Art & Entertainment

Everybody Loves A Miniature

Where philately meets popular culture, rare and interesting stamps take centre stage in cinema.

(Clockwise from top right) Screengrabs from Charade and Nueve Reinas; the 2001 Deutsche Post stamp of Audrey Hepburn; screengrabs from Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, Brewster’s Millions and Barbados Quest

In a memorable sequence in the 1985 movie Brewster’s Millions, Montgomery Brewster, played by Richard Pyror, purchases the Inverted Jenny, a rare postage stamp, for 1.25 million dollars. He then uses it to mail a postcard.  An atypical rags-to-riches film, Brewster’s Millions is the story of an ordinary American baseball pitcher who must urgently dispose of 30 million dollars in order to lay claim to an even grander inheritance. While the storyline is fictitious and based on a novel, the Inverted Jenny mentioned in the movie is indeed a rare and expensive stamp, to the extent that well-known bond trader and philatelist Bill Gross in an interview with Bloomberg TV famously said, “Never sell the Inverted Jenny.  Keep the Inverted Jenny”.

Stamps and philately have been routinely featured in popular culture. Film stars and films have been depicted frequently on stamps; a 2001 stamp with the image of Audrey Hepburn became famous when it was discovered that Deutsche Post had replaced her sunglasses with a cigarette holder in the stamp design. Stamps as well as references to them have also often been skillfully woven into plotlines and narrative arcs of movies.  The 1963 movie Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, presents a brilliant instance in which valuable stamps feature in a significant twist in the plot. Based on the short story The Unsuspecting Wife by Peter Stone and Marc Behm and directed by Stanley Donen, Charade has been described as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made”.

One of the most popular films involving postage stamps is the 2000 Argentinian cult film Nueve Reinas or ‘Nine Queens’. A pair of swindlers, Marcos (played by Ricardo Darín) and Juan (played by Gastón Pauls), participate in an elaborate con wherein they attempt to palm off a counterfeit stamp sheet of the Nine Queens from the Weimar Republic to a wealthy Spanish businessman who is about to be deported from the country.  Written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky, the movie is considered to be one of the greats of Argentinian cinema.

In the 1955 movie Barbados Quest, directed by Bernard Knowles, an American philatelist buys a rare Barbadian stamp from an agency in London for 10,000 dollars. When he gets suspicious of the authenticity of the stamp, he engages the services of a private investigator Tom Martin (played by Tom Conway) to probe the matter.  The case then turns from an instance of stamp forgery into a terribly sinister crime when key suspects get eliminated or turn up dead.  The result is an old-fashioned crime drama with enough plot twists and suspicious characters to keep the audience thoroughly engaged.

Stamps as well as references to them have often been skillfully woven into plotlines and narrative arcs of movies.

The 2014 movie Foxcatcher directed by Bennett Miller explores the dark side of avid stamp collector John du Pont (played by Steve Carell), heir to the du Pont family fortune. He is known to have picked up the rarest of the rare stamps, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta for $935k. He would eventually end up in prison for the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz on whose life the movie is based.

Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller is a 1988 fantasy film directed by Michael Rubbo about a bunch of Canadian school kids who chance upon a magical stamp album. Through this album, the kids learn a secret that allows them to shrink onto a postage stamp and travel to the other side of the world.  What ensues is a string of adventures in distant places such as China and Australia, with the final reward being a collection of precious postage stamps.

Paycheck is a 2003 science fiction film directed by John Woo whose filmography includes Mission Impossible 2 and Face/Off. Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck) is a reverse engineer who works on top secret projects for handsome paychecks and has his memory erased upon task completion. Things go awry when he finishes a three-year assignment and has his memory wiped out only to find out that he has forfeited his reward.  All he is left with is an envelope carrying Einstein postage stamps and a bunch of random items.  Then begins a quest to understand the past, while dodging bullets and the FBI.

A variety of themes are covered in movies that involve stamps: swapping the real thing for a fake, finding hidden clues and using them or zipping through the world with them.

In Terry Pratchett’s two-part television mini-series, Going Postal, conman Moist von Lipwig (played by Richard Coyle) is entrusted with the task of reviving the post office in the face of fierce competition from the superior system of ‘Clacks.’ Owned by a murderous villain Reacher Gilt (played by David Suchet), the Clacks are a way of sending messages using light signals that are faster than sending letters by post. In the process, the newly anointed postmaster comes up with innovations such as the postage stamp and the express delivery service. While discussing his idea of the postage stamp with the printer, Lipwig asks, “What about pictures? Complicated pictures (to be put on the stamps)?” The printer responds with “Yes. Everybody loves a miniature”. As the story progresses, a junior employee of the post office eventually outgrows his passion for collecting pins and switches to stamps. Finally, as good triumphs over evil, the lead romantic pair contemplates a corporate merger between the post office and the Clacks.

The few examples presented here provide a flavour of the variety of themes covered in movies that involve stamps: swapping the real thing for a fake, finding hidden clues and using them or zipping through the world with them. The recent arrival of the NFT stamps into the world of stamps has opened up a new frontier and, in my view, offers exciting possibilities for creative teams to deliver fast paced hi-tech narratives involving the metaverse, cryptocurrency and of course, digital stamps.

(Views expressed are personal)

Sona Maniar is interested in philately, writing and sketching