Backdraft

The opening scenes of Francois Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451, from Ray Bradbury’s novel.

Our subject once more is editing — what’s strange about this sequence? There are many possible answers to such a diffuse question, I know, but does something strike you between four minutes and five minutes into the clip?

I show this to my students and they often don’t notice it. Some of you will be wondering how they could miss it. Others will have missed it themselves.

Here it is: when Montag (Oskar Werner) puts on his flame-retardant hat and gloves, he’s moving in reverse. It’s actually a shot of him having the hat and gloves removed.

Did you spot it? Let me know.

I always found that strange, but liked it — it has a Cocteauesque quality that’s complimented beautifully by Bernard Herrmann’s oneiric score. The use of the technique wasn’t quite transparent — I could read exactly what Truffaut had in mind in using it. My best guess would be that the act of book-burning is so WRONG — we know that Truffaut, a book-lover, found these scenes traumatic — that he wanted to signal that with an unsettling effect that showed time out of joint, nature unbalanced, moral order subverted.

Then I read an interview with Oscar-winning editor Thom Noble (WITNESS), and he said that he reversed the shot because Truffaut had neglected to get a shot of Oscar Werner putting his fireproof kit on. Certainly makes Truffaut’s imitation of Hitchcock here seem slightly less skilled than the Master.

The thing is, my interpretation of the reverse-motion as an artistic device is still valid: a piece of technique deployed to cover a blunder is still making some kind of statement, even if it wasn’t intended. Watching films is an active process, and we’re always interrogating what we see.

Also on F451 — cinematographer Nicolas Roeg reports shooting an insert of what were meant to be Oscar Werner’s hands. Truffaut had fought with Werner throughout filming (something to do with whether Montag’s book-burning made him a fascist) and wanted to make him look bad, so he deliberately found the ugliest pair of hands he could get: all nicotine stains and chewed fingernails. Roeg was fascinated by this — the power of editing. It helped inform his interest in montage when he became a director himself.

16 Responses to “Backdraft”

  1. Actually there’s quite a lot of reverse motion throughout the film. Oskar Werner was wildly uncooperative with Truffaut. In the diary of the making of Fahrenheit (published in CdC) Truffaut cites incident after incident in which Werner flatly refused to take even the simplest direction. As a result he had to reverse shots of him moving forward because Werner wouldn’t move backwards.
    Weird!

    Julie Christie, meanwhile, was a total joy.

  2. Sliding up the fire pole of course is a deliberate and obvious use of reverse motion… “Something wrong between you and the pole?”

    Seemingly success had gone to Werner’s head, but he remained popular throughout his short life. I can’t work out why Henri Serre didn’t get more prominent roles though: just saw him in Fantomas Contre Scotland Yard and it felt like the only thing I’d seen him in apart from Jules et Jim. (Of course, he was in Le Fey Follet and a few other major films I was forgetting about for the moment.) Worked until 1990, but I’ve seen only a tiny fraction of his output.

  3. You’re quite right. Henri Serre was short-changed.

  4. Jenny Eardley Says:

    Thing is, though, Julie Christie changed her hair part-way through filming and it was absolutely GLARING.

    I did notice the reverse shot but I didn’t realise that was what I should be looking out for. I thought I was looking out for an editing error. Good way of making me take notice of a film, that. My brother did a degree involving film making and on one scene they filmed in a pub he messed up the sound recording. They didn’t find out until they got back so instead of getting permission again and hiring the actor they made a virtue of it. They made it look like a silent film with sepia, scratches and intertitle, which fortunately suited the surreal nature of the piece. The critics ate it up and they won the much-coveted JVC award (and a degree each).

    I was watching La Collectionneuse the other day and I thought Patrick Bauchau was rather like Henri Serre in looks and mannerism (specifically a thing he did with his mouth when talking). Serre was robbed. Maybe Bauchau was inspired (with the mouth thing) by a plot-similarity to Jules et Jim.

  5. Bauchau should’ve had a better career too. He’s very commanding in Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me.

    The first editor I worked with at college, Colin Cowie, had a saying: “If the footage doesn’t look good, put it into black & white, tint it, and strobe it.” Works like a charm.

  6. colinr Says:

    Natasha McElhone has quite a habit of being put into reverse-motion and then having it run forwards to give a weird look to the scene. There is of course the reanimation sequence in the Solaris remake.

    But the same technique also occurs in the (rather silly, but it’s got Udo Keir, Nicol Williamson aka King Arthur in Boorman’s Excalibur, and the recently deceased Michael Sarrazin in rather haggard-looking cameo roles, which makes it relatively interesting) horror film from the same year Feardotcom. The reverse shot occurs when she is driving a colleague who has recently been cursed by a possessed website(!), and is there to add an early sense of off-kilterness to her partner’s world.

  7. The ending of Carrie is another (you can glimpse cars reversing down the freeway in the background) and of course all the action and dialogue in the Red Room of Twin Peaks.

    But Cocteau is the king of it.

  8. Bachau’s career is far from over. Among his more recent performances he was teriffic in Boy Culture

  9. “Older enigmatic male” — perfect casting.

    And a big, belated “Heh” to the Julie Christie haircut line.

  10. Coppola used this in his Dracula in a scene where Sadie Frost hammily creeps back into her coffin. I always found it more jarring than anything else. I wonder if future film academics will be shaking their heads in puzzlement at all the digital “fast/slow” shots that abound too.

    Just rewatched The Limey and was struck by the Roeg-esque editing. Boy Terence Stamp is one handsome fellow. I had breakfast with him once at the NFT. Well he was at the next table in the outside cafe and we were the only ones there.

  11. Yes, Roeg is in the mix, but so are Boorman and Resnais and the Lester of Petulia. The really weird thing about The Limey for me was the way Leslie Ann Warren just falls in with Stamp’s revenge plans. Ordinary people don’t usually accept homicide so readily. Although Soderbergh’s an infinitely better film, it’s comparable with the moment in Species where the scientists meet the hitman. “Oh, that must be interesting work…” (They don’t actually say that, but that’s the tone.)

  12. judydean Says:

    Some of Keaton’s best stunts are dependent on the use of reverse-motion, like the arrival on the cowcatcher in The Goat and the motorbike/train near miss in Sherlock Jr.

  13. You know, I’d never figured that out re Sherlock Jnr — my best guess was extreme accelerated motion (I could tell the movement was strange)…

  14. david wingrove Says:

    Patrick Bauchau has had a long and deeply enigmatic career. I’ve even seen him as Sara Montiel’s love interest in TUSET STREET, a “Swinging Barcelona” musical from 1968.

  15. […] website, using Incense for the Damned to caution against disorienting close-ups, Fahrenheit 451 to warn about proper coverage (and, incidentally, warn against excessive interpretation), and Murder, My Sweet to ask who cares […]

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