Nicolas Roeg’s early films are mysteries. He wasn’t really telling stories. He wasn’t creating drama. In the seventies and eighties Roeg was exploring a new language, melding sound and image, breaking down time and space. I always felt that understanding his films was less important than experiencing them.
That may sound like some kind of mystical rubbish, and there were plenty of people who accused Roeg of being glib and flashy. But from Performance (1970, co-directed with Donald Cammell) to Bad Timing (1980), I think Roeg was really trying to let us see and hear things in a new way. It may not have always worked, but I never doubted his sincerity.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is one of Roeg’s most ambitious films. It tells the story of the spectacular rise and fall of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who comes to earth and builds a vast financial empire based on startling new technologies. The film was adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis. (Tevis also wrote The Hustler, which was brought to the screen by Robert Rossen in 1961.) While the narrative mostly moves forward, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg don’t feel bound by traditional storytelling conventions. There are sensual reveries where bodies drift through an empty void. At times we hear sounds that seem to be echoing across the centuries. Time and space aren’t fixed in Roeg’s movies. They’re unstable. Porous. We may get a momentary flash of something that hasn’t happened yet. Or suddenly a window will open on the long lost past.
Mayersberg’s film résumé isn’t long, but it’s really interesting. In addition to The Man Who Fell to Earth, he also wrote Eureka for Roeg. And he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film Croupier. It’s clear from just those three titles that Mayersberg is interested in outsiders. The first two are expansive, mythic stories of gifted men who build an empire and then see it stolen from them. The third in some ways is the polar opposite, focussing on a man who wants to isolate himself from the world around him, seeking safety in self-effacing anonymity. But all three are stories of individuals struggling with society, and in each one the main character finds himself trying to deal with a world which is basically corrupt.
Roeg is also interested in corruption, but tends to focus less on the world and more on the individual. His characters are often searching for something, sometimes literally on a journey of discovery. Along the way they tangle with sex and death, which in Roeg’s world are always closely intertwined. In The Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton seems to be immortal, but he watches everyone around him age, becoming weak and fragile. And while Newton has a wife and children back on his home planet, he’s not immune to desire. He meets a maid in a hotel and soon they’re sharing the same bed.
Sex is a subject Roeg is very interested in, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is more explicit than any other mainstream film I know of from the time. In your standard Hollywood film, sex is almost always about love, and it’s usually reserved for the main characters. That’s not the way it works in Roeg’s world. Love may or not may not be involved, and even when it is, the lovers are never pure. They’re just as vulnerable as real people, feeling loneliness, fear, insecurity and desperation. In his films sex is truly intimate, and that intimacy carries with it all the perils it does in real life.
I’ve seen the film several times, but this is the first time it occurred to me that the three principal talents, Roeg, Mayersberg and Bowie, are all British. Watching it from that perspective, it seemed to be very much about a foreigner slowly drowning in American culture. At first fascinated, then addicted, then overwhelmed and appalled. When Newton arrives at his hotel room in the Southwest, he asks Mary Lou to bring him a TV. Then more TVs crowd into the room. Finally he’s sitting in front of a wall of television sets, all tuned to different channels, bombarding him with chaotic visuals and disembodied voices. He’s confronted with a manic, kinetic collage of machines and animals, sex and savagery. The sensory onslaught becomes so overwhelming that he flips out. When he finally shouts, “Leave my mind alone!” is it just Newton shouting, or are the filmmakers also making a comment on the suffocating effect of American pop culture?
The visual texture of the film is wonderfully rich and extremely intricate. Anthony Richmond’s cinematography takes full advantage of Brian Eatwell’s stunning production design. As editor, Graeme Clifford gives it all a seductive, hypnotic rhythm. The sound is equally complex, thanks to the efforts of Robin Gregory, Bob Jones, Alan Bell and Colin Miller. It’s also important to mention the electronic effects by Desmond Briscoe, who pioneered the use of electronic sound in Britain. And the music is a fabulous crazy quilt of old standards, rock n’ roll, bluegrass and avant garde, to which John Phillips, Stomu Yamash’ta and Duncan Lamont all contributed.
As his career went on, Roeg moved toward a more conventional approach to image and sound. He seemed to be rejecting the oblique, enigmatic style of his early years and embracing a more straightforward kind of storytelling. That’s fine. As people mature, the obsessions of their youth often fall by the wayside. But I keep returning to Roeg’s early work, and I don’t think it’s just a sentimental attachment. There’s something in those movies that keeps calling me back. His films from that time are disturbing, sensual mysteries. Don’t try to understand them. Just let yourself fall into them.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is a brief, terrifying parable. Prospero is a wealthy prince whose land is being ravaged by a plague. He gathers his aristocratic friends together in a castle and seals it tight to keep them all safe from the disease. Believing that they now have nothing to fear, Prospero and his guests devote all their time to extravagant entertainments, while those left outside face certain death. But like a story in the Old Testament, The Masque of the Red Death ends in terrible retribution. Prospero and his friends learn that no walls are thick enough to save them from the plague.
When I went back to story and re-read it, I was surprised to find that Prince Prospero is the only character mentioned by name. Poe spends little time describing the man himself, and he only speaks a few lines of dialogue. Most of what we learn about Prospero comes through the author’s description of the apartments designed by the prince, a suite of seven rooms, each decorated in a single color and lit by torches that shine through colored glass. The scene that Poe paints for us is highly stylized, almost abstract. Really it’s the landscape of the mind.
To make a feature length commercial film, director Roger Corman obviously had to flesh out the material. This can be a dangerous proposition, because often the whole effect of a short story depends on its brevity. But Corman was a lifelong admirer of Poe’s work, and he knew that he couldn’t just add padding to the author’s tale. The screenplay would have to expand on the material in such a way that it grew organically from Poe’s original concept.
Corman has said that in his Poe adaptations his preferred approach was to use the original story as the third act, the climax of the film. That’s what he does here, and the screenwriters do a beautiful job of fleshing out this macabre little tale. The script, by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, expands on Poe’s story a good deal, and yet it stays essentially faithful to the author’s conception. In addition, Beaumont and Campbell bring in fragments of another Poe story, Hop-Frog, weaving it skillfully into the framework of the film.
What the screenwriters do with Prospero is pretty impressive. Starting with the minimal details that Poe offers in the story, they create a fascinating, multi-faceted character. This is not your standard horror movie villain. Prospero is a philosopher who sees the world in the bleakest possible light. He is horribly cruel, but he is also intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. This is a man who has spent his life observing the world, seeing the horror and misery that plague mankind, and he has become brutally cynical. He refuses to believe in a loving God, because he can’t believe that God would allow the suffering and the violence he’s witnessed.
As the film begins, we see Prospero’s cruelty in the harsh punishments he inflicts on the peasants in a small village. But as the story unfolds, we learn that he has no more respect for his fellow aristocrats than he does for the peasants. He sees his guests as weak and foolish, and he takes joy in humiliating them. He’s appalled by humanity. It’s as though he’s punishing mankind for its cowardice and stupidity.
Prospero is a frightening, fascinating character, and the part would be a challenge for any actor. Fortunately, Corman turned to Vincent Price, who he’d already worked with on a number of films. Price is magnificent. His performance is a marvel of intelligence and subtlety. Prospero is repellent, and yet at the same time we can’t take our eyes off him. Playing the part, Price commands our attention, but without unnecessary theatrics. Graceful and witty, cold and merciless, the actor’s performance as Prospero is one of his finest.
Art director Robert Jones and production designer Daniel Haller create an oppressive, expressionistic world that reflects the disturbing beauty of Poe’s writing. A young Nicolas Roeg shoots it all with striking confidence. The richness and subtlety of Roeg’s lighting gives the images dimension and depth. By this point in his career Corman was very assured as a filmmaker and he seems to have an intuitive understanding of the rhythm and shape of a scene. His camera glides through the chambers of the castle, settling on one composition, shifting to another, defining the relationships between the characters and heightening the tension.
Sound also plays an important part. Striding through an eerie silence, Prospero lectures his guests on the terror of time, the ticking of a clock in the background, the soles of his shoes clicking against the marble floor. Francesca is wakened in the middle of the night, and as she peers through the dark bedroom we hear the flutter of birds’ wings receding into the night, suggesting a phantom in flight. In keeping with the way Poe uses words, Corman uses images and sounds not just to create a physical world, but also a psychological landscape.
I often hear people make excuses for crude, shabby horror movies. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the time. Roger Corman proved over and over again that limited resources are no excuse. With a little creativity and cunning, a filmmaker can work wonders, even if they’re shooting on a shoestring. It’s not the size of your budget. It’s the size of your imagination.
When a director sets out to turn a book into a movie, they have to make it their own. There is no way to take words on a page and translate them literally into images and sounds. Even if a filmmaker didn’t have to deal with the time constraints of a commercial feature and had the freedom to include every event, every episode described in a novel, there’s no way to replicate the experience of reading a book on the screen. They’re two different mediums, and to make a successful adaptation, you have to transform the book into a film.
So I can’t really fault Francois Truffaut for not capturing the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the film he made of the novel. Bradbury’s work is so much about the experience of words, and the resonance that words have, there’s no way you could replicate what he does in a movie. But I still have to say that the film doesn’t work for me. I’ve never been able to connect with it.
Which is not to say that it isn’t worth watching. In many ways I think the film is kind of brilliant. The world Truffaut creates and the visual language that he uses have a striking immediacy. While his earlier features were shot largely on location, Fahrenheit 451 was made in a studio. Truffaut uses this to his advantage by emphasizing the artificiality of the environment that Montag, the fireman, lives in. Art director Syd Cain (aided by Tony Walton, uncredited) gives an eerily bright, hard-edged look to this future society where TV controls all information and conformity is the key to survival.
The brilliant reds and solid blacks of the fireman’s world contrast effectively with the earth tones of the natural landscapes and the homes inhabited by the book people. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg takes full advantage of these extremes. He is amazingly sensitive to the various qualities of light, using it to define the stark, modern interior of the firehouse, and to paint the subtle, ghostly beauty of the English countryside. Working with editor Thom Noble, Truffaut finds a rhythm to suit each sequence. Jump cuts give urgency to a scene where a man is warned he’s about to be busted. The firemen’s raids crackle with a scary energy. Long, uninterrupted takes emphasize the arid, sterile atmosphere of a suburban home.
But in spite of all that, I have to say I just don’t connect with the film on an emotional level. There’s something strangely detached about it. You might say that the movie’s polished, impersonal feel would be totally appropriate for this cold future world, but if we can’t connect with Montag as he struggles to break free, then there’s no dramatic impact. As creative as Truffaut and his team are in giving the film a look and a feel, for me the finished product is emotionally flat.
Pauline Kael felt Truffaut’s approach was too restrained, and she may have a point. Fahrenheit 451 was one of Bradbury’s early novels, and it clearly comes out of his roots as a pulp writer. Apparently the book was the author’s response to the chilling oppression of the McCarthy era, and the theme of an individual struggling against a totalitarian government could hardly be stated more bluntly. Montag has to choose between good and evil. Truffaut may not have been comfortable with such a clear-cut moral choice, and he seems unwilling to play it to the melodramatic hilt. There is a reserve in his approach which makes the actors seem strangely distant. It’s also possible that, since this was his first film in English, the language was a barrier he couldn’t quite overcome. And it’s important to mention that the director’s relationship with Oskar Werner was strained during the making of the film, which may have affected the way Montag comes across, or doesn’t come across.
Then again, a good deal of what makes the book memorable is the language, and that’s something you can’t put on screen. I started to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently after watching the film. I have to say that the story does seem naive and melodramatic. I definitely feel like it’s the work of a young writer, and it doesn’t have the depth or the subtlety of the author’s later work. But the way he writes is totally compelling. Bradbury’s language is dense, rich, intoxicating. His prose is so close to poetry that the line between the two disappears. There’s poetry in Truffaut, too, but it’s a different kind. As a filmmaker he seemed to be seeking clarity, simplicity. Often his best films, such as The Wild Child and The Story of Adele H., have a brusque directness, a naked honesty that allows us to get very close, often uncomfortably close, to the characters. The poetry is held in check, never being allowed to overwhelm the story. Bradbury, on the other hand, wants to overwhelm the reader. He plunges us into his own sensual dimension, a world of experiences he describes so vividly we can touch them, taste them.
While Truffaut’s sensibility is different from Bradbury’s, composer Bernard Herrmann is very much on the writer’s wavelength. His score has a rapturous intensity that is completely in tune with Bradbury’s world. Herrmann sets the tone with the first cue. As a narrator recites the credits over images of TV antennas, strings playing ethereal, shifting harmonies with no resolution, preparing us for the film’s chilling vision of the future. Immediately after we’re assaulted by the bracing, dissonant music that accompanies the firemen’s raids. Throughout the film, Herrmann’s eerie, otherworldly score keeps us off balance with its strange harmonies and unusual rhythms. It’s only at the very end, when we’re in the forest with the book people, snowflakes drifting from above, that the composer introduces a lovely, lilting melody, letting us know that Montag has finally found safety. The tension and anxiety that have dominated the score are gone, and the final, resounding chords reassure us that there is hope.
So while I’ve got some serious problems with the film Truffaut made from Fahrenheit 451, I also find a lot to like in it. I get the feeling that the director was trying to challenge himself by taking this project, a far cry from Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. It also seems like he was trying to assimilate what he’d learned from Hitchcock, not just in this film but in others like The Soft Skin and The Bride Wore Black. While I’m not crazy about his work from this period, I think it was important for him to explore this approach. Artists have to make mistakes to grow. We all do. As Buckminster Fuller said…,
“How often I found out where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”