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Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
Universal Home Entertainment
1966 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $14.98
Starring Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, Jeremy Spencer, Bee Duffell
Cinematography Nicolas Roeg
Production Designers Syd Cain, Tony Walton
Film Editor Thom Noble
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Francois Truffaut & Jean-Louis Richard from the book by Ray Bradbury
Produced by Lewis M. Allen, Miriam Brickman
Directed by Francois Truffaut

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fahrenheit 451 is usually discussed either as a Science Fiction film or a Francois Truffaut movie, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Sci Fi enthusiasts point to unconvincing details in the future Utopia, and Truffaut aficionados think it a bad idea for the director to be doing a film away from his known specialty, intimate relationship stories - and outside of his native language, to boot.

A bit rigid in form and dramatically muted, Fahrenheit 451's aim for poetic immediacy instead of a surface of futuristic hardware went against the Science Fiction trend in 1966. But it still remains the best adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story.


In a conformist, regimented future society, Montag (Oskar Werner) becomes disillusioned with his life. He's a fireman in an elite squad whose job it is to locate and burn books, which society has banned. At work Montag faces a dictatorial chief who pretends to be his friend (Cyril Cusack), and a co-worker who is really his enemy (Anton Diffring). At home, his wife Linda (Julie Christie) is the perfect citizen: she's docile, consumer-obsessed, and a big fan of inane television shows. Everything is convenience in the here and now, and like most citizens, she thinks so little of the past, she cannot even remember it. Montag meets Clarisse (Julie Christie again) on the monorail, and her spirit awakens the rebellion in him. He plays hooky from work to help her deal with losing her job as a teacher, and together they watch someone on the street betraying his neighbor to the authorities. Montag starts hoarding and reading books at home, knowing it's only a matter of time before someone, perhaps his own wife, will turn him in.

In the 1960s, many top-name directors were lured into trying their hand at a Science Fiction film. Stanley Kubrick was the one to catch the brass ring, but others included Jean-Luc Godard, Joseph Losey, and Alfred Hitchcock, if one counts The Birds. All made memorable films, if not their best-remembered, and then returned to more conventional material.

Truffaut was interested in the soft poetics of Ray Bradbury's derivative but fanciful book about book burning. One of the author's most popular titles, Fahrenheit 451 was very literal but catchy, reacting to the spirit of 1984 with ironies easily expressed in a sentence - the firemen don't save houses, they burn books. But Bradbury's love of literature came through, even if his take on Nazi book-burning was a bit off. He's more concerned with the loss of all those first editions than the politics.

Truffaut's movie is also an ode to books, similar to Samuel Fuller's ode to the free press in Park Row. Very effective art direction, and even better cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, create an impressive dystopian city of anonymous houses and sinister red fire stations, each with a box out front where citizens can submit the pictures of those they wish to turn in for hiding books. In familiar Orwellian fashion, we see a populace tamed by drugs and dulled by television and consumerism. Linda believes the notion that she's actually a part of the entertainment she watches, and is constantly throwing out things so that she can buy new ones.

Truffaut shows an entire populace in denial of unpleasant feelings, and emotionally stifled to the point of psychosis. Linda can't relate to her own body, and people on the monorail drift into little neurotic behaviors. As Montag 'expands his mind' with books, his independent ideas don't make him unhappy, as his boss preaches they will, but instead give him a reckless nonconformist streak that's easy to spot. He has a dandy notion toward the end, to frame the most offensive firemen by planting books in their houses and inform on them, but doesn't have a good grasp of subversive tactics. From the moment he flagrantly reads from a book in front of his wife's friends, his doom is sealed.

Conceptual problems that may have been easy to evade in print, leap out of the movie screen. Medicine bottles only have numbers and colors on them, and ID photos and the Sunday comix are likewise textless. If books have been forgotten for generations, how come the chief knows all about them? Does he just read the covers to memorize all those authors' names? Or is there an elite class with access to the taboo literature?

Perhaps other book criminals were secretly taught taught their literacy, but how come Montag knows how to read at all? (We do see him consulting a dictionary at one point) What are they teaching kids in school, only math? Even mathematics has concepts best expressed in words (yes, I'm just guessing on that one). Since the society doesn't have history or news except the drivel dispensed by 'the family' on the TeeVee, what's to teach? Surely not art or anything creative in this dull society. The society and technology on view are too complicated to subsist on oral communication.

Truffaut does the best he can to take the film in an abstract direction away from these literal issues. He uses interesting masks on the screen, and a textless title sequence to make Fahrenheit 451 seem like a product of the society on view, as if constructed from a different set of aesthetic rules. He finds a poetic solution to most problems, and even the quizzical ending works on the plane of style. Unfortunately, the vision of people wandering in the snow reciting the text of their book-identities grates on a first viewing, when we're looking for a practical conclusion. Earlier, Montag berated his houseguests by calling them zombies, but in visual terms, that's exactly what the book people seem to have made of themselves at the end of the show. 1

What keeps the film vitally alive even for non-fans of Truffaut or Science Fiction is the incomparable music score by Bernard Herrmann. The main love theme threatens to happen constantly during the picture, but only makes its full statement at the conclusion, with the onset of falling snow. It conjures a strong emotional reaction that transcends the film - one wants to weep, but not for Clarisse or Montag.

Oskar Werner is an interesting sad hero, and Julie Christie has some good moments as the two women in his life, but the dramatic part of the story only works in tentative terms. In expressing lives lived at a remove from basic feelings, Truffaut resists engaging his main talent - creating characters and filling them with romance and vitality. The result is odd and cold, at least for 1966.  2

The secondary actors are perfect, with Cyril Cusack an offensive martinet. The way he offers medallions with his picture on them, and berates two fire cadets like bad dogs, is perfect (what is the pair's crime, anyway?). Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors) does his usual sinister act (interesting that both hero and villain here are Germanic). He also shows up in a weird cameo as a woman in Clarisse's school, just to keep us off-balance. Bee Duffell is compelling as the doomed book lady; Truffaut's treatment of actors is so tender that when we see her walking with Julie Christie, we don't think of them as opposites of beauty and plain-ness. Actor spotters will have no trouble identifying little Mark Lester (Oliver!) in two scenes.

Fahrenheit 451 doesn't make many favorites lists, which makes Universal's extra-packed, bargain-priced disc an especial delight. The transfer is excellent, and easily supersedes the flat matted DVD released at the beginning of the format. Laurent Bouzereau presents a battery of docus - a making of, a focus on the Bernard Herrman track, and a sit-down with Ray Bradbury. Each short has interesting material to cover that's not been seen in print before (I've read published excerpts of Truffaut's diaries on the film). Bradbury's background of what it was like to be a well-known but poor fantasy writer in the 50s is right to the point, and the Herrmann expert gives us a vivid portrait of the composer's career immediately post-Hitchcock.

The main docu has the producer and editor on hand to give us a full run-down of how a French 'auteur' came to make an English film when he couldn't speak the language. Thom Noble has seemingly forgotten nothing about the picture, and has (in the Herrmann piece) a great story to tell about being a reluctant bilingual intermediary between the director and the composer. Lewis Allen explains why Julie Christie ended up in a dual role. Both marvel at Truffaut's visual inventiveness. but neither explain why crack cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (or someone) muffed the ragged bluescreen monorail interiors. The docus are terrific, marred only by a selfconscious & gimmicky aping of the film's textless main titles: the Universal DVD execs must be thrilled to hear their names recited instead of just written in text.

Also included are a photo and poster gallery, an unused title sequence (a different voice, is all) a trailer, and a commentary by Julie Christie. Although she's charming and game, it started with her describing what she was seeing, and I didn't get very far beyond that. Next time I'll listen to her first. (Note 4.18.03: I'm told Christie shares the track with a number of crew people and contributors, and it's rather good)

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fahrenheit 451 rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docus, commentary, unused title sequence, stills and posters (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2003


1. The idea of reducing oneself to the text of one book is a nice sacrificial gesture to the beauty of literature, but who would want to live and breathe just one book? It's the reason why asking someone what their favorite movie is, is no fun. If I chose a particular favorite movie, the person who asked might jump to conclusions about me based on the title I gave. There's many a picture I just plain can't watch any more (Taxi Driver, etc.), simply because I concentrated on them so much, they're now internalized. Viewing them just makes my mind wander to other associations. So as much as I love it, I know that if I kept reviewing The Wild Bunch, going near it would soon become impossible. Once a year is enough.

2. We now easily recognize that Truffaut has elected to imitate Hitchcock's trucking shot / reverse POV directing pattern throughout the film. It creates a nice feeling of tension, but since the device is not used to build scenes toward revelations or conclusions (as in the frustrating school visit), the ultimate feeling is not mystery or ambivalence, but that something isn't working.

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