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Back in 1967 when this film was first released the critics jumped all over it as a Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor vanity project which it was but that's all they saw. Now 40 years later with Liz and Dick having been supplanted by the likes of Brad and Angelina it's time to revisit the film which is ripe for rediscovery for there is much to discover that was overlooked the first time around. The beauty of Christopher Marlowe's play lies in the poetry of the lines and the philosophical and theological points the poet raises. Burton wanted to transfer the recent Oxford University stage production that he had appeared in onto film. The movie captures the stage origins but has been cleverly opened up for the screen in a number of ways which makes it a fascinating cinematic experience thanks to an imaginative use of lighting, beautiful cinematography, and a memorable music score from Mario Nascimbene (ONE MILLION YEARS B.C.).
Then there is Richard Burton. His intense portrayal of the title character is a marvel to behold and serves as a vivid reminder of just what a charismatic performer he could be. His glorious voice speaks the Elizabethan text as if it were everyday conversation but with a power and conviction that must be heard to be believed. There are even DVD subtitles available if you wish to follow the text. The rest of the cast is made up of members of the Oxford Dramatic Society and they fufill the other roles as required with Andreas Teuber a standout as a rather melancholy Mephistopheles. Last but not least there is Elizabeth Taylor who has to do nothing more than look exotic in a variety of guises (she has no dialogue just as in the Oxford production). Taylor certainly fufills the role of the classical ideal of woman especially back then when she was so beautiful.Read more ›
Burton and Coghill's adaptation of Marlowe's last, and perhaps most famous play, is a garish mixture of camp and culture, and deserves to be better known. Although there are at least two other filmed versions, neither Svankmajer (1994) or Murnau (1927) utilise the Marlovian text, which is often as distinctive, and as great, as the playwright's more frequently filmed contemporary Shakespeare. Coghill has reduced the content to the essentials, stripped out a lot of the original bawdiness, done some modernising, and has even borrowed the occasional line from another play to make the project more accessible to the general viewer. The result is bizarre and compulsive at the same time, a film entirely characteristic of the time.
Marlowe's morality tale tells the story of the German scholar and conjurer, Faustus, who abjures philosophy, learning, and religion to sell his soul to the devil in return for 27 years of youth and pleasure. During the time of this blood-sealed pact on earth, he has Mephistopheles as his servant. The lustful and arrogant Faust indulges his earthly appetites, sees the seven deadly sins, performs magic for the emperor, and has fun whilst invisible at the expense of the Pope, before being dragged down to hell at the hour of reckoning.
None of this would seem out of place if reworked in a Hammer horror film, and memories of the Bray studio's sensibilities duly spring to mind as the film unfolds. Entirely set-bound, the film has a claustrophobic feel, entirely in keeping with Fausts' self-centredness. As he experiences the diabolic freedom to indulge himself it is a delusion, as at the same time he is by necessity trapped and inevitably condemned to hellfire. The rooms he moves in are artificially cluttered, full of colours, skulls, books, furniture and costumes.Read more ›
Transferring the 16th century theological, political, and moral questions of a Marlowe play into 20th century cinematography was never going to be an easy task. It's perhaps relevant to consider the relative absence of Marlowe from the cinema - he does not transfer well, not in the way Shakespeare manages. Here, Richard Burton gives us a low-budget adaptation of an Oxford student production which leaves you wondering, if it's tedium enough to have to sit through your child's school play or musical, why would you want to subject yourself to this?
What we get is an obviously finance- and imagination-challenged extravaganza of gaudy images and kaleidoscopic camera mixes which obscure and overburden an over-Burtoned monologue. The music score attempts to impart some gravitas to the production but in places becomes a relentless drone. The sets appear claustrophobic and fragile; the low level lighting, far from adding atmosphere and a sense of bleakness, seems designed to conceal the inadequacies of the set from full view.
Much use is made of skulls and skeletons, symbolising mortality and the fragility of the human condition, but it becomes a hackneyed caricature of death and damnation, its use as metaphor overstated and oppressive. 'Hamlet' demonstrated the dramatic use of a single skull; here, we get hundreds - some press reviews comment that these reduce the film to a Hammer horror burlesque, but it's less animated, less atmospheric than a Hammer production.
Burton is the only professional actor in the film - the rest were Oxford students. Elizabeth Taylor, of course, is present as Helen of Troy; she appears from time to time as Faustus's idealised woman. But Taylor's presence was solely to provide a marketing ploy - this is a Burton/Taylor movie!Read more ›
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