(Dir. François Truffaut) (1966)
Apart from the bone-chilling Mars-Hates-Earth story, “While Earthmen Sleep”, Ray Bradbury (22 Aug 1920 – 5 Jun 2012) – Happy Death Day Ray! – wrote a classic dystopian work, Fahrenheit 451.
In a world where possessing books is illegal, Oskar Werner is a promising up-and-coming fireman whose job is to torch the western canon (451 degrees is the applicable temperature). Cyril Cusack is impressed with how well Oskar winkles out those hidden classics.
Whilst the fire engines belong to a weird mix of Thunderbirds and On the Buses, and the film strikes odd, repetitive, notes, a satisfying sense of paranoia from Ray Bradbury’s book prevails, helped along by Truffaut’s homage-touches of Hitchcock, complete with a Bernard Herrmann score that swings wildly between Vertigo and North by Northwest..
Oh, look! There’s a Don Quixote in the ornamental lamp! A Moon and Sixpence on the bonfire. And so on. After all, all of these books…nothing to say. Just makes people unhappy. It is all rather clinical and the landscape rather artificial, but somehow, it works. When a lady faces the flames in her great rambling house of books, it is a truly great cinematic moment.
Julie Christie plays a Stepford Wife very nicely but then another Julie sets her impressive jaw and takes it on the lam with Oskar, to a world beyond the woods where people are each given a book to memorise and hence keep alive. So, there at what looks like Camp Krusty, they are met by The Journal of Henri Beyle by Stendhal; Plato’s Republic is washing potatoes; a skinny fellow on a walkie-talkie is Alice in Wonderland; Byron’s The Corsair used to be married to the Chief of Police. The Pilgrim’s Progress, chopping wood (how appropriate!), ate his book so they couldn’t burn it; Pipe-smoking identical twins are Pride and Prejudice (volumes one and two); and so on.
It’s a charming idea and, in a world where, increasingly, ideas are incendiary and learning despised, a small light in the Dark. And Oskar becomes which book? You’ll have to read on…