On screen: Bookishly charming

Browsers ecstasy


book teaser Bogart and Dorothy Malone in ‘The Big Sleep’.

The previous evening Marlowe had done his homework at the public library: Consulted Elkin Mathew’s Fifty Famous First Editions for background information and knows the editions he asked for don’t exist. Standing now before the hostile store clerk, he is certain that AC Geiger Rare Books is a front for pornography and blackmail. Marlowe, that is Bogart, continues to irritate the nervous woman behind the desk. “You do sell books, hmm?” he asks sarcastically and the clerk pointing to some books replies, “What do those look like, grapefruit?”

Unfazed, Marlowe walks out with a grin, and its pouring outside, so he darts across into another bookstore, this time a legitimate antiquarian bookshop, and poses the same questions to a pretty book dealer (the bookishly charming or the charmingly bookish Dorothy Malone), who grins and says she doesn’t have those editions because they don’t exist. “The girl across the street didn’t know that.” She teases him with: “You’re beginning to interest me — vaguely.” With that she turns the ‘open’ sign at the door to ‘closed’, lowers the blinds, shakes her hair down, and pulls out a couple of glasses of whisky. Marlowe says, “I’d rather get wet here with you than outside in the rain.”

Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective classic is a witty, sexy tribute to books in cinema. (The movie’s literary pedigree is further bolstered by its scriptwriter: William Faulkner). I once wrote a column on the poor fate of books, bookstores and bookish people in cinema. That cinema borrows much from books but gives back little. When movies feature books — as physical objects that is — and bookstores as location or setting, the scene or action is all too fleeting. It might be interesting, I thought, to revisit some of these films to see what I had missed seeing the first time and to see if there had been other movies since then that had featured books and bookstores as characters and extras.

I noticed more carefully this time that most of the books that are burnt in Fahrenheit 451 are the orange and green Penguin paperbacks! Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, suffused as it is in exquisite shots of books in burnished gold lighting, is not as careful about its bibliographic details: The rare editions of Don Quixote that Johnny Depp as the book hunter carts away right under the noses of its philistine owners are really later 19th century editions, which are not really valuable even if they look so. And it turns out that there has been, for sometime now, a whiff of controversy attached to how much is true in Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road! While researching the early years of antiquarian book trading in Britain, I came across murmurs and sniffles from various bookmen on the book’s inaccuracy about what went on at ‘Marks and Co’. 

A few British veteran book dealers — contemporaries of Benjamin Marks, the store founder, sneered at Hanff’s portrait of ‘Marks & Co’ as being untrue to the firm. This outlook, however, was confined to the inner circle of London’s antiquarian booksellers. The controversy began when his son, Leo Marks, noted cryptically in his autobiography that the story was a “gentle little myth,” adding no more than that. Naturally disturbed, I probed this as thoroughly as I could, consulting several memoirs and articles from that period, and no one seemed to be able to say in what way Hanff had taken artistic liberties. It now seems to me just a silly harangue over nothing and I only even bother to mention it here so you could dismiss anything you might hear and just go on delighting in the book and the movie in the way you always have.

In the course of looking up the controversy, I did learn a few interesting things: That Freud had browsed at ‘Marks & Co’. Frank Doel (whom Anthony Hopkins plays perfectly) was a respected bookman in antiquarian circles, and not at all the dull book dealer as imagined by some. It was Doel who fetched books for Freud to look at. The movie takes pains to be literate and is careful to show actual rare and first editions (not dummy copies or incorrect copies) such as the Elizabethan Lyrists from 1919 by Amy Cruise and the Chatto and Windus paper edition of Virginbus Puerisque from 1905. 

The impressive looking antiquarian book (‘The Lost Treatise on Laughter’ by Aristotle) in The Name of the Rose, for instance, is a made up book, a beautifully constructed dummy. The filmmakers gave the dummy copy to Umberto Eco as a souvenir, and he has it now in his Milan apartment alongside the 30,000 books on his bookshelves. The movie is a bibliographer’s delight, soaking our eyes in vellum and parchment and illuminated manuscripts.

The film’s most moving moment is when Sean Connery as the bibliophile-scholar monk William of Baskerville, risks his life to save those precious books from perishing in the library fire, provoking even the movie’s blind villain, the venerable Jorge (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Borges), to whisper, “What a magnificent librarian you would have been.”      

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