Microfilm in the Movies: Part One

It’s almost time for the 84th Annual Academy Awards http://oscar.go.com/nominees (February 26, 2012).  As office workers, healthcare professionals, librarians and researchers gather around their respective water coolers to discuss the nominees; as they speculate on which movie will win Best Picture and which actress will wear the most revealing gown; we thought we’d highlight an overlooked star in modern-day cinema:  microfilm!

Since libraries began using microfilm in the mid-20th century as a preservation and space-saving strategy for deteriorating book and newspaper collections, it has played a supporting role and sometimes a leading role in many films.  Microfilm has been viewed, stolen, hidden, and chased.  As a research tool, microfilm has been invaluable in the quest to catch murders, stop terrorists and save entire governments.  It has revealed personal histories, created new identities and even added humor to cinematic plots.  Despite all the advances in digital technology, archival quality microfilm is still the preferred method for long-term preservation of copies of historic documents.  In fact, there are so many great examples of microfilm in the movies, we’ve had to create two groups of nominees!  Here is our first round of nominees for Best Performance of Microfilm in a Supporting Role from 1951-1989. (Stayed tuned for our upcoming list of microfiche nominees featured in films from1990-Present.)

The Amityville Horror (1979): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078767/ A local resident conducts research in the town library, using microfilm.

The Changeling (1980): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080516/ A librarian helps the lead characters use microfilm in their research about a haunted house. As could only happen in the movies, the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer, roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, and spin it through to the requested article in just 4 seconds!

Crossroads (1986): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090888/ A man conducts research on a blues musician in the Julliard library using a microfilm reader.

Field of Dreams (1989): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097351/ Kevin Costner uses a microfilm reader at the library while researching 1960s radical writer Terence Mann (played by James Earl Jones), who had once written about the golden days of baseball.

North by Northwest (1959): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053125/ In this Hitchcock thriller starring Cary Grant and James Mason, an innocent man is pursued across the United States in a case of mistaken identity.  Agents of a mysterious organization want to stop his supposed interference in their plans to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country.

Pickup on South Street (1953): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046187/ A pickpocket snatches the ‘wrong’ purse on a crowded subway.  The young woman carrying the purse was unwittingly transporting a piece of top-secret microfilm planted by a Communist agent.

Positive I.D. (1986): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093763/ The lead character goes to the library to look through old newspapers. As she is leafing through some large bound volumes she remarks to the librarian that “I thought that this was going to be on microfilm.”

Running on Empty (1988): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096018/ A one-time student radical has been on the run from the FBI for seventeen years. He uses the library newspapers on microfilm for obituary notices to find a new identity.

The Thief (1952): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045230/ Ray Milland looks for microfilm hidden in a card catalog drawer in the Library of Congress.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076752/ In this, the tenth film in the James Bond series, secret agent 007 (played by Roger Moore) is summoned to recover the plans for a highly advanced submarine tracking system that are on the market in Egypt.  Bond and his rival Major Anya Amasova (codename “Triple X”) of the KGB, travel across Egypt, tracking the microfilm plans.

When Worlds Collide (1951): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044207/ Convinced that the earth will soon be destroyed, scientists build a rocket so some people can escape. A small library of books on microfilm is packed along with other essential items. Titles include the Bible, an encyclopedia, Anatomy of the Human Body, Practical Mathematics, The Story of Mankind, and Shakespeare.

Special thanks to Martin Raish http://emp.byui.edu/RAISHM/films/introduction.html , whose annotated filmography, Librarians in the Movies, was a primary source for this article.