a’ law library

Researching the night away in the law library

I recently rewatched the courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959), as it was on my Master List. I didn’t remember a librarian being in the film, but I did remember a pivotal scene set in a law library. And my memory was correct, there is no actual reel librarian in the movie — landing it in Class V territory — but there is indeed a law library scene in the film that is key to the trial, and therefore the plot of the film itself.

In the early scenes setting up the tone of the film and the main character Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, we also get treated to Paul’s personal law library. His love of the old law books helps the audience trust him and his actions, as he is shown to be a careful and thoughtful person. Paul and his lawyer friend, Parnell, are settling down for a night in. Let’s listen in:

Paul:  In the evening, I sit around and drink bourbon whisky and read law with Parnell Emmitt McCarthy, one of the world’s great men.

Parnell: That was a kind word, Paulie. You know, I might have been. I look at you and see myself years ago, with the same love for the smell of the old brown books and the dusty office. [Pointing to the bookcase of law books] … The United States Supreme Court reports. Well, what should we read this evening, counselor? How about a little Chief Justice Holmes?

Private law library
Private law library

At that point, the phone rings. It’s a call from Laura Manion (Lee Remick), and her call for Biegler’s legal aid propels the story forward. Her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is in jail for murdering a local man, Barney Quill; his stated reason for doing so is that he believed Quill had raped his wife. Is this killing legally justified?

By the way, this film was a landmark movie in being open about the issue of rape, at least in a legal setting. It also caused controversy — and banning in some states — because of its inclusion of such words as “bitch,” “contraceptive,” “panties,” “penetration,” “rape,” “slut,” and “sperm.”

Later, Lt. Manion meets with the army psychologist, Dr. Matthew Smith (Orson Bean), and brings back notes that he’s suffering from “dissociative reaction,” also known as “irresistible impulse.” This is their ticket to a temporary insanity defense.

Paul:  And what did he say about your knowing the difference between right and wrong when you shot Quill?

Manion:  I don’t think he said anything. Why, is that important?

Lt. Manion goes back to jail, and Parnell and Paul strategize:

Parnell:  You ever heard of a Michigan court accepting ‘irresistible impulse’ as insanity? .. Well, tomorrow’s Saturday. We just have the weekend before the trial. When do you want to start working?

Paul:  Tomorrow morning, early.

And, of course, “start working” means … going to the library! 😀

Apparently, they research in the law library all weekend, as the next scene dawns on a new day with the judge walking to the courthouse. Judge Weaver, played by legendary real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch — he went up against and brought down Joseph McCarthy! — introduces himself to the court by saying, “And while I might appear to doze occasionally, you’ll find that I’m easily awakened, particularly if shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” ♥

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Peeking into the law library

Judge Weaver walks up past the door marked “Library” and stops after hearing a book thud. He quietly opens up the door and peeks in on the two lawyers drowning in law books. Judge Weaver smiles and backs out again, unnoticed by Paul and Parnell.

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Researching the night away in the law library
Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Research paying off

By the way, the movie’s entry on IMDb.com reveals a fun trivia tidbit about the library set:

IMDb.com trivia of Anatomy of a Murder
IMDb.com trivia of Anatomy of a Murder

In this double-decker law library, the two lawyers find the precedent they need — at the same time!

Parnell:  Paulie.

PaulHey listen to this, Parn.

Parnell: Never mind that. Just find People v. Durfee, 62, Michigan, 486, Year 1886.

Paul: That’s it. I have it right here in the A.L.R. Listen. “The right and wrong test, though deemed unscientific, is adhered to by most states but the fact that one accused of committing a crime may have been able to comprehend the nature and consequences of this act and to know that it was wrong. Nevertheless … if he was forced to its execution by an impulse — by an impulse which he was powerless to control, he will be excused from punishment.” The Michigan Supreme Court did accept irresistible impulse. This is precedent.

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Research in the law library

Note:  The A.L.R. stands for American Law Reports, published since 1919, which remain a key resource for legal research. And I looked the case in the LexisNexis library database, and it’s a real case! Here’s a related screenshot of that case and its appeal:

People v. Durfee case snapshot from the LexisNexis database
People v. Durfee case snapshot from the LexisNexis database

That piece of precedent does get its day in court — or rather, its day in chambers. About 2 hrs and 15 mins into the film, the prosecution lawyers ask for a recess after the testimony of the army psychologist. Paul is ready and brings his law book to the conference in chambers, as seen in the screenshot below.

Judge's private library in Anatomy of a Murder
Judge’s private library in Anatomy of a Murder

The Assistant State Attorney Dancer (George C. Scott) and District Attorney Lodwick (Brooks West) ask if the defense wants to change its plea:

Lodwick:  You know a guy’s not considered legally nuts in Michigan unless he didn’t know right from wrong. Why don’t you get this over with?

Paul:  Your Honor, will you turn to page 486?

Lodwick:  What’s that?

Judge:  Appears to be a law book, Mr. Lodwick.

And, of course, Paul just happens to have left a fishing line hook in the book to mark its place. He and Judge Weaver enjoy a brief conversation about catching frogs, which frustrates the two prosecuting attorneys!

Screenshot of Anatomy of a Murder
Enjoying the rule of law

Lodwick:  What case is he citing, Judge? What is it, your honor?

Judge:  People vs. Durfee, 1886. Looks like a precedent. Would you like to read it Mr. Dancer?

Dancer:  No, thank you, Your Honor. I think I recall the case. We’re hooked … like the frog.

It’s a relatively subtle moment, but I like that it echoes back to Judge Weaver’s personal introduction that he appreciates being “shaken gently by a good lawyer with a nice point of law.” 🙂

And if you’d like to see more of a law library — as well as a reel law librarian — click here for my post on the 1988 Gary Oldman legal drama Criminal Law.


Sources used:


‘Criminal Law’ librarian

At first glance, it’s hard to tell which is the librarian!

In the 1988 legal thriller Criminal Law, Gary Oldman is almost unrecognizably bland as lawyer Ben Chase. After successfully defending a wealthy client, Martin (Kevin Bacon), against a murder charge, Ben finds out that Martin is, indeed, guilty. Oops. What’s a hotshot lawyer to do? Get drunk and pass out in your living room? Check! Reveal top-secret details of the crime by shouting on the street at a victim’s roommate? Check! Violate ethical codes by working with a police officer against his client? Check!

No doubt troubled by all his ethical violations, Ben goes his alma mater’s law library to talk to an old professor. Occurring a little over a half hour into the film, the camera pans around the double-decker library, lingering over statues and rows and rows of volumes. The light streaming in all the windows is quite atmospheric, doing its best to add some drama to this drama.

Law library in Criminal Law
Law library in Criminal Law

Rounding a corner, Ben finds his old professor, Clemens (Michael Sinelnikoff), sitting on a library ladder and decked out in a long, grey cardigan. An older lady (Irene Kessler) is handing him thick volumes and helping him shelve books. At first glance, it’s hard to tell which is the librarian! 🙂

Note: That’s when credits really help out, as Irene Kessler’s role is listed as “Librarian Peggy” (ding ding ding, we have a winner!).

Law librarian in Criminal Law
Law librarian in Criminal Law

Professor Clemens calls out from atop the ladder:

Clemens:  Ben, here, give me a hand? And we’ll let Peggy get back to work.

Peggy:  He’s a hard master.

Ben: You’re telling me.

Peggy, also decked out in a long cardigan, then disappears down a back staircase. Onscreen for only a few seconds, she joins the Class IV category of librarians. Although we hardly see Librarian Peggy, it’s obvious she has a warm rapport with both the professor and former student.

Law library in Criminal Law
Law library in Criminal Law

And based on the subsequent conversation (Ben to the professor, “You’re giving these away? Your collection of quotations?”), the professor has donated his collection to the law library. Later, we find out why, when Ben visits Professor Clemens in the hospital, who is quote-worthy and optimistic even on his deathbed.


Sources used:


  • Criminal Law. Dir. Martin Campbell. Perf. Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Tess Harper. MGM, 1988.