François Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian, illiterate future looks better than ever but the scary part is that some of its oddest sci-fi extrapolations seem to be coming true. It’s a movie that truly grows on one. The Bernard Herrmann music score is one of the composer’s very best.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
1966 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 112 min. / 50th Anniversary Edition / Street Date June 6, 2017 / $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 François Truffaut & Jean-Louis Richard from the book by Ray Bradbury
Produced by Lewis M. Allen, Miriam Brickman
Directed by François Truffaut
Quality science fiction was once a hard sell with both critics and the public. Fahrenheit 451 is usually discussed either as a Science Fiction film or a François Truffaut movie, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Sci-fi enthusiasts point to unconvincing details in the future Utopia and Truffaut’s critics once thought 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 went against Science Fiction trends in 1966 by placing visual poetry before futuristic hardware. Directed with imagination and performed with intelligence and passion, it remains the best adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story.
Colorful visuals paint a vivid but oppressive future in a conformist, regimented society. Montag (Oskar Werner) has become disillusioned with his life. Society has banned books, and he’s a fireman in an elite squad tasked with locating and burning them. At work Montag must please his dictatorial but solicitous fire Captain (Cyril Cusack), and fend off a jealous and vindictive co-worker (Anton Diffring). At home, Montag’s wife Linda (Julie Christie) is the perfect citizen: docile, consumer-obsessed, and a big fan of inane faux-interactive television shows. Everything is convenience in the here and now, and like most citizens Linda thinks so little of the past that it barely exists for her. Montag meets Clarisse (Julie Christie again) on the monorail, and her spirit awakens the rebel in him. He plays hooky from work to help Clarissa deal with losing her job as a teacher, and they watch a man on the street betraying his neighbor to the authorities. Montag is impressed by the Book Woman (Bee Duffell), a hoarder who prefers to be burned with her books rather than live without them. He starts collecting and reading books at home, knowing it’s only a matter of time before someone informs on him… maybe even Linda.
A number of top-rung ’60s directors were lured into trying their hand at Science Fiction. Stanley Kubrick took the deepest plunge with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but others include Jean-Luc Godard (Alphaville), Joseph Losey (These Are the Damned) and even Alfred Hitchcock, if one counts The Birds. All turned in 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 is an early reaction to the spirit of Orwell’s 1984, with ironies easily expressed in one sentence: these firemen don’t save houses, they burn books. Bradbury’s main point seems to be to popularize reading; in the 1950s educators were already aware that books were being abandoned in favor of Television. As a bibliophile Bradbury is almost as concerned with the loss of all those first editions as he is the politics. The first book we see is Cervantes’ Don Quijote, which I believe is still considered the first modern novel.
Truffaut’s movie maintains the emphasis on literature, serving as an ode to books in the same way that Samuel Fuller’s Park Row is an ode to journalism and the free press. Striking art direction and rich cinematography by Nicolas Roeg create an impressive dystopia of quiet houses and roads without street signs. Sinister red fire stations display ‘denunciation boxes’ where citizens can submit the pictures of friends or neighbors that are hiding books. In familiar Orwellian fashion, people avoid talking as to not betray their own opinions. Keeping one’s job obligates one to conform to the rules. Clarisse says that she laughed with her students, and freely shared ideas with her fellow teachers. When the school dismisses Clarisse she is shunned byher former colleagues as well as her little students.
All the details of commonplace oppression are present. The public urging for citizens to inform on one another is a product of the time when the book was written. The detail of the firemen requisitioning the houses of the denounced predicts an ugly truth about America’s War On Drugs, which gave narcotics enforcers the incentive of stealing the property of those they arrested. The false TV news dramas resemble the cynical lies of the ‘news breaks’ in the much newer film RoboCop.
The film’s vision of the future is more than a little sketchy. Inconsistencies more easily evaded on the printed page all but leap at us from the movie screen. Medicine bottles only have numbers and colors on them, and ID photos and the Sunday comix are likewise text-free. The book ban must be relatively recent, because the Captain is a fountain of literary knowledge. Does he just read the covers to memorize all those authors’ names? One wonders if there is a hypocritical ruling class somewhere with full access to taboo literature. Most of the books we see look brand new. Who is publishing them? Montag does consult a dictionary at one point so he must have been taught to read. 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 this society has dispensed with all history and news except the drivel dispensed by ‘the family’ on the TeeVee, what’s to teach in this dull society? Surely not art or anything creative. One would think that the society and technology on view is too complicated to subsist on oral communication alone.
Politically speaking we assume that this book-burning society covers the whole world. But there are today several police states in which absurd, soul-crushing thought-control is just as strongly enforced as seen here. Fahrenheit 451 has strong thematic similarities with Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. Lemmy Caution and Natasha learn the meaning of words that their totalitarian government wants to abolish, like ‘love.’ Bradbury seeks to defend all of literature but the meaning is the same — if words can be eliminated, the ideas behind them can be extinguished as well.
Truffaut maintains a slight distance from his alienated, slightly neurotic characters. We observe and sympathize with Montag and Clarisse but we don’t fully identify with them. Montag is cool and thoughtful and Clarisse is warm and outgoing. The entire populace lives in denial of emotionalism, and many people seem stifled to the point of psychosis. People on the monorail seem distracted, adrift with odd neurotic behaviors. Linda can’t relate to her own body. That the nonconformist Clarisse is openly curious and friendly with strangers marks her as a ‘dangerous’ citizen. Montag copes by affecting an emotionless professionalism. This appeals to his fire Captain, whose solicitations suggest a homosexual interest — he keeps asking Montag if he’s happy at home, and favors him with a medallion featuring his likeness. The Captain berates two cadets as if they were bad dogs. Perhaps the Captain, uncomfortable with his own sexual preference, is hyper-repulsed by the cadets that persist in sitting together.
The Captain preaches that the disturbing ideas in books will make Montag unhappy. As Montag ‘expands his mind’ with independent ideas he picks up a reckless nonconformist streak that’s easy to spot. He voices a dandy notion to frame the most offensive firemen by planting books in their houses, but he doesn’t seem sneaky enough to be a successful subversive. From the moment Montag flagrantly reads from a book in front of his wife’s friends, his doom is sealed. One of the women cries from the strain; it’s if he were reading about some taboo perversion.
One aspect of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 now seems brilliantly prescient. Most of the population is addicted to pills and TV, both of which relieve the anxiety of an existence without purpose. A veritable TV fanatic, Linda is thrilled by an interactive show that gives her the illusion that she’s part of the program. This proto- Reality Television ‘privatizes’ the lives of viewers that buy into the game, turning them into zombie consumers. Linda is constantly throwing out things so that she can buy new ones. Her TV life is more real to her than her marriage or even her body — which we see her touching, as if it were an unfamiliar object. Montag cannot get her full attention because all she wants to talk about are her adventures in the make-believe show. Linda overdoses on her pills, which we discover is an occurrence so common that it’s not even considered an emergency. The ‘booster’ antidote dispensed by the (liberty-taking) paramedics gives Linda an artificial boost in appetite and sexual desire. Bradbury borrowed liberally from Aldous Huxley as well.
By not reading, by abandoning learning and ideas to the noise from the TV, the populace has become tame and stupid, conformists that deny their own essential humanity. This ‘lesson’ from an old movie seems 100% relevant to what reality TV, social media and the privatization of public information are doing to America. Incidentally, the film’s flat widescreen wall TVs are identical to what we have now. They even use animated ‘screen saver’ graphics!
Truffaut’s picture is well mounted, with interesting sets for Montag’s neighborhood. An odd (prototype?) monorail serves as futuristic mass transit, and the working fire truck is an impressive prop. Its firemen ride while standing on their feet, as if in a chariot. Everyday clothing is just different enough to be futuristic, while the fire unit’s uniforms and helmets are practical and look great too.
The director works overtime to suggest the future through stylized visual details. As fitting a non-reading society, the main titles are spoken aloud, over zooms to radio and TV aerials. The film has no conventional text credits but it does have a ‘The End’ and a copyright, etc., at the finish. There are plenty of art films with no text credits, but the only other mainstream example I can think of is Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the 1979 road show version.
Cuts and fades are conventional but on occasion Truffaut will optically mask off parts of the frame, sort of a futuristic take on a silent-movie iris effect. Montag’s profession is given somewhat dream-like touches. The firemen abhor books but the camera embraces close-ups of book covers, everything from James Joyce to Cahiers du cinema. In HD we can read the fine print on the books — it’s worth keeping one’s finger on the freeze button. Simple film tricks borrowed from Cocteau add to the sensation of a dream. Reverse printing is used when Montag dons his flamethrower rig, and for a reverse fire-pole slide when Montag slides up, not down. After Montag begins his illicit late-night reading the fire pole balks at accommodating him, a hint of some kind of spiritual dimension. Little individual effects are mysteries meant to keep us off balance. A bundle of Clarisse’s possessions slides down a school hallway by itself, without explanation. Actor Anton Diffring is one of the firemen, but also plays a second, quizzical bit part as a woman at Clarisse’s school. He looks so strange that we’re suspicious of some of the subsequent close-ups – is that another man in drag, too?
Hovering over the eccentric details (men wearing flying rigs?) is the incomparable music of Bernard Herrmann, whose sensitive strings and harps seem to be mourning the loss of humanity. The fire truck music cue stresses ant-like industry and rigid conformity on the job. The beautiful main love theme shines a light of hope over the entire show, emphasizing the characters’ yearning for relief from their emotional isolation. Montag and Clarisse may not be the greatest lovers in the world, but they are loving idealists and the main theme seems a call to humanist idealism.
François Truffaut finds a cinematic, poetic solution to most problems. Even the quizzical ending works on the plane of style — the movie seems to end in a glass snow globe. That finish may seem weak on a first viewing, when we want a practical conclusion but are left with a fuzzy vision of people wandering in the cold reciting the text of their new book-identities. How do these outcasts in the wintry forest eat and stay warm? Books make good heater fuel! Montag called his wife’s complacent tea-time guests zombies, yet in visual terms that’s exactly what the book people seem to have made of themselves. On first viewing Fahrenheit 451 may feel too much like a poetic fantasy. On subsequent viewings, when the snow begins to fall and Bernard Herrman’s music rises in a wave of hope and harmony, Truffaut’s vision seems inspired.
Oskar Werner is an interestingly sad hero and Julie Christie has good scenes in her double role as the two women in his life. But neither has a standout star moment that sticks in the memory. The support is flawless. Cyril Cusack fire captain is a petulant menace. Anton Diffring is instantly acceptable as a jealous conniver thanks to his effective chiller roles, especially (Circus of Horrors). It’s interesting that Truffaut chose German actors for both his hero and villain. Actor spotters will have no trouble identifying little Mark Lester (Oliver!) in two scenes. Bee Duffell is compelling as the doomed Book Woman; 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. Ms. Duffell may have won her role for being fluent in French as well as English; although a nervous man, Truffaut’s diary doesn’t reveal him complaining about filming in a foreign language.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray of Fahrenheit 451 arrives promptly one year too late. But who cares, as it improves greatly on the company’s rather good DVD from fourteen years ago. Nicolas Roeg’s lush photography takes advantage of the English overcast to give us soft bright colors. I’ve heard complaints that the image has been edge- enhanced, but saw nothing that gives offense. The new scan and clean-up cures all ills except the faulty traveling mattes in the monorail sequences. Roeg may not have supervised those optical effects. They have heavy matte lines, density shifts and scratches in the foreground elements. This new scan minimizes them.
The new disc recycles the old DVD’s excellent extras produced by Laurent Bouzereau, especially the intelligent featurettes. The main making-of docu has the producer and editor on hand to give us a full rundown of how a French director came to make a film in a language he couldn’t speak. Producer Lewis Allen explains why Julie Christie ended up in a dual role. Thom Noble has seemingly forgotten nothing about the picture, and has (in the Herrmann piece) a great story to tell about serving as a reluctant bilingual intermediary between the director and the composer. He presents a vivid portrait of the composer’s career immediately post-Hitchcock. A sit-down interview with Ray Bradbury allows the author to explain what it was like back in the 1950s when the book was published, when he was a famous yet impoverished fantasy writer.
Also recycled is a photo and poster gallery. The alternate title sequence turns out to be different only in that it uses another voice artist. The full feature commentary is by a gracious Julie Christie. She begins by describing what she is seeing, but soon improves; she also shares the track with a number of crew people and contributors.
Fahrenheit 451 is presently a discounted big-box store exclusive but will reach normal outlets early in June. Customers complaining about the cost of Blu-rays should note that Universal will be selling Fahrenheit 451 at the exact same price charged for the DVD back in 2003 when we were invading Iraq. Home Video is surely a luxury but the bulk of the discs are cheaper than ever.
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Sound: Excellent English & Japanese
Supplements: featurettes The Making of 451; The Novel: A Discussion with Author Ray Bradbury and The Music of Fahrenheit 451; Original Title Sequence of Feature; Photo & Poster Gallery; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson
For fans of all things Fahrenheit, here’s the updated Guide