It's curious that a director who spent so much of his early career railing against the tyranny of the literary tradition in French cinema should spend so much of his career either adapting novels or filling his films with techniques from and references to literature at every turn, so his attraction to Ray Bradbury's fable isn't that surprising. What is surprising is that in many ways it's his most purely cinematic film, discarding his usual over-reliance on voice-over to carry underwritten scenes for more purely cinematic forms of interpretation. Even the readings from the forbidden books are kept to a minimum: the obsession is in Montag's behavior, not the words he speaks.
Truffaut's playfulness is all over the material, from casting an actor who forbade his children to watch TV or go to the cinema as the fire chief (Cyril Cusack in the film's standout performance) to dramatically masking off half the screen and heightening the dramatic music for what turns out to be a less than dramatic moment in a search - and that's without the inclusion of Cahiers du Cinema among the burning books or mentioning Anton Diffring's brief moment in drag. But then this is an absurdist world, where firemen slide up poles and start fires and where fascism is accepted in that way it always is when gradually introduced because of people's innate ability to adapt to their circumstances, no matter how absurd or restricting.
It improves on Bradbury's novel by losing some of the more distancing sci-fi devices such as the fortune telling dog, and setting its future in a soulless post-war New Town environment that is close enough to the real look of the time to add to the credibility. Much of what there is in the film isn't that far from reality, with plasma wall screens offering inept interactive-TV (even down to pressing the red button) becoming status symbols, and betrayal increasingly encouraged as an everyday, socially acceptable act. Indeed, the world it presents, where people touch themselves, not each other, and where conflicting ideas are discouraged because they just make people unhappy, seems all too contemporary. Only what is possibly the single worst special effect in film history (those laughable flying policeman on all-too visible wires), the film's one ill-judged excursion into optical effects, sticks out like a sore thumb.
Despite the huge problems between Oskar Werner (who wanted to play Montag with a wink and a smile) and Truffaut (who ended the shoot directing through an intermediary, using body doubles and having to cut Werner's takes shortly before he smiled!), Montag seems a credible protagonist, an empty vessel who suddenly has his horizons violently opened. Even the accent seems strangely right: not so much the idea of a German playing a fascist book burner (indeed, Diffring's German accent is dubbed here), but the way it seems to compliment the formal language of the piece. Even Julie Christie's blandness and sporadic awkward enthusiasm work well enough in this environment for her almost to seem to give a perform for once.
Throw in Bernard Herrmann's remarkably beautiful, sparingly used score, never more effective than in the final sequences that are almost magically complimented by the happy accident of a totally unexpected snowfall, and the result is a surprisingly moving piece about fundamentally shallow people. And it is a very comforting thought that, if behind every book is a man (or woman), then somewhere there is a man or woman who will keep every book alive despite all efforts to destroy it.
Universal's DVD is one of the best on the market: the audio commentary is occassionally unsatisfying, but any gaps are more than filled in by the excellent 45-minute documentary, interview with Ray Bradbury, featurette on Herrmann's score, alternate title sequence, stills and poster gallery and trailer. Highly recommended.