Judge Dan Mancini weighs the benefits of this DVD against torment in the pit of Hell for all eternity.
The Classic Truth of Good and Evil.
Facts of the Case
Deeply unsatisfied with God's decree that the reward of sin is death, Dr. John Faustus (Richard Burton), a scholar at Wittenberg (Hamlet's alma mater, no less), opts to cut a deal with Lucifer. The contract—signed in Faustus's blood—stipulates that the doctor receive the services of Lucifer's lackey, Mephistophilis, for a period of 24 years, during which he may exert his will over kings and Popes, acquire untold wealth and power, or let loose in an extended bacchanalia if he so chooses. In return, Lucifer receives Faustus's renunciation of Christ and, at the end of the 24 years, the doctor's soul, which he may torment in the pit of Hell for all eternity.
Let the fun begin.
I've never subscribed to the view that Christopher Marlowe would have been a greater playwright than Shakespeare had he not been stabbed through the eye by his buddy, Ingram Frizer, while bickering over the tab at a pub in Deptford in 1593. By extension, I've never bought the tasty tale that Marlowe wasn't murdered at all, but was Britain's first superspy, faking his own death on that fateful night so he could go into deep cover, doing his duty for the Queen in the years that followed while continuing to write plays under the nom de plume William Shakespeare. At the time of his death, Marlowe was better than Shakespeare, who was just getting started, but even his best stuff lacks Shakespeare's almost preternatural psychological insight, as well as the aggressively playful use of language that would eventually elevate the Bard over his peers. Such plays as Tamburlaine the Great and The Jew of Malta firmly establish Marlowe's drama, and his talent, as second only to Shakespeare's, but they've never convinced me he'd be the cornerstone of British literature if he'd had a longer career. Great as he was, Marlowe, like every single one of his contemporaries, would eventually have been eclipsed by the Bard, no matter how long he'd lived.
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is among Marlowe's most renowned works, and Doctor Faustus is Richard Burton's (The Night of the Iguana, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) 1967 film adaptation of the play. Burton's version is slightly expurgated (eliminating the play's chorus, in particular, though putting some of the chorus's dialogue in the mouths of other characters) in order to deliver a 90-minute film, but otherwise faithfully maintains Marlowe's poetry. The actor/director cast himself in the lead (fair enough, considering his quality), and utilized the Oxford University Dramatic Society as the remainder of the cast. It was a pragmatic decision, both artistically and financially. The play is dominated by the central character of Faustus, leaving little room for a second heavyweight talent. Plus, there's no doubt the Dramatic Society actors were more familiar with the text than Hollywood stars would have been, and they must have been considerably less expensive. Andreus Teuber, with his angular features and shaved head, is particularly effective as Mephistophilis. It's the second largest role next to Faustus, but still too small and one-dimensional to imagine someone like John Gielgud having any interest in it. In the film's single piece of stunt casting, Burton uses his two-time wife, Elizabeth Taylor (Giant, Cleopatra)—the film was shot smack-dab in the middle of their first marriage—to fill multiple non-speaking female roles, and to act as Faustus's dark muse and erotic obsession. It's an interesting twist on Marlowe's play, but is made less effective by Taylor's star power, not to mention the fact the material simply isn't designed to deliver the romantic chemistry one imagines when teased with the notion of a Burton-Taylor team-up.
The film remains mostly stagebound, a concession to the limited budget, I'm guessing. Burton and co-director Nevill Coghill make use of vivid lighting in garish reds, purples, and oranges to fudge their way past the cheapness of the sets as well as underscore the oppressive, cloistered nature of Marlowe's themes. Optical effects in the form of superimposed images are used to streamline the story and make the film feel more cinematic, but Burton and his cohort go overboard until the technique feels gimmicky and forced, like bad sleight of hand. Despite their best efforts, the movie plays like a competently filmed play. More inventive use of the camera would have created a more cinematic experience than stylized lighting and cheap special effects ever could. And, anyway, the stagy production design is no stumbling block to the drama, so the attempts to mask it are just annoying.
The film's major fault is exactly the sort we'd expect from an egocentric lead actor who's also chosen to play director. Burton grasps the doomed character of Faustus, and turns in a strong performance, but the rest of the film is flat, entirely missing the tone of Marlowe's play. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus has always been noted for the relish with which it treats its protagonist's period of sinful self-indulgence, despite the morally affirming ending that was an absolute must for Elizabethan drama. Sure, the play explicitly asserts that turning from Christian morality and selling one's soul to the devil is a bad thing, but one also gets the sense that Marlowe didn't necessarily buy his own ending. Scenes in which an invisible Faustus bombards the Pope and his bishops with baked goods, or in which he torments an arrogant nobleman by giving him antlers, are lifelessly rendered in the film. They lack the irreverent exuberance implicit in Marlowe's text. Burton appears intent on whizzing through those scenes which would allow supporting actors to flex their comedic muscles so he can get to Faustus's pleading and lamenting at play's end. Nothing about the Dramatic Society's actors suggests they weren't skilled enough to leaven the scenes with more humor. Rather, the scenes themselves are poorly staged and conceived. Worst of all, they make Marlowe appear a stuffy old bore, which he wasn't.
Columbia's DVD of Doctor Faustus presents the film at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The film appears unrestored, as the source contains a fair amount of dirt in spots, and the image has a coarser patina of grain than desirable. The good news is that colors are fully saturated and accurate. The deep reds and oranges and purples of the stylized lighting and set design are beautifully rendered. Audio is presented in a clean and acceptable two-channel mono.
In the end, Richard Burton's take on Christopher Marlowe's take on the Faust legend is hit-or-miss. It's not a disaster, but I can't imagine it having much appeal to anyone besides fans of Elizabethan drama. Anyone picking up the disc because of the prominent placement of Elizabeth Taylor's face on the cover (not to mention the Baz Luhrmann-style "Richard Burton + Elizabeth Taylor" across the top) is bound to be disappointed.
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