The film starts with static pictures of tv aerials on roofs zooming into shot. A male voice intones the opening credits. Suddenly the music takes on urgency and we see firemen sliding down a pole and climbing onto a fire engine. It starts up and races through non-descript suburban locations. Meanwhile a man eating an apple gets a mystery telephone call telling him to get out. He grabs a jacket and runs from a concrete block of flats. The firemen turn up. We hear footsteps and the flat is entered. There is no fire. The firemen begin to search the flat and suddenly a book is found. More books are hidden around the flat, including within the cabinet of a fake tv. The books are thrown from the window down to the ground. A small crowd gathers and we see a senior fireman - Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) donning protective gear and a flame-thrower. Guy Montag is a fireman with a difference. The books are arranged onto a metal stretcher and engulfed in flames.
He meets a girl called Clarisse (Julie Christie) on a monorail carriage whilst travelling home. She asks if he has ever read a book. We are in a dystopian future where the possession of reading material is banned. There are no books, newspapers or magazines and a drugged-up society is reliant on television to provide news and bland entertainment. Montag's wife (also played by Julie Christie with longer hair) spends all day at home and seems out-of-it when he arrives. Cyril Cusack is effective as a rather nasty fire chief, who waves a possible promotion in front of Montag.
The firemen are called to another property where an old woman lives with a large library hidden upstairs. The decision is made to burn the entire house as it is scheduled for destruction anyway. Firemen no longer put out fires as all new properties are fire-proof. The old woman matter-of-factly chooses to stay and burn.
Montag meanwhile, is curious and decides to take a book home. His home life has been deteriorating and he spends more time talking to Clarisse. He reveals that he has read a book. She tells him about the 'Book People' whose purpose in life is to memorise a book, then destroy it and await the day when books aren't forbidden. Clarisse has to disappear following the arrest of her Uncle and Montag's book interests become too reckless. He has to escape too.
Fahrenheit 451 was François Truffaut's only English language film and in some ways it shows, with some undemanding dialogue. The adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel involves some plot simplification. There is no war going on and a whole central character - Faber is removed. The mechanical hound whose job it is to round up and inject fleeing book-lovers, is additionally excised to make things cheaper and easier presumably. The adaption is sensible but with little justification for the burning of the books other than that they upset people with fantasy. The fate of those in possession is like-wise never really explained. The book is far clearer about the state of society. Werner apparently wanted to play his part in a more facist manner and fell out with Truffaut over it. There is also a sense that the film fails to deliver any kind of message about totalitarianism or the value of literature.
I like the style of the film, thanks to art director Syd Cain and Nicolas Roeg who was responsible for cinematography before his directing days. There are modernist sixties buildings, concrete public spaces and a fab under-hung monorail train in France. It’s a straight-forward plot with no real twists and some odd quirks. For instance, Anton Diffring who plays a virtually non-speaking fireman is seen briefly in drag as a school mistress. The film ends with snow which was on the last day of shooting and pleasingly wraps it up. Music by the one and only Bernard Herrmann.