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The Typewriters of Naked Lunch

There’s been some uncertainty about what typewriters were used in the movie “Naked Lunch” by David Cronenberg. I’ve remembered them as a Smith-Corona Super-5 body from the 50’s (Bill Lee’s Clark Nova), a 60’s Olivetti Lettera 32 (Tom Frost’s Martinelli) and an Oliver (Tom Frost’s Mujahideen arabic machine). Recently I got into a conversation over the Clark Nova with the friendly local typewriter repairman, and he said that he thought that the Clark Nova was a Voss. I couldn’t for certain deny it because it’s been a couple of years since I last saw the film, and I wasn’t paying close attention to the machines back then.

So, to answer the question once and for all, I did some screenshots of the 3 primary machines from the film, since a Google image search turned up nothing.

Bill Lee sees the Clark Nova in the pawn shop window...

Well, there’s the first glimpse we get of the Clark Nova in the pawn shop window, and clearly it’s a late 50’s Smith Corona Sterling (no “racing stripes” and you can just make out the “STERLING” on the backplate). The keys are funky, though. Not at all like the keytops that are supposed to be on a Sterling of this vintage. Let’s take a closer look…

A later shot of Clark Nova, with clearer lighting...

Ahh, there we go, now we can see that the keytops are actually the glass-top tombstone keys from a mid-40’s Royal. Maybe an Arrow or a QDL. Cronenberg must have put a little more money into this prop than he did with the others, because it seems he’s cut the keys off of both the Sterling and a Royal and attached the Royal keys to his prop machine. Ooh, boy – doesn’t that chrome “Clark Nova” badge gleam?

And now, Clark Nova from the top:

The tombstone keys can be more clearly seen here...

Sadly, yet more late-40's Royals had to be keychopped to make the Clark Nova bug props.

So, how about Tom Frost’s machines? What typewriters gave their lives in service to make the screen adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “unfilmable” novel? When first we meet Tom Frost, he’s cradling a familiar-looking case:

The first appearance of the Martinelli, in a case lacking the characteristic "Lettera 32" style stripe.

A clearer shot of the "Martinelli" badge

Tom Frost's Martinelli

The Martinelli is doomed, however. Once she is alone with Clark Nova, he eats her. Frost is unhappy of course, and kidnaps Clark Nova, leaving the bits of the Martinelli behind. Later, Kiki brings Lee and the remains of the Martinelli to a metal shop, where she is thrust into the coals.

and out of the coals comes The MugWriter:

Scratch one Lettera 22, enter pure prop.

Later, it becomes apparent that MugWriter is an illusion, because Martinelli appears again. The hot coals treatment seems to have worked, after a fashion:

This Lettera 22 (note cute "rabbit ear" paper holders) after a trip to an inexperienced typewriter repairman.

That actually looks more like an Olivetti Lettera 22 to me, rather than a 32, so I got one wrong. It looks like the only changes made to this machine were the replacement of the badge with one that says “Martinelli”. Possibly at least 2 were destroyed for this film. How about Tom Frost’s other machine? How did that one fare?

Tom Frost's Mujahideen

The Mujahideen looks like it’s probably an Arabic-language Oliver (No. 9 maybe?). I can’t tell if there were any changes made to the machine for prop use in the film.  When we see Bill Lee and Joan Frost typing on it, it does print Arabic letters and types right to left.

Sadly, the Mujahideen gets a little too rambunctious, and it ends up “jumping” out of the window onto the street below:

Scratch one arabic-language Oliver...

In the end, even Clark Nova gets it. It seems that Tom Frost is no better at taking care of typewriters loaned to him than Bill Lee is.

...and finally, scratch one Sterling with Royal keys.

There are other typewriters in Naked Lunch, primarily in the first Interzone Cafe scene. Let’s see how good you guys are at identifying them. Please state your guesses in the comments and we’ll see who’s really good. :D

So there you have it, the Typewriters of Naked Lunch, exposed!

Updated: July 29, 2015 — 10:41 am

16 Comments

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  1. Thanks! It’s great to be able to see all these machines and figure out how the props were made. This is such a haunting film …

  2. What, no guesses on the rest of the machines from Richard Polt? :D

  3. Right-clicking on the pictures gives the game away somewhat – I don’t think I have seen that film since it came out! I do remember the Oliver though. Thanks for some diligent screen-grabbing.

  4. The Remington Noiseless is a no. 8. Good choice of a strange old typewriter.

  5. Perfect! I think perhaps the flattop Corona might be a mid-30’s Silent rather like this one (second one down) from Rob Bowker (Typewriter Heaven)’s collection. The three in the last picture, I don’t even have guesses for.

  6. (The) Naked Lunch was recently shown in the Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House of International Photography. I remember seeing it when it first came out; it remains one of the most unusual films I have ever viewed. And they said the book could never be made into a movie; perhaps they meant an “intelligible” movie …

  7. If you want more unusual films than Naked Lunch, you could try Peter Greenaway or something Japanese like “Tetsuo“. Bring a strong stomach.

  8. Well done. I’ve seen that movie several times, but never really considered that the machines were *actual* manufactured typewriters re-labled. Which is, admittedly, odd since I generally will pause a DVD on a frame showing a typewriter and attempt to identify it. Just didn’t occur to me in this film, likely because my jaw was hanging open and I was frozen in horror and fascination.

  9. “Typewriters Open Fire” – saw your comments in Retro Tech and followed my way here. Excellent research, Meester Munk. We share impeccable tastes. Can you imagine my excitement when I saw this machine on the market pavement in Alex? And my joy to find it works pretty perfectly? Here you go…. more to follow if you want…
    http://i1021.photobucket.com/albums/af334/daddyP_bucket/arabictypewritersetinAlexandria.jpg

  10. After falling in love with Beat Generation literature… I knew from then on I wanted to do all of writing on a typewriter. I had just finished watching Naked Lunch when I remembered that I had bought an old typewriter at a yard sale probably around 7 or 8 years ago. I had completely forgotten what brand it was or what it looked like. Anxious to make sure my parents had not gotten rid of it, I dug through my basement and was relieved to see it’s large black case, covered in dust. Initially I wanted to run out and buy a “Clark Nova” (not having the knowledge of typewriters I do now and thinking it was a real brand). So I blew off the dust and cracked open the case. I was not prepared for what I saw. There, in all of it’s glory, was a mint 1953 Smith-Corona silent manual. It practically IS the Clark Nova. A SIGN FROM GOD? A MESSAGE FROM INTERZONE? Who knows. All I know is that it is now my most prized possession and I write on it almost every day. Never has any other activity as sitting down and taping away on a typewriter been so relaxing. I love my typewriter and I think EVERYONE who is even somewhat serious about writing should have (and use) one. The bond between a man and his typewriter can be a beautiful thing.

  11. I’m sure there is an Olivetti Valentine – type machine in the Naked Lunch movie, the famous front jut transforming into a pair of buggy mandibles. I’ll have to watch it again. Can’t think of a better movie for the typewriter fetishist. Myself I own an Underwood Noiseless ’31 (which is actually a Remington), an olive green Olivetti Lettera 32, a vermillion Olivetti Valentine ’69, a Smith-Carona but not of the right vintage. Perhaps my wife and I will stage a stage play of the Naked Lunch film in our living room, naked and covered in jizz.

  12. I have a Smith Corona Sterling. It’s my favourite typewriter, it always has been… I use it for writing agitprop, mainly. You can’t word-process art. Art requires skill, patience and technique… And dope, of course. Lots, of dope.

  13. Great props from a most phenomenal film I’ve enjoyed many times. Could you post a photo of that magnificent custom made leather case which housed that reforged, reborn typewriter?

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