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The Elephant Man

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 123 minutes

Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller

Screenplay by: Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch

Directed by: David Lynch

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Theatrical Trailer, Retrospective Interviews, Make-Up Interview, Photo Gallery with Narration

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Mono, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection

Released: December 11th, 2001

 

 

Although based on the life of Joseph Carey Merrick, The Elephant Man, is more a Hammer horror influenced fantasia built around one of nature's most horrifyingly disfigured personalities. Each time I see "The Elephant Man", the more it becomes a film by its director of photography, Freddie Francis, less a film by David Lynch. Francis toiled as a director for British horror company, Hammer, directing such films as "The Evil of Frankenstein", "Trog" and "Asylum". He photographed quite a few well-known films as well, "Sons and Lovers," Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" and "Glory." Lynch, fresh from his cult hit "Eraserhead," fashioned this highly fictional account of Merrick's tragic life, taking quite a few questionable liberties with the material, starting with the inexplicable change of name from Joseph to John Merrick. With as many liberties taken, one can plainly view Lynch's "The Elephant Man" as a poignant, but manipulative fantasy about the power of the human spirit.

Since screen writers Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren and Lynch do not allow Joseph Merrick to speak for himself, here is what Joseph himself had to say about his startling deformity: The measurement around my head is 36 inches, there is a large substance of flesh at the back as large as a breakfast cup, the other part in a manner of speaking is like hills and valleys, all lumped together, while the face is such a sight that no one could describe it. The right hand is almost the size and shape of an Elephant's foreleg, measuring 12 inches round the wrist and 5 inches round one of the fingers; the other hand and arm is no larger than that of a girl ten years of age, although it is well proportioned. My feet and legs are covered with thick, lumpy skin, also my body, like that of an Elephant, and almost the same coulour, in fact, no one would believe until they saw if, that such a thing could exist. From The Life and Adventures of Joseph Carey Merrick by himself.

To suit the film makers manipulative treatise, the film finds John Merrick at the age of twenty-one, being exploited by an evil freak-show carny, Bytes. Bytes generally mistreats Merrick as only a screen villain can (in reality, Merrick did have a partner: a Mr. Ellis, who according to Joseph, treated him with. . . the greatest kindness and attention. In making my first appearance before the public, who have treated me well. ) John is rescued from this existence by a curious doctor who takes him in, against the advice of hospital administration, to study his illness, but finds that an intelligent human being is buried beneath the tumor-addled skin. Under Doctor Treves care and guidance, John Merrick comes to national prominence. Although clothed in the fashion of the day, John is still treated as a curio, with dignitaries and crowned heads paying daily calls to his isolated hospital room. The crux of Anthony Hopkins Doctor Treves being that for all the attention he has garnered for Merrick, is he himself, no better than the villainous Bytes.

Beneath pounds of make-up, John Hurt delivers a masterful performance in the title role. Yes, he is hideous to look at, and is hideously treated at times (the subplot about the night watchman is totally fictional, and the most manipulative fiction created for the film), yet his Merrick is able to be kind and loving, despite the hardships Fate has thrown his way. It is an honest, and from the gut performance that could not possibly be bettered. Anthony Hopkins is solid, as to be expected, and very moving in his dedication to Merrick. Hopkins conveys Treves moral dilemma believably and is heart-wrenching in his role. Several notable performances are given by members of the elite British acting fold, ranging from the youthful Leslie Dunlop ("Upstairs, Downstairs") to the controlled John Gieguld as the hospital s administrator, culminating with Dame Wendy Hiller s officious, but caring head nurse. Amid these talents, American Anne Bancroft tries to keep up in her role as the reality based actress, Mrs. Kendall. Kendall's point of view in the film is not as focused as it is in a stage version of Merrick's life, which was a long-running play on Broadway, and is soon to be seen in a revival.

"The Elephant Man," in any form is a unique story. The film feels as fresh today as it did on its initial release, thanks to its remarkable vision. Whether the visionary behind the film was David Lynch (who at that early stage of his career, I cannot see getting theses performances out of these particularly British actors) or the film s director of photography, Freddie Francis, is fodder for centuries of conversation.

 

 

Upon viewing "The Elephant Man" on DVD, I m of the mind that all black and white films should look this good. Paramount has truly released a reference disc capturing each and every nuance of the wide Panavision frame, producing a print which has depth, starkness and exquisite beauty. An establishing shot of a London side street at the 9:00 minute mark shows a remarkable threedimensionality rarely in evidence in a major motion picture. Freddie Francis photography is as much a star of this film as the top-billed actors are. Interior scenes show detail that is quite solid, from the pictures atop a mantelpiece to the liquid debris at a town pub; The Elephant Man is simply stunning. Even the highly touted, and historically accurate make-up applied to John Hurt looks utterly realistic in this presentation. Only the surrealistic industrial shots, in true Lynch spirit, are deliberately soft and grainy. The film recalls the stylized presentation of Tod Browning's 1933 classic "Freaks," and pays homage to that film with a late scene with a freak show entourage set up in a Belgian forest.

 

A sometimes problematic English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack has been mastered for this release. It is very atmospheric and mesmerizing, but there are sound effects which sometimes come across as too loud (around Time Marker 39:00, in Dr. Treves' sitting room, a screen left fireplace crackles and sputters as if it were the focal point of the film). Like the film's John Merrick, the sound offers an unsettling, emotional presence, with a firm LFE punctuation. Crisp, clear dialogue is directional, and fits the surrounding environments well. It feels like a horror film, as there is always something unseen lurking in the soundtrack. The film s original English Dolby 2.0 surround is almost as effective, and a French mono track has been included. Closed Captioning and English subtitles are accurate, not paraphrased.

 

David Lynch is conspicuously absent from any of the disc s special features, though his presence is made known through the lack of Chapter Encoding. In all honesty, I didn't find this to be as problematic as I thought it would be; the film is that engrossing and the story is that compelling such that the need for chapters seemed to be futile. Very little is spoken of Lynch in the disc s half-hour documentary, The Elephant Man Revealed, which also never broaches the subject of the concurrent, with the film s making, stage play by Bernard Pommerantz. The main focus of the documentary seems to be John Hurt, and the make-up by Christopher Tucker, though interviews with producer Mel Brooks and Jonathan Sanger are eatured along with illuminating thoughts from Freddie Francis. A Narrated Photo Gallery offers a slight look into Christopher Tucker s make-up, while his work is showcased in the Christopher Tucker s Workshop feature as live action. The creepy Trailer for "The Elephant Man" reveals its age, and looks quite worn.

 

Speaking solely on cinematic value, The Elephant Man delivers a powerful, fully realized story, with memorable characters and superb emotional resonance. Paramount s disc is quite possibly their finest production of a library title. Historical inaccuracies aside, this bleak look at John Merrick is fine visual and verbal storytelling, anchored by the startling performance by John Hurt.

Joseph Merrick's autobiography ends with poem he often recited (which somehow also didn t make it into the film):

 

Tis true my form is something odd,

But blaming me is blaming God;

Could I create myself anew

I would not fail in pleasing you.

Was I so tall,

could reach the pole,

Or grasp the ocean with a span;

I would be measured by the soul,

The mind s the measure of the man.

 

As a film, The Elephant Man measures up to one of the best films of any year: a true classic, given an impeccable treatment on DVD.