Fahrenheit 451 (UK, 1966) ****
Directed and co-written by Francois Truffaut from the novel by Ray Bradbury. Photography, Nicholas Roeg. Music, Bernard Herrmann. Starring Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, et al. 112 minutes.
To read or not to read? That is the question answered with a thundering "yes" by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) in his tenth movie (of 26).
"Fahrenheit 451" is the temperature at which paper burns. (Note: I have not tried to verify this.) In the source-novel by Ray Bradbury, a tale with a rock-bottom use of sci-fi gadgetry, we find, in a not-too-distant time, an Un-Brave New World in which all printed matter is outlawed. Books --those creators of thinking, questioning, individualism --are banned as disturbers of a "peace" which is maintained by the homogenizing and dumbing humans through a stupid kind of TV as well as various pills.
Firemen do not extinguish fires any more but now, paramilitary firemen snuff out "differences" in people by sniffing out hidden volumes and burning them. Fireman Montag (Oskar Werner) about to be promoted by his Captain (Cyric Cusack), betrays the Establishment by salvaging some books and reading them. (The secret readings by Montag are immensely touching.)
He is denounced by his homogenized, passive "Wall-TV" watcher wife Linda (Julie Christie). (Shades of Hitlerjugend kids denouncing their families!) Montag then joins non-conformist, free-spirit Clarisse (also played by Julie Christie) to become a member of the "book people" underground.
The novel was such a natural for movie-adaptation that filmgoers expected a glorious array of sci-fi visuals. Sorry, no major special effects. Truffaut's only English film is in color but is not "colorful," nor does it hit you with futuristic gimmickry. The novel did stress the political side of things. The movie emphasizes a more general social dystopia. Its outer trappings were realities: the aseptic suburbia of Roehampton, England; the American TV wall-screen experiments with lasers; the monorail in service near Orleans (France); the "flying men," etc.
Note the contrast between the bucolic landscape and the glossy, toy-like fire-engines. Or the oppressive schoolhouse corridors, illogically drab until you realize that schools are made obsolete by "the family" on the wall screen and by other variants of Big Brother.
The intellectual approach is true in content and structure, at the expense of expected theatrics. There is no nice, sexy affair between Montag and Clarisse. Fiendish Fellow Fireman Fabian (Anton Diffring) does not denounce Montag. There are no Big Chases or Big speeches. It's all hard colors and limited feelings, just right for an op-pop society of sleepwalkers. Truffaut is not so simple-minded as to confront the myth of technocracy with the myth of The Good Reader. Instead, he shows the "post-print culture" of McLuhanism ("the medium is the message") that can turn humans into passive cattle. "We've got to be alike" says the Captain. But "alike" and "alive" are opposites. He adds: " The only way to be happy is for all of use to be made equal." It is that "made" that grates.
In the late 1950s-early 1960s, Truffaut, along with Godard, Chabrol, Resnais and others ushered in The French New Wave, arguably the most important "movement" (in the most general and flexible way) in the history of film. Of all the movie-makers in that group and probably in all film history, Truffaut was the most loved one, the way Cary Grant was among actors. When Truffaut died of a brain tumor at age 52 all of France went into mourning.
Facile effects are avoided. Even though Truffaut admired, above all filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, there is just one scene of Hitchcockian suspense (Montag in the Captain's office.) We find no overt Renoiresque humanism. In the final shots, the people become major books pace the countryside as they memorize their respective texts. In the French language those characters are called "hommes livres" (book people) which also sounds like "homes libres" (free people). They are not romantic outlaws but members of a Resistance who have traded the slavery of a Benevolent State of zombies for an admirable enslavement to books-- so that when true freedom, that of the presses, may return some day.
The movie comes to an end which is, in my book, the most touching of any film I have ever seen: the zoom of an old man's death and a child's reciting of "his" book.
Truffaut is elliptical and economical. Neither elaborating nor spelling out explanations or conclusions, he leaves the judgments to us, the viewers. A subtitle for his film could have been that which his colleague Alain Resnais gave his documentary about the French National Library. "All the World's Memory."
New Wave cineastes could never resist movie allusions, in-jokes and references. Here they abound with the self-immolating woman whose huge library is destroyed. The books being burned make up a fascinating sequence of works in dozens of subjects, from novels (including Bradbury's), treatises on cinema, philosophy, classics of all nations, detective fiction, etc., etc., etc. It is a part of the movie that you'd like to re-play and re-re-play on a DVD.
The owner of this hidden treasure, an older woman, is part Buddhist torch, part Joan of Arc. The film is rich with bits of humor, beautiful camera work (by Nicholas Roeg who became a major director) and a strong score by the great Bernard Herrmann famed for "Citizen Kane," Hitchcock movies and many other works.
Making the movie in England was something of a nightmare for Truffaut for several reasons, mainly because he and his main co-writer had only a smattering of English, and because the protagonist Oskar Werner (whom Truffaut had earlier directed in "Jules and Jim") had his own ideas about the film and became a pain in the neck. Oddly, Werner died just two days after Truffaut's demise.
The film's set was not a happy one. Yet the result was and still is a classic.