When renowned scholar Faustus is honoured with a Doctorate at the University of Wittenburg he reflects on his academic achievements. A master of all he has studied, his life feels empty and lacking in worldly pleasures. His excessive pride and arrogant self-belief mask the concerns of others when he turns towards the dark arts for fulfilment, his interest in magic soon turning into a fully-fledged affair with necromancy.
Summoning Mephistopheles from hell itself, Faustus sells his own soul to Lucifer in exchange for 24 years of unlimited knowledge and base pleasures. But all too quickly the years pass and when it is time for the bargain to reach its reckoning, Faustus realises too late how much he has squandered his life, damning his soul to an eternity in hell.
Wow. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? And, given that Marlowe wrote this somewhere around 1590, pretty ahead of its time. One of the greatest mortality plays ever written, Dr Faustus has influenced so much of what we consider to be the horror genre. And a good version can still scare the bejeesus out of you.
This 1967 film co-directed by and starring the late, great Richard Burton is not a good version…
Lifeless, lacking in atmosphere and bound by its theatrical roots, this Dr Faustus is about as scary as jam biscuit but, to be fair, it’s actually a filmed record of a stage version which Burton performed with the Oxford University Dramatic Society, a run which itself garnered mediocre reviews. That the members of that society perform the other roles in the film explains why the acting isn’t exactly riveting, although the one performance which does shine is that of Andreas Teuber as the tortured Mephistopheles. The sets look theatrical as does the lighting and heavy make-up. What cinematic choices are utilised look gimmicky and the whole doesn’t gel as a piece of theatre or cinema.
Oh, and then there’s Elizabeth Taylor. She crops up as the spirit of Helen, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, all heaving bosom and longing looks, given that she has no dialogue, and looking like she’s stepped out from the set of Cleopatra. If it wasn't so dull it would camp but it doesn't even achieve that.
What’s more, this DVD release has no extras.
This theatrical masterpiece of its age, easily on a par with some of the best of Shakespeare, deserves a decently cinematic version but this, sadly, needs a good doctor to pump some life into its veins.
DOCTOR FAUSTUS (1967) / CERT: / DIRECTOR: RICHARD BURTON, NEVILL COGHILL / SCREENPLAY: NEVILL COGHILL / STARRING: ELIZABETH TAYLOR, RICHARD BURTON, ANDREAS TEUBER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW