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Of the many films they made together, nowhere is the seductive power of Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Elizabeth Taylor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) better showcased than in this brilliant adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s classic play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. First dramatized in the 16th century, the legend of Doctor Faustus is the immortal tale of a German conjurer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a life of adventure and excitement. It has proved to be one of the richest legends of our time, inspiring countless plays and motion pictures. In this classic version, Burton stars as the aging scholar who makes a deal with the devil for youth, knowledge and a dazzling mistress. But when Faustus begins to regret his decision, the devil's assistant, Mephistophilis, sends Taylor as the spellbinding seductress who seals Faustus’s fate. This lasting achievement is distinguished by its visual beauty and the great performances of Richard Burton a
An adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe masterpiece, Doctor Faustus allows Richard Burton (who also co-directed) to sink his teeth into one of the great theater roles, with loyal wife Elizabeth Taylor along for the ride. Now, there were a few good movies and many follies born of the epic marriage of Burton and Taylor; Faustus is one of their most curious progeny. Alas, Burton's performance is hardly scaled back from a big, bellowing stage turn, while elsewhere the film fails to work up the most rudimentary cinematic life. And Liz? She keeps appearing, wordlessly, as a sexed-up dream temptation for poor Faustus, and finally as Helen of Troy, of "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" fame. The only real fun to be had here is wondering whether Burton saw the project as a metaphor for his own career: a man who sold his soul in return for earthly pleasures... as embodied by Elizabeth Taylor. --Robert Horton
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For those of you who don't know the story (at least as Marlowe wrote it), it's basically this. Faustus is a known and respected scholar who feels that the legitimate knowledge of this world is not enough. After talking with some 'under the table scholars,' he makes a deal with the devil so that he can have unlimited knowledge. But somewhere along the line, he forgets his original goal and starts to indulge himself in amoral and sick practical jokes. Finally, so many years later, Faustus realizes the horror of what he has done, but repentance comes too late, and the devil gets his due.
Richard Burton portrays the role of Faustus quite well. From his early arrogance, to his degenerating indulgence, to his final moments of terror. (This is often seen as one of the highest points of Marlowe's writing.) Elizabeth Taylor has no lines. But she does portray her role of the distracting temptress as well as can be expected without any opportunities to speak. Mephostophilis is an interestingly complex character. On one hand he is the agent of Lucifer following directions to move Faustus to damnation. But we don't really get the impression that he's enjoying it. And towards the end, we can sense some sadness and regret on his part.
Overall, the movie follows Marlowe's play quite well, and it gives me little to complain about. However, there are a few things. I feel the march of the 7 deadly sins could have followed Marlowe's writing better. It's important because it provides some comic relief. But it also helps us to see just how much Faustus has degenerated by his delight at this spectacle. Also, some people (myself included) could be disappointed by the absence of the scene where Faustus sells an innocent bystander a horse that disappears when he is ridden through water.
Finally, I think the movie moves just a little too quickly. Part of what makes this play so great is the gradual pace. There is the eerie start where Faustus sells his soul; he starts to regret it, but then he is side tracked by the 7 deadly sins which shows his degeneration. Then for the 3rd and 4th act, Faustus (and the reader) seem to forget about what has happened as Faustus starts to indulge himself in amoral and sick practical jokes. It isn't until the 5th act where reality starts to reenter and Faustus starts getting concerned about the coming consequences of his actions.
The movie (at 90 minutes) seems to move too quickly. There's hardly any time between when Faustus makes the unholy pact and when he starts to become frightened of the coming consequences.
It's not perfect, but it's still a great film that tries to be faithful to what Marlowe wrote. And even though I have some complaints, I can still suggest the film.
Richard Burton's intense portrayal of the title character is a joy to behold and serves as a vivid reminder of just what a charismatic performer he was. His glorious voice speaks the Elizabethan text as if it were everyday conversation but with a power and conviction that must be heard to be believed and thanks to the optional DVD subtitles you can follow along as he speaks if you wish. The rest of the cast is made up of members of the Oxford Dramatic Society and they fulfill the other roles satisfactorily with Andreas Teuber an absolute standout as a melancholy Mephistopheles. Burton & co-director Neville Coghill remove the comic episodes between the serious scenes which streamlines the play and makes it a more manageable length. Chances are no one will redo Marlowe's play on film anytime soon and so there is even more reason to celebrate this version which clearly shows what the play has to offer as a great precursor to Shakespeare and how to make a major film on a minor budget.
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