Francois Truffaut

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Science fiction foretells the future with surprising frequency even if it doesn’t always hit the target it was actually aiming for. As predicted in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian 1950s story that François Truffaut adapted, books, with their printed pages of words and colorful covers, are indeed under siege. Their enemies aren’t the flames of totalitarianism, however, but technology, which is disappearing them into a succession of 0s and 1s. The paradox is, of course, that even as what we’ve long considered a book becomes more scarce, their essence is more available to more people on Earth than ever before.

Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman, but he doesn’t extinguish blazes. In a future full of fireproof structures, his job is to locate and burn books, which have been deemed illegal, a bane of humanity, with their conflicting, critical and complicated ideas. Those who secretly possess them have their homes raided, their volumes burned to ash and they themselves are arrested. Montag isn’t doctrinaire about his work—it’s just a job and one that he tries to do well so that he can get promoted. But he’s forced to consider what he’s doing after a seemingly chance encounter with a stranger on a train (Julie Christie), who wonders if he ever gets curious about the ABC’s of his job: Austen, Beckett, Cervantes. Montag initially scoffs at the notion, but soon he’s peeking between covers and stashing books beneath furniture. He just can’t leave well enough alone like his wide-eyed wife (also Christie), who merrily doses herself with happy pills and stares placidly at insipid interactive television shows on the wall-screen.

Bradbury wrote the first version of the story in 1951, during the height of HUAC, and he was certainly critiquing the censorship of the day which tacitly attended that witch hunt. But his plot lines about the instant haze of pharmacological products and empowering, moronic amusements are right on target in our time. The idiotic entertainment flash on tiny screens in our pockets now, but so too do the books. How we balance those options will not be a tyrant’s choice but our own.•

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I laugh because I just thought of a new and ingenious means of psychological torture.

For years, I lazily accepted the notion that director Alfred Hitchcock was underrated by the media as merely a purveyor of spine-tingling melodrama, someone thought of as an entertainer of the masses but not an artist. I assumed that the campaigning of his greatest admirer, Francois Truffaut, helped revise the opinion of Hitch as someone worthy of high praise.

There may be some truth to that, but people definitely knew how great Hitchcock was long before the ’60s. Case in point is a 1939 article in Life magazine, “Alfred Hichcock: England’s Biggest and Best Director Goes to Hollywood.” The piece looks at the esteemed English director’s move to California to begin a brilliant second act to his career.

The article was written by Geoffrey T. Hellman, who was best known as a legendary New Yorker writer but also simultaneously served as associate editor at Life for a couple of years in the ’30s. Hellman’s papers are housed at NYU. An excerpt from the colorful piece, which looks at how Hitchcock’s devious need to cause discomfort carried over from the big screen into his personal life:

“In private life, Hitchcock’s astringent outlook enables him to take an enormous, if deadpan, satisfaction in the distress of his friends and acquaintances, especially in situations induced by himself. Although his flair for practical jokes has suffered a setback in Hollywood, where the novelty of his surroundings and the constant sun seem to have cramped his style, he is beginning to feel more at home, and judging from his past record it is only a question of time until he gives Louie B. Mayer the hot foot. He once offered an English property man a pound for the privilege of handcuffing him overnight, and just before snapping on the manacles gave the victim a drink into which he had slipped a strong laxative. Hitchcock has a sense of values and gave the fellow a 100% bonus the following morning because of the unusual humor of the circumstances.”

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