When it was first released in 1967, Richard Burton’s film version of Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was pretty soundly trounced by the critics. And while from today’s perspective it’s not hard to see why, it is hard to understand how they didn’t at least recognize they were in the presence of a bona fide cinematic two-headed cow. Possibly they were too wrapped up in Burton’s one really, really wrong-headed decision (his others being merely really wrong-headed, or just wrong-headed) to notice much else.
Since the film was made at a time when Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were in between divorces, he opted to cast Liz as Helen of Troy — and as a variety of other women of somewhat vaguer origin throughout the film. No doubt her presence made it easier to sell Columbia on this wigged-out artistic enterprise, especially coming on the heels of the couple’s tandem appearance in Zefferelli’s The Taming of the Shrew. Still, it was an artistically disastrous choice … especially coming on the heels of their tandem appearance, etc.
Not only is Taylor’s presence a distraction, it’s downright funny seeing her pop up all over the place as the embodiment of everything that’s desirable in a woman. Jumping with the Burtons from the period comedy of Shrew to period horror-tragedy about a fellow who sells his soul to the devil was bad enough. That Liz would say nothing, but only wander through a variety of sets in a variety of makeup and costumes made it even worse — especially in this threadbare production where you keep expecting her to take a page from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and observe, “What a dump!”
Frankly, it might not have been that out of place in this odd amalgam of high-toned drama and campy ’60s sensibility. Yes, this is a respectable adaptation of the Marlowe play, but Burton and co-director Nevill Coghill opted to open it up, and to tart it up. Some of this approach is effective — Faustus’ walk through the stars with Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber) is nearly brilliant (at least until Taylor flounces through) — but the overall effect is like a cross between a garishly colored Hammer horror film and a textbook example of ’60s hallucinogenic trendiness.
And in some ways, that’s the film’s most fascinating aspect of all. It’s undoubtedly better than the ham-handed slapstick where an invisible Faustus indulges in some pie-throwing antics with the pope and his bishops — a potentially great sequence that’s too clumsy to be funny because Burton has absolutely zero feeling for this kind of comedy. (The wonder is that he thought he did.)
Calling the film uneven is a kindness, but that doesn’t keep Burton’s attempt to bring Marlowe to the screen a positively mesmerizing experience that … well, has to be seen to be believed.
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Doctor Faustus at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 17, in the Smoky Mountain Theatre at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, then turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to Lake Pointe Landing entrance and park in lot on left.)]
– reviewed by Ken Hanke