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Fahrenheit 451

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Fahrenheit 451

Starring: Julie Christie, Oskar Werner
Director: Francois Truffaut
Rated: NR
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: November 1966
Genres: Foreign, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance

*Also starring: Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, Jeremy Spenser, Bee Duffell, Alex Scott, Mark Lester

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

There are many people who buy tons of books and never bother to actually read them. Sometimes it is done on purpose - volumes of Dostoyevsky, Sartre or Proust on your bookshelves can give you the image of an intellectual and thus enable you to impress your houseguests. But, sometimes books get bought and never read simply because you never get enough time to read them. In the case of this author, the sadly and unjustifiably neglected book was FAHRENHEIT 451, classic science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury. I bought it almost a decade ago but I never caught enough neither time nor inspiration to read it. The 1966 movie, based on the novel and directed by famous French director Fran‡ois Truffaut, was another matter - I watched it few times, mostly on television. However, when I decided to review the film, I felt that it just wouldn't be right without reading the novel first. Since the novel was some 160 pages long, I spared few hours and finally relieved myself from this situation, quite ironic in the context of the book. So, now I have enough reason to claim that FAHRENHEIT 451 happens to be one of those occasions when the films turned out to be better than the original novel.

The plot of the film is set in future, in a society that banned all the books as the source of disharmony. Instead of putting down fires, firemen are entrusted with tracking, confiscating and burning books. One of those firemen is Montag (played by Oskar Werner), who is about to get promoted after many years of excellent service. His professional success, however, can't compensate the deep feeling of discontent, caused by the widening emotional gap between him and his dull wife Linda (played by Julie Christie) who spends all her time watching interactive TV soaps and swallowing tons of psychoactive pills. Montag becomes even more aware of this after meeting with Clarisse (again played by Julie Christie), young, free-spirited woman who would inspire him to start questioning not only his life but also well-established norms of society. After a while, Montag starts doing something inconceivable for fireman - instead of burning, he would start to read books.

On the surface, the plot of this film is hardly different from hundreds of similar science fiction dystopias, and it also follows the cliches of lone hero who rebels against future totalitarian society. But this very unoriginal and over-used theme was given to the filmmaker famous for the originality and very personal touch used in all his work. In mid 1960s Truffaut was one of the most respectable members of French New Wave and one of the most vocal proponents of so-called "auteur theory". Adaptation of Bradbury's novel was an interesting experiment for Truffaut, being his only venture into the realm of science fiction (not counting the role in Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND few years later). His approach towards the genre was quite unique. Unlike most of the directors, who like to create futuristic atmosphere by cool gadgets, costumes or props, Truffaut decided to make the future world visually identical to our own. So, people in FAHRENHEIT 451 wear 1960s clothes and hairstyles, drive 1960s vehicles and live in houses that look very much like 1960s suburbia. The real difference between our present and Truffaut's vision of the future lies in people. They are cold, distant, emotionally cripple and psychologically impaired.

So, Truffaut relies less on special effects (except in one fake and totally unnecessary scene near the end that almost ruins the whole movie) and more on actors and the atmosphere. He had diverse but very talented crew of actors. Oskar Werner, Austrian actor who had worked with him in JULES ET JIM, plays Montag who is very close to character in the book. Werner's minimalist style of playing was perfect for gradual transformation of lead character from cold-blooded government official to rebel. This gradual transformation is mirrored in two very opposite characters played by talented British actress Julie Christie in one of the best dual roles in history of cinema. Another great talent comes in the form of Cyril Cusack who plays evil, sadistic but also a very intelligent Captain. He is aided by Anton Diffring (German character actor almost obliged to play Nazis in dozens of 1960s and 1970s WW2 movies) in a small but effective role of Montag's professional rival.

Acting talent is supported by Truffaut's almost flawless direction that represents the good combination of the old and new. On one hand, Truffaut uses this film to give endless homages to his great role model Hitchcock, especially in the scenes that create suspense. Another homage to the Master of Suspense is the use of Bernard Herrman as music composer. His score is perhaps less powerful than in some of the greatest Hitchcok's films, yet it is recognisable and quite effective in the context of FAHRENHEIT 451. In this film, as in many other, Herrman deserved his reputation of one of the best movie composers of all times. On the other hand, Truffaut uses this film to experiment. One of such experiments could be seen in the beginning, when the movie credits are narrated instead of being shown on the screen. Unlike most of the 1960s experiments, this one is successful and adds the futuristic atmosphere to otherwise contemporary setting. Truffaut also uses opportunity to mix genres - FAHRENHEIT 451 is made of scenes that are truly horrifying, some scenes that are filled with black humour and some scenes that are both.

Futuristic setting doesn't discourages Truffaut to comment on the 1960s world through small but amusing details. "Law enforcement as fun" scene looks very much like the clip from a documentary about generations' conflict of late 1960s, while TV announcers delivering statistics about burned books sound very much like Pentagon speakers during Vietnam War. However, the quality of FAHRENHEIT 451 is not only timeless but also disturbingly prophetic. Some dark elements of Bradbury's and Truffaut's visions could be seen in today's world. Books are disappearing while the masses are manipulated through dumbed-down popular entertainment, people spend all their lives in front of TV sets or have their metabolisms dependable on various drugs. But the most disturbing trend is globalisation that tends to cover the entire world in uniformity, leaving no place to all those who want to remain independent and individual. When the characters in this film justify burning books they use the same vocabulary and almost identical arguments like the militant proponents of "political correctness"; use of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in one of those scenes is movie's finest irony. However, even those who would recognise some disturbing trends of today would like FAHRENHEIT 451 in the end. After all the dreariness, melancholy and hopelessness, Truffaut rewards the audience with optimistic, powerful finale that reinstates our faith in humanity. Because of all that, FAHRENHEIT 451 still remains one of the milestones in the history of science fiction cinema.

Copyright © 2000 Dragan Antulov

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