The Elephant Man endears as one of my favourite films of all time because it exemplifies what makes a great film – taking traditional stories, themes and genres told in unconventional ways. Here David Lynch’s marriage of his avant garde peculiarness with the weepy triumph of the human spirit story of John Merrick, the physically deformed circus performer who went from circus freak to Victorian celebrity, is as an inspired cinematic concoction as there ever has been.
The Elephant Man (1980) dir. David Lynch
Starring: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Jones, John Gielgud,
By Alan Bacchus
Cudos to Mel Brooks, the zany humourist who ventured (anonymously) outside his comfort zone to produce this feature as a humourless melodrama, taking a chance on an inexperienced director with no other credits than the delriously experimental Eraserhead. What about Eraserhead convinced Mr. Brooks that David Lynch was the man to tell a melodramatic Victorian period film? Who knows, but it proves the best producers are the best discoverers of talent. Arguably Mel Brooks discovered David Lynch.
Talent and cinematic bravura is in every frame of Elephant. While David Lynch gained prominence later with his satirical and surreal examinations of midwestern Americana in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and The Straight Story and the mysterious and brooding seediness of Hollywood in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, the memorable devices, themes and aesthetic which make those films so memorable are all present in The Elephant Man.
Based on the actual accounts of John Merrick David Lynch traces the story of the grotesquely malformed man from the depraved depths of a travelling circus to the unlikely heights of British upper class soceity. Before any of this happens Lynch announces himself with a typically Lynchian opening sequence, driven my the heavy buzzing of Alan Splet’s magnificant sound design we see an impressionistic flashback of sorts of Merrick’s mother being struck down by an elephant, a tall tale recounted by Merrick’s ‘proprietor’ Bytes in his Elephant Man stage show act. The introduction and first reveal of Hurt in full makeup as the Elephant Man is glorious. The vibrant depiction of Bytes’ circus troupe is rich with seedy carny details, flashing lights and carnival sounds rounds out the entire experience. And Freddie Francis glorious B&W anamorphic photography blinds us with pristine brilliance.
But it’s Anthony Hopkins' close up as Dr. Frederick Treves’ reacting to the deformed Merrick for the first time which astounds us most – a bold camera push in punctuated by a tear drop sliding down Mr. Hopkins’ face. It’s melodramatic moment, grandiose and leaving nothing between the lines, but a moments which boldly signals the modus operandi in this film. As we get to know both Treves and Merrick and the coterie of characters who either exploit or ameliorate the man Lynch hits his beats on the head leaving nothing to our imagination. But even as Lynch embellishes the obviousness of his heady themes and twisted ironies, there’s an awareness of this grandiosity, subverted with his avant garde experimental leanings.
As mentioned part of the Lynch experience is his glorious sound design, in partnership with longtime collaborator Alan Splet. Aside from the opening sequence one of the memorable Splet/Lynch moments is the transition from Treves’ first examination of Merrick in his office to his introduction/presentation to his hospital colleagues. Lynch’s camera ominously pushes into the rectangular eye hole of Merrick’s hood. And when puncuated by Splet's crackling sounds we can’t help but think of Lynch’s probing of the cut-off ear in Blue Velvet.
I could write an entire review of the hypnotic finale, a tear-gushing sequence after Merrick's resounding return to London and first visit to the theatre, welcomed by a standing ovation by the theatre audience. That’s a moving climax, but the sequence afterward is exquisite and simply one of the most powerful endings to a film – ever. The motions of Merrick laying himself down to bed, in concert with the Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio For Strings practically pulls the tears out of the audience. Any other filmmaker would have ended the film when the camera titled up out the window, but Lynch keeps the scene going taking us into space for an ending into the existential ether. The stuff masterpieces are made of.