Monday, September 3, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Fahrenheit 451" (1966)

Francois Truffaut called "Fahrenheit 451" his "saddest and most difficult" filmmaking experience, and it's not hard to see this disappointment translated onto the screen.

Star Oskar Werner battled throughout the production with the filmmaker, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard, based on the seminal novel by science fiction icon Ray Bradbury. It was Truffaut's first film in English and with color.

Werner was Austrian and spoke English with a heavy accent, which makes him stand out from the rest of the cast, which is largely British. Truffaut himself spoke little English, and as a result he failed to properly monitor the tone and intonation of his actors. Most speak in a curiously flat cadence, like Werner, or rush through their dialogue as if they're in a race, like Cyril Cusack.

These things could actually work for the film, since it's about a dystopian future where all books are banned and society molds its citizenry into anti-intellectual complacency. Since people talk without thinking, their speech would tend to be scattered. And because Montag is a  fireman who eventually rebels against his comrades, in some ways it makes sense for him to be different from the pack.

But I think these are not attributes of the movie; rather, they are unintentional problems that creep into the mix. Truffaut himself preferred the French-dubbed version of the film, by all accounts.

Of course, in Bradbury's haunting vision, firemen do not put out infernos but start them -- bursting into houses, jackbooted thugs dressed in militaristic black uniforms. They are highly trained in the ways of hiding, and uncover all the illegal books in the abode and set them ablaze. If enough books are found, they may just condemn the entire house and put it to the flamethrower torch.

As the story opens, Montag is the finest fireman in his station, and is informed that he has been selected to replace the Captain (Cusack) when he retires shortly. But with the help of a young schoolteacher who lives near him, Montag begins secreting away the books and reading them instead of destroying them. All that reading gets him to thinking, which is the last thing the controllers of this strangled society want.

What's interesting about "Fahrenheit" the movie is that the leaders of this system are never glimpsed or overtly referred to. Bradbury often said that his book was not about censorship so much as the way television and a lack of reading has a brain-deadening effect on people. Large television "wall sets" occupy every home, blaring virtually nonstop and lulling viewers into a state of dreamlike passivity.

We see the effects wrought by the great and mighty Oz, but not Oz himself. Who actually runs the government and the media? We never know.

In perhaps the film's strangest scene, Montag's wife Linda is selected to "appear" in a live play broadcast over the airwaves. (It's never made explicit, but it seems clear that there is only one channel playing.) This consists of two men discussing arrangements for a dinner party, and occasionally turning toward the camera to seek as Linda's advice, which she delivers from memorized dialogue. Presumably, the rest of the audience sees Linda's responses during this time. She flubs her first line, but the play keeps rolling along as if nothing happened.

Linda is played by Julie Christie, who also plays the rebellious schoolteacher Clarisse (wearing a horrendously fake-looking wig.) Truffaut obviously sees Clarisse and Linda as two sides of the same coin, but the gimmick casting is a distraction. (Terence Stamp, who was cast prior to Werner, left the project because he felt Christie's dual roles would upstage him.)

The only other notable actor is Anton Diffring as Fabian, a fellow fireman, Montag antagonist and competitor for his position. I'm not sure if he ever speaks more than a line or two of dialogue; the role operates strictly by having the hawk-faced Diffring cast suspicious glances at Montag from time to time.

Visually, the film is an orgy of oversaturated colors, intended I think to give everything a hyper-real look that's supposed to be disconcerting.Truffaut's camera work is surprisingly staid and pedestrian -- other than a few pans, the view hardly ever seems to move. The musical score, highlighted by a fast-paced little march whenever the firemen are on the move, is repetitive and silly.

Truffaut stripped much of the futuristic science fiction elements out of the story, perhaps to make it more relatable to everyday life but probably also for budgetary concerns. The one genuinely "sci-fi" shot, of a group of policemen wearing jet-packs searching the countryside for Montag, is simply laughable. They move in precise formation, instead of spreading out to make their search more effective. I think Truffaut was simply enamored of the image, logic be damned.

A morality lesson with little juice, "Fahrenheit 451" never brings the human story to a boil.

2 stars out of four

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