It takes a brave man to direct his first really big picture in black and white when the movie going public has been used to colour in the cinema for over 40 years, but that is exactly what David Lynch did with 'The Elephant Man', which was released to an unsuspecting world back in 1980. Okay, he'd made 'Eraserhead' before that, but he prefers not to mention it. Cue someone with an adenoidal intonation to say “Actually, that's my favourite film of all time”.
Not only was it asking a lot of the cinema audiences to fork out their hard earned cash to watch something not in colour, but it also proved to be a practical problem for the production as no film lab had a black and white 35mm processing line left in operation. In the end, good old Rank Film Labs (now DeLuxe Labs) out at Denham set up one especially for Brooks Films. That's another strange thing about 'The Elephant Man'. It was produced by a company owned by legendary funny man Mel Brooks. Not a lot of people know that (apologies to Sir Mike).
Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of John Merrick (John Hurt under a pile of prosthetic), a hideously deformed creature who is exploited by a showman called Bytes (the great British character actor Freddie Jones) as an exhibit from which he extracts his livelihood. Watch out for a very young Dexter Fletcher (Hotel Babylon) as Bytes' boy, a dirty faced street urchin.
Merrick's appearance is apparently linked to his pregnant mother being trampled by elephants, as explained in the somewhat dream like opening sequence.
Merrick is discovered by young surgeon Sir Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), while scouring the Victorian backstreets for an 'oddity' to present to the Pathological Society of London in an attempt to further his own career.
After a deal is struck with Bytes, Merrick is admitted to the East London Hospital for treatment of his Bronchitis. Assumed to be a simpleton, the hooded and cloaked figure of 'The Elephant Man' (an iconic image used to promote the movie) is eyed suspiciously by Matron Mothershead (Wendy Hiller, no less) and his presence is duly noted by Dr Francis Carr Gomm (Sir John Gielgud), Governor of the hospital.
On his recovery, Merrick proves he can speak (with difficulty) and also that he can read. Despite his tortured looks he reveals himself to be an intelligent man and when word gets out of his presence, all of London society wants to meet him as the latest distraction to fuel their idle tittle tattle.
He hasn't escaped the attention of the Night Porter at the hospital, played in classic bully boy style by Michael Elphick (remember 'Boon'?), who charges admission to all sorts of scumbags and ne'er-do-wells to gawk at his attraction in the dark evenings.
Upon discovering this, Treves reflects that he himself has become no better than the seedy, sleazy Bytes.
Eventually Bytes reappears and takes his sideshow to Europe where Merrick is badly treated and becomes ill again.
As the movie unspools, our sympathy for Merrick grows and we see him as a human being rather than a gargoyle. It seems ridiculous to attribute this to the acting ability of John Hurt as he is unrecognisable under all the make up, yet a lesser actor in the role would have caused us to focus on the make-up and would not have been able to project the feelings with which the audience can empathise. It's a very touching performance and we grow to hate those who simply see him as an object with no sensitivity.
Throughout the tale, we see a framed drawing hanging in Merrick's quarters of a child asleep in a bed, something that he longs to do but he has to sleep upright due to the size of his head.
He is visited by celebrated actress Mrs Kendal (Ann Bancroft, Mel Brooks' wife) who gives him the collected works of Shakespeare and she recognizes in him a gentle spirit.
A visit to the Theatre in the company of Princess Alex introduces Merrick to the delights of the creative world and we witness his reactions, like a child discovering something new and wonderful. To preserve the freshness of the movie for the generations who may have missed it until now, I won't reveal the ending but anyone who doesn't have a lump in their throat just isn't human.
The black & white widescreen photography, courtesy of Cinematographer Freddie Francis, is simply stunning. This is not your grey, boiled up excuse for monochrome. It is both lit and framed with the care and attention to detail that only an 'old school' lighting cameraman can bring to a production. Freddie Francis had moved on to become a director in his own right but returned to the camera for 'The Elephant Man'.
The film is truly beautiful to look at.
The whole production looks fantastic thanks to the old London warehouse locations used, which sadly no longer exist. Office buildings now stand where the link with Victorian London once stood.
A derelict East London hospital, complete with beds still in place, was used for the interiors of the London Hospital and gave the film a realism that no studio set ever could.
Anthony Hopkins plays Treves as a man who discovers himself as he grows through knowing John Merrick. Hannah Gordon, who we don't see very often these days, is excellent as his wife. Freddie Jones is in despicable form as the gin soaked parasite Bytes. Need I go on? The whole cast is excellent and it is so good to see so many great British faces in this movie directed by a young (at the time) unknown American.
Despite the acting credits, there's no doubt that the success of the movie largely depended upon the work of make-up designer John Tucker, who was given access the plaster casts of John (Joseph) Merrick's limbs taken after his death.
There are many things to recommend this film, as witnessed by the fact that it was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, yet strangely it won none.
It is a touching story of a sensitive, cultured mind trapped in a twisted body and while the film deviates from real life, it communicates the cruelty inflicted by mankind on the gentlest of souls.
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