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.