Doctor Faustus (1967)

2010 #23
Richard Burton & Nevill Coghill | 92 mins | DVD | PG

Despite the numerous film versions of the Faust story, this is the only one that adapts Christopher Marlowe’s A-level-favourite 1588 play. It’s a shame, then, that it’s heavily edited from the original text and, despite also being a filmed version of the Oxford University Dramatic Society’s 1966 stage production, has clearly been inappropriately chosen as a vehicle for then-couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Burton plays a suitably reverent version of Faustus, though is never less than able to convey his varied moods, from confidence, often underscored with insecurity, to repentant regret, to childish tomfoolery. Stuck with numerous long speeches, however, there are occasions when his delivery — and consequently the film — slip briefly into insomnia-curing monotony.

Meanwhile, the play’s lack of a significant female role makes Elizabeth Taylor’s presence rather unusual. Marlowe’s text has been tweaked to allow Taylor to crop up frequently as ‘Helen of Troy’. As well as appearing in original scenes that feature Helen, co-writers/directors Burton and Nevill Coghill have inserted her into any scene that would allow it. Such casting across several inconsequential roles, some not even in the original text, effectively creates a new character. Perhaps this adds an extra dimension to Faustus and his goals — attempting to imply a romantic angle — but it comes across as a desperate and unwarranted attempt to make this a Burton/Taylor film.

Elsewhere, Burton and Coghill’s vision of Faustus is stylistically reminiscent of a Gothic Hammer Horror, which is either wholly inappropriate or an ingenious genre mash-up — after all, such a genre-mashing trick has been pulled many a time with Shakespeare over the years. There are repulsively horrific corpses, a harem of naked ladies, an array of special effects, plus a medieval-styled gothic atmosphere to all the sets and costumes, though the scene where Faustus mucks about with the Pope feels more Carry On. Using inanimate objects in the roles of the Good and Evil Angels — respectively, a statue of Christ and a skull — is a small but inspired touch.

These aside, there’s a surprising emphasis on special effects: a skeleton that turns into a rotting corpse (click the link at your own discretion); skulls that pour imagined gold and pearls from their mouths; cuckold horns that retreat into nothing; and so on. One might think this is purely to buoy up the Elizabethan language for a wider audience, and one isn’t necessarily wrong, but considering Elizabethan theatre-goers enjoyed their gory effects as much as modern audiences clearly do, their inclusion isn’t incongruous. There’s certainly some visually impressive stuff on show, much of it suitably horrific — one often wonders about the PG certificate.

An even greater deviation than the effects is how much has been cut out — in a word, loads. Most of the comic scenes are gone (some of their humour wouldn’t translate today, making those a wise excision, but others are missed), and much of what Faustus does during his 24 extra years on Earth is missing too. Some of the cut scenes are among the most easily-enjoyed parts of the play, though would certainly lighten the tone. Perhaps they just didn’t have any money left for the further special effects required. The trims extend as far as the final scene, which also loses some of the play’s best bits. It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the play would notice the omissions (having not read it for a good few years there weren’t many I missed), but returning to the text after seeing the film I realised how disappointing some of the cuts were.

Perhaps they were designed to focus the film more closely on the Faustus/Mephistopheles relationship, perhaps just to heighten the presence of Helen by losing scenes she couldn’t have been shoehorned into; but in the process it both loses some of the best material and destroys any hope the film had of being a definitive filmed version of the play. Ultimately, such oversights proved to be the final straw for the film’s already-tenuous grip on a three-star rating.

2 out of 5

Jane Eyre (1944)

2008 #12
Robert Stevenson | 96 mins | download | PG

Jane EyreI was meant to read Jane Eyre in the first year of my degree, but, given a week to attempt what seemed a positively enormous tome (I partly blame the edition) and a coinciding essay deadline, I didn’t even attempt it. Instead I settled for a friend summarising it for me — I tuned out halfway through the very long retelling due to boredom, though whether that was the fault of the novel or its summariser I still don’t know. I finally got through Jane Eyre the year before last — not the novel, though, but the BBC’s apparently-definitive adaptation (has it been that long already!), following numerous extremely positive reviews at the time. That was good — because or in spite of the novel, I do not know.

And so I come to this version, made in the wake of Rebecca (ironically, a novel clearly inspired in part by Jane Eyre) and also starring Joan Fontaine, alongside Orson Welles as the brooding love interest, Rochester. Well, he’s supposed to be brooding, but as played by Welles he comes across as merely gruff, apparently with a slightly unusual fake tan. Despite a suitably dramatic entrance, Welles’ stilted and occasionally overplayed performance, as well as a lack of chemistry with the equally weak Fontaine, does nothing to liven up what is already a rather uninspired production. The first 20 minutes are, at best, a Dickens rip-off, though without the appropriate comeuppance for the villains; in this version, it’s less Dickens and more obscene Christian morality play, complete with flat performances and (obviously) an over-reliance on God.

This section moves slowly… and then so does the rest of the film. Considering I’m primarily comparing this hour-and-a-half version to a four-hour miniseries, that’s quite a feat. The plot’s twists and revelations are all sadly underplayed, removing much of their dramatic effect; the same can be said of the abrupt ending. Perhaps there was an assumption that the audience would already be familiar with them, but true or not their weakening helps ruin this interpretation. And that’s all without mentioning the atrocious French accent of Adele, Rochester’s young ward, which often sounds as much like a bad Welsh accent as a French one.

All round, then, a very poor effort. A handful of redeeming features (the odd nice bit of cinematography, brief flashes of some decent performances) keep it from quite sinking to the lowest mark.

2 out of 5

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

2008 #5
Guy Hamilton | 105 mins | TV | PG

The Mirror Crack'dA star-studded cast and the director of Battle of Britain, Goldfinger and three other Bond films can’t raise this adaptation of an Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery far above the level of an ’80s TV movie.

There are some good lines, and it’s a Christie so obviously the fundamental story is good, but the direction is flat and lacks suspense, half the cast phone in their performances, and Angela Lansbury, lumbered with a sprained ankle and premature aging, seems to be in a dry run for Murder, She Wrote. The lack of involvement by the main character is something I always find problematic with Marple stories, even when the actress involved has the necessary twinkle. Edward Fox is her match as the detective who actually does most of the detecting for once (but is still robbed of the final revelation, of course).

The best bit, which I’ll just take a moment to highlight, is the opening. It’s a black & white murder mystery, the scene of the final revelation… and the print burns up just before the killer is revealed. The film cuts to a village hall, where the film was being screened and the projector’s just died. Miss Marple proceeds to explain what will happen to everyone, based on what she’s deduced from the film so far. A man at the back who’s seen it confirms she’s right. Much better than my summary makes it sound, this is by far the film’s highlight, one of the few whole scenes that rises above the pervading flaws.

Despite a few commendable elements, this is a good tale that’s not told as well as it could be.

2 out of 5