“What’s it like to live in a world without words,” Film Comment editor Gavin Smith asked the audience at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Howard Gillman Theater last night, before a well-attended screening of François Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966).
The most recent installment of the Film Comment Selects series was actually a double feature celebrating the work of author Ray Bradbury, who died in June at the age of 91. In addition to Truffaut’s flawless film adaptation of Bradbury’s 1953 novel about a dystopian society in which books are outlawed, the FSLC also presented Jack Clayton’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (1983), which, according to Smith, encountered “many stumbles,” on the way to the silver screen.
“It was originally a short story called The Black Ferris, written in 1948,” he said. “Bradbury had become friends with Gene Kelly and together they wrote a treatment for a film. Kelly tried to raise the money for it but unfortunately it didn’t work out.”
In 1962 Bradbury turned the treatment into a novel, named for a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, spoken by the second of the three weird sisters: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” The author then spent the next quarter century toiling and troubling to get a movie produced, personally courting first David Lean and then Steven Spielberg to direct. Horror legend Stephen King also wrote a draft of the screenplay, which was ultimately rejected. The film was briefly on the docket at Paramount in 1977, and finally made it to theaters in April of 1983, produced by Kirk Douglas’ Bryna Productions and Walt Disney Productions, with a screenplay by the author. Despite script changes ordered by Disney, extensive reshoots, and an underwhelming performance at the box office ($8 million domestic gross against an estimated $19 million budget), the author was reportedly happy with the final product. Gavin Smith agrees with that assessment.
“I think this is a terrific film,” he said. “SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES is a very underrated, very special film, very atmospheric and surprisingly creepy. I think it was worth the wait.”
SOMETHING WICKED tells the story of pre-pubescent protagonists Will Holloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson) menaced by a malevolent magician named Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce, in his first major film role). When the Pandemonium Carnival comes to town, Mr. Dark preys upon the suffering of the townspeople, tempting them with better lives or younger, healthier bodies, while secretly plotting to acquire their souls. With the help of Will’s father (a delightfully brooding Jason Robards), Dark is defeated, and the Carnival and its demonic denizens are sent permanently packing.
As a horror obsessed kid in the early ‘80s, I loved Bradbury’s book but was disappointed with what I considered to be the Disnified film adaptation. My feelings last night were similar. While creepy to a point – and probably creepier than anything the Mouse House had done to date – the film still has that soft edged, kid-friendly patina that plagued all Disney live action films of the era. It looks awfully cheap for a major studio production, with fake-y sets, not enough extras and hokey special effects that would have been more at home on an episode of Doctor Who. The film is saved, in my opinion, by strong performances from Robards as the world-weary dad and Pryce, who navigates the chintzy scenery like a gaunt ballet dancer from Hell. An additional treat for classic film fans is a featured cameo by veteran little person actor Angelo Rossitto, best known for leading the “one of us” chant in Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932).
FAHRENHEIT 451, the second half of the double feature, is a far more successful adaptation. In Truffaut’s only English language film, Julie Christie plays dual roles, as compliant housewife Linda, sedated by a steady diet of medication and mind-altering media, and the good-natured, pixie-haired rebel Clarisse. Oskar Werner (who also starred in Truffaut’s JULES AND JIM) is Linda’s husband Guy Montag, a fireman who burns books in the service of the Thought Police (the film’s title refers to the temperature at which paper burns). With Clarisse’s influence, Montag begins to question mindless totalitarianism and turns to the dark side: he start reading. In the end, he kills the Captain (Cyril Cusack, excellent in a role for which Laurence Olivier was reportedly a candidate) and escapes to join the “book people,” an army of revolutionaries who keep the written word alive by memorizing great works of literature and enjoying them together.
“You won’t see any written words, except for the words in the books, until the credits at the end,” Gavin Smith told the audience before the screening.
And that was true. Even the opening credits of FAHRENHEIT 451 contain no text, with the names of the actors and creative crew spoken by an unseen narrator. That was just one creative masterstroke in a smart, stylish movie that’s filled with them.
Happily, Smith also revealed some good news last night: in the New Year, Film Comment Selects will become a regular monthly series of double features at the Film Society. The 2013 program kicks off in January with Hitchcock’s STAGE FRIGHT (1950) and FRENZY (1972) and continues in February with Robert Zemeckis’ first two films: I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (1978) and USED CARS (1980).
With good quality 35 mm prints, excellent curation, and the stylishly comfortable setting of the Film Society’s new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center (where I have, in multiple visits, never seen anybody text during a movie), the Film Comment Selects series feels a Bradburian oasis in a desert of cinematic conformity. For the “film people” in New York City, it’s highly recommended.