Fountain pens can be more than just fine writing instruments; they are emblems of status, education, and wealth. Film and television producers (more specifically their creative staff) put a lot of time, thought, and effort into major decisions like whether or not to outfit a character with a fountain pen. Sometimes even the brand and type of fountain pen can provide important insights into the character.
Fountain pens appear in more movies and television shows than you might think. Some pens make a cinematic splash, while others have a more subtle “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” appearance. We’ve made a list of some of these more memorable appearances. Take a look at the 18 examples of fountain pens in movies and television below and see if you can remember how each of these appeared on screen.
While this article contains no major spoilers (with the exception of a Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode), it may give away plot details, so read with caution if you haven’t seen the movie or show.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Starring: Danny Kaye
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
This short story taught in many a high school English class was first adapted for the screen in 1947 with Danny Kaye acting as the title character. Given Walter Mitty’s tendency toward elaborate daydreams, it seems inevitable that a fountain pen would be used in a creative way. While listening to a lecture from his boss, Mitty dreams up a scenario in which he’s a doctor performing complicated surgery when all of a sudden the anesthesia machine breaks down, threatening the life of the patient! As the other surgeons panic, Doctor Mitty thinks on his feet and grabs an object out of the nurse’s hand to save the day – a fountain pen! Swiftly, he replaces a faulty piston in the machine with the pen, buying the doctors another ten minutes to finish the operation. The nurse remarks that Mitty is not only the world’s greatest surgeon, but an engineering genius to boot. Just as he finishes the procedure, however, his real-life boss snaps him out of his reverie. To Walter Mitty, a fountain pen was just a commonplace object that could do extraordinary things when combined with his imaginative genius.
The Birds (1963)
Director: Alfred HItchcock
Starring: Tippi Hedren
Fountain pen: Esterbrook J
In Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Birds, Tippi Hedren plays a wealthy socialite named Melanie Daniels who decides to pursue Mitch, a man she met in a pet store. As a joke, she sends a gift of two parrots to Mitch’s younger sister Cathy and signs the birthday card with a fountain pen. However, pen enthusiasts are quick to point out that the Esterbrook J she uses seems a little beneath Melanie’s socialite status. She deserves something a little more upscale. A Waterman would be more appropriate, they say, or even… a Pelikan?
Director: John Glen
Starring: Roger Moore
Fountain pen: Montblanc 146 Solitare
Given that James Bond is a suave, upper class Englishman, it makes sense that a fountain pen would be among the many spy gadgets he has handled throughout his espionage career. Indeed, one is featured prominently in the 1983 movie Octopussy, which stars Roger Moore as James Bond. Q, the British Secret Service’s trusty quartermaster, gives Bond a Montblanc 146 Solitaire that holds acid instead of ink. Fortunately, when Bond is imprisoned in a cell in India, he is able to use the pen to melt the bars on the windows to make a quick escape. Later, the top of the sterling silver cap comes away to reveal an earpiece amplifier that allows him to hear a conversation taking place in another room. Two extremely handy gadgets are packed into the compact space of a single stylish fountain pen that looks right at home in the pocket of the suave 007.
In the romantic classic Out of Africa, based on the real journals of Baroness and lauded author Karen Blixen, Meryl Streep’s Karen is a wealthy Danish woman without an aristocratic title. She travels to Kenya, still under British control in 1913, and enters a marriage of convenience with Swedish nobleman Baron von Blixen. However, her husband is more interested in big game hunting (and the servant girls) than in spending time with her. She soon falls in love with a local hunter named Denys, played by Robert Redford. The second time they meet, Denys casually hands Karen a slim gold-plated fountain pen, which she takes as a token of his affection. The pen is a clipless lever-filler that may be a Waterman 52 with a gold sleeve on the outside. Whatever the type of pen, the simple romantic gesture takes on greater meaning as Karen uses the pen to write about her time living in Africa and foreshadows her doomed affair with Denys.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Harrison Ford and Sean Connery
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we witness a father-son dynamic; the push-pull that stems from the mechanics of any close familial relationship. Moreover, each Jones has developed his own way of fighting off the enemy. Instead of the fedora and whip that Indy carries, Dr Jones, Sr. sports a tweed bucket hat and an umbrella, and his fighting style might be described as “academic.” When the Nazis are holding the elder Jones and Marcus Brody hostage inside a moving tank, Indy chases them down on horseback and hops on top of the tank, dropping a gun through the hatch for his father to use. A Nazi soldier gets to it first, and as he and Jones grapple over the gun, Jones Sr. pulls a fountain pen from the vest pocket of his tweed three-piece suit, uncaps it, and jams down on the filling lever, squirting ink directly into his attacker’s eyes. He quickly knocks the soldier out and takes control of the tank. An impressed Brody quips, “Don’t you see… the pen is mightier than the sword!”
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Sharon Stone
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
Another innocent pen becomes a weapon in a grisly but memorable scene from the Martin Scorsese movie Casino. Nicky Santoro, a hot-headed and violent mob enforcer played by Joe Pesci, watches over his childhood friend, Ace, who runs the Tangiers hotel. Nicky reveals his true colors early on when an arrogant stranger in a bar disrespects Ace over the ownership of a fountain pen. Here, such a “nice pen,” as Ace calls it, is a symbol of the stranger’s wealth and status – the stranger heavily implies that he can afford to be careless with such a luxury item. Nicky, unable to handle his rage from the mocking insult, uses the pen to immediately take the man down, stabbing him repeatedly in the neck. We don’t expect an expensive status symbol to be used in this way. Online fountain pen enthusiasts cringe to watch this scene, exclaiming that it’s murder (pun intended) on the nib!
Enemy of the State is a thriller that pairs Will Smith with Gene Hackman, and a fountain pen becomes crucial in establishing trust between the two characters. Smith’s character Robert Dean is a labor lawyer who becomes entangled in a plot to cover up a politically-motivated murder. Two rogue NSA agents enter Dean’s apartment and swap a watch, a telephone handset, and yes, a Montblanc fountain pen, for identical replacements that contain listening devices. The villain uses the information he gets to turn Dean’s life upside down, but Dean has no idea what’s going on until Hackman’s character, Edward Lyle, shows up. With a gun pointed at Dean, Lyle silently removes as many of the bugs as he can from Dean’s person, tearing them out of his shoes and cell phone. Then Lyle takes Dean’s fountain pen, unscrewing the barrel to reveal the complex electronics of yet another bug! Dean finally understands that someone from the government is after him, and he must team up with Lyle to bring the truth to light.
Russell Crowe was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of real-life Princeton mathematician, John Nash. While Nash was a brilliant man, he spent his life struggling with schizophrenia, and Crowe brings that struggle to life as his character finds himself unable to separate hallucinations from reality. With time and medication, he becomes stable, but not before his mental illness destroys his professional academic career. Near the end of the movie, an elderly Nash is finally recognized for the immense contribution he made to his field. Though he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize, one co-worker is concerned that Nash will cause an embarrassing scene at the ceremony should he win. As they sit in the dining hall discussing this, a fellow Princeton professor walks up and places his pen – clearly a Montblanc – on the table, saying, “It’s good to have you here, John.” One by one, students and professors alike step up, acknowledge him, and set their pens on the table, Duofolds and Vacumatics among them. Although this touching ceremony is not a true Princeton tradition and was invented for the film, it’s a beautifully symbolic show of respect for a great mathematical genius.
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Diane Kruger, Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, and Christoph Waltz
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
Christoph Waltz portrays Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Landa’s combination of impeccable manners with brutal violence may place him as one of the scariest movie villains of all time. In the very first scene of the movie, Landa, in full Nazi uniform, politely enters the farmhouse of a French farmer suspected of harboring Jewish fugitives. Every second that Landa spends in the house increases the chances that the terrified people hiding below the floorboards will be discovered. So when Landa discovers that his fountain pen is out of ink and must stop to fill it, the audience’s fingers tighten on their armrests as the suspense is drawn ever tighter. As Landa wraps up his interrogation of the farmer, it seems briefly that he will leave without incident… until he begins to spew hate speech comparing Jews to vermin. At that point, it becomes increasingly clear that Landa enjoys tormenting the fugitives and their protector as much as he enjoys ordering his soldiers to storm the farmhouse and shoot through the floorboards at the people beneath.
The King's Speech (2010)
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth, and Geoffrey Rush
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
The film The King’s Speech tells the story of the British royal family in the years leading up to World War II. As King George V’s life comes to an end, he allows his eldest son, Edward VIII, to act on his behalf. However, George doesn’t know that Edward has fallen in love with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and will abdicate the throne in order to marry her on the eve of World War II. Edward’s brother George VI, played by Colin Firth, must become king and lead the English people even though his stutter makes public speaking a difficult and humiliating experience. The remainder of the film shows how he overcomes his stutter and shepherds the country through the war with the help of his wife, Queen Elizabeth. And it all started with the document transferring power to Edward, signed by George V with an elegant fountain pen.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street, is a man with the ability to sell anything to anybody. But how do you sell a simple pen? Just before setting up a penny stock selling business, Belfort pulls a fountain pen from his pocket and issues a challenge to his friends: “Sell me this pen.” His friend Brad takes it and then asks Belfort to write him a note… but Belfort can’t, because Brad has his pen. This puts Brad in a perfect position to sell the pen and shows that the way to sell something is to make the customer realize they need it. From there, Belfort’s company has enormous success, which leads him to a life of excess and crime and, eventually, a jail sentence. At the end of the movie, when Belfort is trying to start his life over, he stands in front of a crowd gathered for a business seminar and begins offering the same challenge to the people in the front row: “Sell me this pen.”
Pens become an unlikely plot device in Hector and the Search for Happiness, a comedy starring Simon Pegg. As Hector takes a hiatus from his normal life as a psychiatrist and searches for happiness, he keeps a journal to record his findings, but he often finds himself without a writing implement. On the first leg of his journey, he sits next to a wealthy banker named Edward on the airplane and asks for a pen. Edward obliges, but tells him that the pen -- a red Visconti Van Gogh -- is worth more than Hector’s car. Hector forgets to return the pen until he’s in the airport, but he’s able to track its owner down. Edward is so grateful that he decides to show Hector what he thinks happiness is: an expensive meal at a fancy hotel. As Hector travels on, he consults many more people about the meaning of happiness and another pen – though not a fountain pen – becomes important. It’s worth noting that, while the Visconti fountain pen was chosen as a marker of luxury and it is indeed an elegant pen, it’s not worth nearly as much as a car!
For nine seasons, Raymond Burr played the heroic criminal defense attorney Perry Mason, paving the way for legal dramas on TV today. It’s a favorite series for fountain pen spotters to try to catch glimpses of the writing utensils regularly. Featured prominently is the title character’s own two-pen desk set, used to prepare and sign many a legal document. Though the actual model of pen changed over the years – an older Parker 51 set in the first season, replaced in the second season by a more updated Parker model – Mason’s commitment to justice never did.
A unique show far ahead of its time, Twin Peaks introduced the world to a murder mystery as well as an unforgettable cast of characters. Among them was Harold Smith, an agoraphobic man to whom murder victim Laura Palmer entrusted her secret diary. To retrieve the diary, Laura’s friend Donna (played by Lara Flynn Boyle), agrees to let Harold interview her and write down her life story, which he does with a Pelikan fountain pen, either an M600 or M800. Birds carry a great deal of symbolism in the Twin Peaks universe – could director and show creator David Lynch have chosen the Pelikan for a reason?
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001)
Creators: Rene Balcer and Dick Wolf
Starring: Stephen Colbert, Kathryn Erbe, and Vincent D'Onofrio
Fountain pen: <Brand unknown>
In a 2004 episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent called “The Saint” (season 3, episode 16), pre-Colbert Show host Stephen Colbert guest stars as James Bennett, a document dealer for a Catholic charity where a social worker has just been killed with a bomb. Detectives Eames (Kathryn Erbe) and Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) are able to determine that (spoiler alert!) Bennett is the murderer by matching letters written from the bomber to the police to fountain and dip pens he uses to forge documents. Interestingly, this episode seems to be based on the real-life crimes of Mark William Hofmann, a forger who created false historical documents and, when the police were closing in on him, constructed bombs to delay the investigation.
CSI: NY (2004)
Creators: Ann Donahue, Carol Mendelsohn, and Anthony E. Zuiker
Starring: Carmine Giovinazzo, Hill Harper, and Gary Sinise
Fountain pen: Montblanc Proust
In a CSI: NY episode called “Some Buried Bones” (season 3, episode 15), the agents investigate the murder of a college student and find more than they bargained for in his desk. The victim’s Montblanc Proust fountain pen is not full of ink, but blood. Later, Gary Sinise’s character Mac asserts that “the nib of a fountain pen adjusts itself to the user's writing style as it wears down,” which is how the lab matches it to an important note. In reality, blood would make a very poor fountain pen ink unless it was mixed with an anticoagulant. Since fountain pens work by capillary action, not gravity, any clots would clog up the works and almost certainly void the warranty. A rich red ink looks better on paper than dried brown blood any day.
Set in the 1950s and 60s, Mad Men was iconic not only for its writing and acting, but also for its authenticity in costumes and set design. The show had an unmistakable look that captured a bygone era, and that was no accident -- everything down to the pens used by the characters was specifically selected to help tell the story. Most of the characters at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency use Parker Jotter ballpoints, as ballpoints were beginning to become popular after their introduction to America in 1954. However, such a common pen would never do for ad executive Don Draper (played by John Hamm). No, Draper was known to use a Parker 51 fountain pen, a classic by the start of the 1960s. Pete Campbell, another account executive at the agency, has also been spotted using a Parker 51. It’s no surprise that the show is a particular favorite among vintage pen enthusiasts.
The BBC’s adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, is admired on both sides of the Atlantic. In the first series episode “The Great Game,” Sherlock Holmes is compelled to solve a series of riddles in order to release hostages, and one of the first clues is a handwritten note with his name on it. From nothing more than the writing on the page, he deduces that the writer is female, the paper is from the Czech Republic, and the pen used was a Parker Duofold with an iridium nib. However, pen enthusiasts point out that iridium hasn’t been used in the manufacture of fountain pen nibs in nearly a century. It’s an extremely expensive metal, and even nibs stamped with the word “iridium” are often made of alloys of ruthenium, rhodium, or even stainless steel. Despite this inaccuracy, rumor has it that Doyle himself was a Parker Duofold user, so this line of dialogue may be a nod to him.
This list is by no means complete -- fountain pens pop up in the unlikeliest of places. Once you take up “pen spotting,” you’ll start seeing your old favorite shows and movies in a new light and learn to impress your friends with a keen eye for detail. So… which pens in starring roles did we miss? Please leave us a comment and let us know your favorite fountain pen scene!
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IMDb. “The Birds (1963).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0056869/.
IMDb. “Casino (1995).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0112641/.
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IMDb. “Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt1626146/.
IMDb. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0097576/.
IMDb. “Inglourious Basterds (2009).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0361748/.
IMDb. “‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ The Saint (TV Episode 2004).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0629591/.
IMDb. “Mad Men (TV Series 2007–2015).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0804503/.
IMDb. “Octopussy (1983).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0086034/.
IMDb. “Out of Africa (1985).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0089755/.
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IMDb. “The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0993846/.
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