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Doctor Faustus (1967)

The Liz and Dick show continued with this movie that comes off as if it’s an experimental horror film mixed with Shakespeare though it’s really 16th Century’s Christopher Marlowe’s penmanship and whatever else Burton’s stage presence could bring to this production. One that saw Burton scoring both a producer and a co-director’s credit alongside the film’s writer Nevill Coghill.

Now just what the hell is going on for half of the film’s 92 minute running time is anyone’s guess cause I sure as hell don’t know. Now having said that I still got caught up in this film that almost feels as if it was produced by horror specialists Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg for Amicus Films. As it is it’s a medieval tale of Burton’s aged Doctor Faustus who teaches at a school for learned young men. It’s here that he will strike a bargain with Lucifer’s bald headed emissary Mephistophilis played by Andreas Teuber for his youth and anything he desires for the next 24 years. The price of course is his soul and he’ll agree to this by signing the contract parchment in his own blood.

“Despair in God and trust in Beelzebub”

And with that Burton’s grey hair and lined face disappears to become the 42 year old screen icon that movie goers of 1967 knew well. It’s at this point that this stage production caught on film turns to haunting hallucinations and strange voices playing tricks on Burton’s sanity. It’s also about this same time that Mrs. Burton, Liz Taylor will begin to appear in various costumes and skin colors as she represents the ideal woman of Burton’s desires.

Besides Liz coming and going in Burton’s dream sequences, the seven deadly sins will surface as does borrowed footage of knights clashing on a battlefield. Just not sure what movie the stock footage is from. Many of these sequences that see Burton and Mephistophilis appearing in different settings are rather bizarre and again I’m not sure where we’re heading in many of them until Liz appears and Burton gets all weak in the knees.

Still to come is Burton’s having to pay his debt in a very effective finale when a green colored Liz will come to drag him to the fiery depths of hell. A green Liz? Paging William Shatner!

I’ve never been confused with someone who knows or even understands his Shakespeare, and this tale from Marlowe kind of falls into that same category. That’s mainly because I’ve never understood the language even if it is English. And yet to hear Burton speak these tongue twisting soliloquys is music to the ears. After all his voice was his greatest instrument. It’s ironic that he carries the majority of the dialogue and lovely Liz never utters one word throughout the entire film.

Alongside the powerful presence of Burton I felt the real star of the film was the set decorator, Dario Simoni. Apparently Dario had a knack for this type of production as he also served in the same capacity on titles including The Agony and the Ecstacy, John Paul Jones and a previous Liz and Dick effort, The Taming of the Shrew.  The colors are vivid and the film transports us back to the sixteenth century surrounded by appropriate props in the background of Burton’s chambers and the many journeys he takes in his hallucinations. The timely musical cues of a harpsichord are right at home.

The eerie start of the film with a skull and candle figuring prominently had me recalling the 1965 Amicus thriller, The Skull. It also had me thinking that had I seen this film as a youngster in the late 70’s it probably would have scared the hell out of me even if I really didn’t understood what was going on. No it didn’t scare the hell out of on this first viewing and though I did understand the general theme of the story, there were plenty of moments that had me scratching my head and checking the running time as I hung in to the end.

Turns out after a quick bit of research that Burton had played the role on stage in a 1966 production and for this filmed version he employed amateur actors from the Oxford University Dramatic Society to flesh out the roles. Faustus would prove to be the only film that Burton ever directed putting him in a class of successful actors like Jack Lemmon, Peter Lorre and Anthony Quinn who themselves only ever directed one feature film.

The Burton-Taylor era famously began on the set of 1963’s Cleopatra and would continue on for a total of eleven films during their stormy relationship and two marriages. To this day they remain a popular topic for film fans, writers and even filmmakers. A recent book titled Furious Love was a bestseller and a made for cable tv production was well done. Appropriately titled Burton and Taylor.

Looking for an inexpensive copy of this Burton-Taylor teaming? I found it on this Mill Creek four pack of Liz titles.

8 Comments »

  1. Great writeup, Mike! I never had interest in seeing this, but now I do, so bravo. Never seen “Boom” either, or “The Taming Of The Shrew”. I did like “The Comedians”, and enjoy “The Sandpiper”, though I guess I’m not supposed to. Not crazy about “The V.I.P.s”, but I am a fan of “Cleopatra” and love “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” Cheers, Mark

    • I used to love the spectacle of Cleopatra as a kid having no idea that it was a colossal bomb and nearly buried a studio. lol. I’ve missed most of their movies but have seen The Comedians and The Sandpiper for the Bronson factor miscast as he is.

  2. Well, after reading this I had to go check…how many Burton-Taylor pairings have I seen? The answer: a big zero. Looking over their films together, I’d be interested in seeing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and ‘The VIPs’, but this one you reviewed might be a bit too whacked for my tastes. It’s too bad Taylor wasn’t in ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’…I could’ve at least had ONE on my seen list. I do love that foreign one-sheet, though.

    • Liz in The Exorcist/ She’d have wanted to turn the clock back and play the Linda Blair role! lol. Surprised you never saw Cleopatra somewhere along the line; Used to be on regularly here in two parts if I recall correctly.

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