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The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man

By Kyle Barrett • January 26th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release:: October 10th, 1980
Running time: 124 minutes

Director: David Lynch
Writers: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
Composer: John Morris

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Sir John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones

The Elephant Man

In today’s world, it’s hard to see compassion in others. We see films that distract us, myself included, to take our minds off the cruelties of reality. It’s very rare that a film can both engage and entertain us. David Lynch, one of the most challenging U.S. filmmakers in history, uses his artistic talents to give us one of the most engaging, and enduring films, ever made.

I was introduced to The Elephant Man by a friend who called it the saddest film he’d ever seen. Brushing this off but remembering what he said, I picked it up and was a crying wreck by the end. It’s at times beautiful, horrifying, hilarious and ultimately, melancholic. Lynch isn’t afraid to show brutal images. His future films Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) have some of the most horrific images ever committed to screen, despite the fact they’re never identified as horror films.

Lynch stunned audiences around the world with his debut, Eraserhead (1977), with its surreal, grotesque imagery that’s ingrained on the minds of those who watch it, myself included. It took 5 years to complete due to funds continuously running out and was unleashed on the world, becoming a staple on the midnight movie circuit. A strong cult following continues to this day and launched the filmmaker as the master of surreal cinema in the U.S.

Lynch took an unexpected turn with his next project, developed through Mel Brooks’ new production company Brooksfilms, by Stuart Cornfeld and Jonathan Sanger. He was introduced to the project by Cornfeld, and later, Brooks’ wife Anee Bancroft got hold of the script, loved it and passed it on to Brooks himself, who took it to many studios. At first, Brooks was hesitant to hire the somewhat unknown Lynch at the time. A screening of Eraserhead was held for Brooks who afterward ran out, arms wide open and embraced Lynch, calling him a mad man and hired him on the spot.

The Elephant Man

It was a departure in style for Lynch. However, The Elephant Man remains very much an identifiable Lynch film. The industrial setting, Victorian England, the fantastic sound design by Alan Splet and images of the grotesque are all Lynch hallmarks. Aided by Freddie Francis’ fantastic, crisp black and white cinematography it creates a somewhat gothic world. The setting feels like a sister world to the world created in Eraserhead. The large machinery and steam feel like part of Harkonnen planet in Dune, Lynch’s next project.

When we watch The Elephant Man, we see Lynch developing his skills as a director. Even though it’s his second film, it feels as if it was created by a veteran in their craft. The smooth panning shots, long takes and almost expressionistic lighting make fascinating images. They build up to reveal Merrick was handled with expert precision by Lynch. At first, we get just glances with heavy shadows on Merrick’s figure. Then, we see on a silhouette as Treves holds a lecture on Merrick’s deformities. It’s not until we have a nurse (Nula Conwell) deliver food to his room do we finally see Merrick in his entirety. Though it feels like a suspenseful build up, as in a horror film, the reveal is fast, getting it out of the way. We’re relieved and we ourselves get over his appearance. Christopher Tucker’s make-up design is grotesque. However, it’s John Hurt’s innocent eyes that make us see the beauty of Merrick.

As the film progresses, revealing more about Merrick and his intelligence, we’re brought back down into the darkness of his life when the evil Night Porter (Michael Elphick) a very-Lynchian villain, starts up his own sideshow, bringing in drunks and whores to view Merrick in his room. Bytes (Freddie Jones), Merrick’s previous The Elephant Manowner and proprietor of the sideshow in which he was the main attraction, is similar to the Porter in his torment of Merrick. Bytes does genuinely care for Merrick, however, much like an abusive husband, he views Merrick more as property.

Lynch has always gone for dark and light; look at the opening sequence of Blue Velvet, a sickly sweet small town in America, with white picket fences and cheery citizens. It’s undercut with close-ups of bugs in the grass, then, later, ants on a severed ear. The Elephant Man’s night time sequences are the most horrific. The torment unleashed upon Merrick is the most barbaric, disgusting thing about the film. We’ve cared so much for him and for him receiving this treatment, is like a friend being attacked in front of your eyes.

I was most moved by the performances in the film. Hurt, much like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), is able to convey pathos, pity and the spirit of a kind and gentleman under mountains of make-up. I was touched at what Hurt could do with a simple gesture, or look with the eyes. He created a character that distracted from the make-up. Hopkins plays Treves in an understated manner, he’s a complex character and we question his motives throughout the film, however, we also believe he’s a good man. Hopkins says very little and when he does he makes it matter.

John Gielgud portrays Carr Gomm, Treves’ superior. Gielgud, the great Shakespearian actor, again, underplays his part. He manages to create a fully rounded character, despite being in a supporting role. Gomm, who at first didn’t want to have Merrick in the hospital, warms toward him, as we do. As he grows to appreciate and The Elephant Manrespect Merrick, so do we. Jones as the almost tragic Bytes is a knock-out. His relatively small role is able to show various sides to Bytes’ character. He’s vicious, twitchy and nervous. The sequence where he confronts Treves is genuinely tense and the fear in Hopkins eyes is all too real.

Elphick does more with what could’ve been a one-dimensional role as the horrible Porter. There are moments, particularly when he first meets Merrick that he might even respect him. In the later parts of the film, he becomes more villainous, finding new ways to torment Merrick. These scenes make Elpick a stand-out. The Porter relishes this and when the confrontation between himself and Treves arrives, we relish the consequences.

The Elephant Man is a great piece of filmmaking. Lynch, with only his second film, proved he could handle less surreal narratives yet maintain his artistic integrity. The cinematography, the performances and music by John Morris create a harrowing but fulfilling sequence. I was in tears at both the beauty and sadness at the end and I’m sure many others will be too when they’ve watched this.

The Elephant Man

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett

Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.

He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.

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