By the mid-1960s, I had already made up my mind that Francois Truffaut (1932–1984) was my favorite of the French New Wave directors, who had transcended their roots as film critics. (Jean-Luc Godard seemed to me increasingly cerebral and self-involved, and Claude Chabrol never quite elevated his genre-based films to a higher level.) I think I’ve already gone on record in appraising Truffaut as the most important filmmaker to be born after Orson Welles debuted on the planet in 1915. Furthermore, I had “grown up” on a diet of science fiction and fantasy literature and films, and Ray Bradbury was a hero on that front. So, it was with great expectations that I anticipated the November 1966 arrival of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I was already under the sway of Andrew Sarris in The Village Voice, and I remember reading earlier that year Truffaut’s journal of making the film in England (his only English-language production), in the short-lived English version of Cahiers du Cinéma, edited by Sarris. On the whole, my expectations for the film were not disappointed.
Although we have (generally) so far managed to avoid the story’s wholesale book-burning (inspired by the Nazis), Truffaut’s film seems prescient in other ways. The movie portrays a society of individual narcissism and loneliness. In her role as Oskar Werner’s wife Linda, Julie Christie’s self-absorbed behavior on the monorail, her retreat from reality via earphones, and, ultimately, her suicidal addiction to pills are on the mark. How different is this from all the folks we see every minute on the street or on the train or in a restaurant, focused on their digital devices and unconscious of what is going on about them, with not a thought in their head of reading or talking—or simply with not a thought in their head? (We don’t need Cyril Cusack’s “fire brigade” to prevent us from reading books or newspapers; we’ve done it to ourselves.) Linda Montag’s real relationships are not with her husband and reality, but rather with her ”cousin” announcers on the wall-screen, who tell her she’s “absolutely fantastic” for giving the rehearsed correct answer to their imbecilic questions. Of course, today she might run the risk of ostracism by being “unfriended” or, even worse, receiving a thumbs-down response to some insipid tweet. Given this situation, disaffected fireman Werner must fall back on a defensive position: “These books are my family.”
The film opens cleverly, by making the credits audible rather than written. Bernard Herrmann’s music is spectacularly effective. Herrmann was the composer for some of the greatest masterpieces of Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds), one of Truffaut’s designated mentors (along with Jean Renoir), and the two collaborated again the following year on The Bride Wore Black. Oskar Werner had previously made Jules and Jim with Truffaut, but Truffaut’s journal and correspondence with Hitchcock indicates that they had a less cordial relationship this time around. (Truffaut’s first choice for Montag was Charles Aznavour, star of Shoot the Piano Player.) Werner outlived Truffaut by only two days.
Like Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s young alter ego in The 400 Blows, Montag/Werner must ultimately run away, looking for the refuge of the Book People at the end of the train track. (This plot device has been borrowed by the contemporary cable television series The Walking Dead, where non-Zombies can find like-minded (like-bodied?) folks down the tracks, away from their cannibalistic pursuers. The film ends brilliantly in a scene fortuitously shot in the snow. In Truffaut’s several autobiographical films, he infused his characters, in the best auteurist manner, with elements of his own persona. **Spoilers follow.** This is what Charles Dickens had done with David Copperfield, and so it is altogether appropriate that Montag begins his “coming out” as a social deviant by reading from Copperfield to Linda’s horrified friends. Among the books that get burned we see copies of Bradbury and Cahiers. The Book People become both books and people, actually embodying a personally treasured work. Montag/Truffaut chooses to become Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, a kind of homage to Bradbury, who is in some ways Poe’s 20th-century equivalent.