In some not-too-distant future, books have been outlawed. The first thing you notice about François Truffaut's 1966 film Fahrenheit 451, which depicts this world without words, is that the opening credits are spoken -- over images of TV antennas -- and it's more jarring than you'd expect.
Truffaut takes us immediately to an unthinkable crime scene in a topsy-turvy world where firemen rush with expected urgency to set fires, not put them out. A home is raided for books, and the contraband volumes are tossed into the street where firemen hold a very public demonstration. The books are doused with kerosene, ignited with a flamethrower (if these books were human victims, police would term this an "overkill") and burnt while a dispassionate crowd gazes on. At the burn's conclusion, lead fireman Montag (Oskar Werner) is congratulated by the Captain (Cyril Cusack). Montag, it seems, is in line for a promotion.
Returning from work, Montag is approached by Clarissa (Julie Christie), an erstwhile teacher, who queries Montag about his job. He seems flattered by her interest and explains that the fire company's name -- Fahrenheit 451 -- is the temperature at which book paper ignites and this represents their mission: "On Monday we burn Miller, Tuesday Tolstoy, Wednesday Walt Whitman, Friday Faulkner, and Saturday and Sunday Schopenhauer and Sartre. ... Books make people unhappy, disturb people, make them anti-social."
At home, he doesn't share this encounter with his wife Linda (also Christie), who is the flat, unquestioning near-robotron this totalitarian society demands. Later, we learn that Montag is keeping a worse secret from Linda: While she sleeps, Montag reads books he has pilfered from the raids.
The inhabitants of this tidy future lead joyless lives in "fireproof" homes (that imply the dangers of life have been removed but at some emotional cost), pacified by drugs and familiar television programs presented by "Cousin Midge." Occasionally Truffaut includes shots of random people stroking themselves, barely cognizant of an abstract longing.
It is Montag who carries the psychic burden of the film. His sense of order and control cracks under the desires the books awaken in him. He moves awkwardly between the two women Christie plays -- the dangerous, yet liberating Clarissa, and his proscribed wife, with all the attendant conformity and material success that relationship affords.
Fahrenheit 451 was French director Truffaut's English-language debut (he also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from Ray Bradbury's 1951 novel). He hired frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator and master of the "anxious" musical theme, Bernard Herrmann, to compose the film's score, and Briton Nicolas Roeg was tapped as cinematographer. The film, as many futuristic features are, is stylized, though for all its age, it holds up well visually -- except for one scene where men take to the sky in jet-packs suspended by obvious ropes.
Truffaut makes effective use of color, using lifeless tones throughout except for the vivid red employed by the fire department. (With the firemen's sleek dark uniforms and their door-kicking tactics, allusions to German stormtroopers are no doubt encouraged.) The department's logo is a six-legged, fire-breathing dragon -- hardly a benign figurehead.
The film's greatest visual, of course, is books aflame. Few scenes are as perversely beautiful as when the camera lingers on Henry Miller's Plexus while the heat of the fire frees the pages one at a time from the spine's glue. The page hovers just above the book for the tiniest of moments, before curling inward, turning to flame and, lastly, blowing away as a black wisp of ash. As we watch, the Captain rhapsodizes: "Like flower petals or butterflies, luminous and black ... who can explain the fascination of fire, what draws us to it."
Truffaut, from that generation of cineastes that revered the self-referential, can't resist tweaking what's displayed on the pyre -- more French books and authors than you'd reckon; Bradbury's Martian Chronicles gets a shout-out, and -- if you look quick before it burns up -- there's Truffaut's old analytical stomping ground, the French journal Cahiers du Cinema.
Books are in no danger of disappearing, though the critiques Truffaut makes about the increased supremacy of visual media -- and its often-stultifying nature -- are still timely. Ironically, today, in the future the film professes to imagine, most suffer anxiety from too much information, not too little -- though certainly much of it is trivial or repetitive and it's the rare bird who's tormented by the pleasures of 19th-century novels. And much of today's information is truly ephemeral -- it has no locus, and no longevity. No one ever approaches a favored Web site the same way Montag caresses David Copperfield and reverently devours every word, even the publishing information on the title page.
The film culminates in a somewhat hopeful ending that literalizes the resilience of the human spirit. But first it raises intriguing questions: Did Montag become a fireman because he felt the cause was just -- or because it gave him access to the forbidden material that he secretly desired? Did the encounter with Clarissa cause Montag to re-examine his life, or did she, a book-reading subversive, approach him -- a nemesis in his fireman's outfit -- because she could discern a kindred soul? Such questions surface again near the film's conclusion when the Captain lectures Montag at length about what's wrong with books, a subject he seems unnaturally conversant in as he ably distinguishes between schools of philosophy. Are even the enforcers not immune from the power of the written word?