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The Elephant Man

Studio Canal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 118 mins . M . PAL


Back in the heady movie climate of the tail end of the 1970s, most film producers had their minds on things of the future - anything to do with adventure in outer space was happily give the green light in the wake of the success of Star Wars, the sequel to which was in the process of being completed. Comedic writer, producer and director Mel Brooks, meanwhile, had other things on his mind. While renowned for the hugely successful satirical movies that he had been directing himself, Brooks was also planning to get into the game of producing other films - serious films. And the script he chose to mark his entry into that more serious world was quite unique.

While it had been previously produced as a Broadway play, the story of John (originally Joseph) Merrick has never been properly told on stage or film. Merrick, living in the London of the late 19th century, was afflicted by a very rare congenital disease that severely deformed his face and body as well as partially crippling him. But far from receiving any kind of medical care or support from society, Merrick was “bought” by a carnival freak show proprietor, who proceeded to tour him around the country on display as an object of absolute revulsion. Dubbed the “Elephant Man” due to the physical characteristics of his deformities, Merrick lived a lonely, silent and empty life until he was spotted by Dr Frederick Treves, a resident at the London Hospital, who initially presented Merrick to his colleagues as a medical curiosity, only to soon learn of Merrick’s true intelligence and capability for friendship. Yet even given a new, civilised life with Treves’ help, Merrick was still the subject of curiosity of the worst kind.

For The Elephant Man, Brooks made some key decisions before production began that would prove to be exceptionally insightful. Firstly, he chose David Lynch as director. Lynch, at the time known only for his utterly bizarre and visually adventurous Eraserhead, had never tackled a conventional dramatic film before. Brooks also decided that the film would be shot in black and white, and indeed the film’s monochrome widescreen imagery (sumptuously photographed by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis, who also delivered the exquisite imagery for Scorsese’s Cape Fear and who more recently re-teamed with David Lynch on The Straight Story) does much to lend the production both atmosphere and credibility. Lynch, for his part, directs the script almost as a stage play, but with the aid of some surreal moments that recall the work the director is more renowned for. Economical yet exceptionally stylish, Lynch’s work here is the very seed of what he would later do with Blue Velvet.

This film, though, really belongs to the actors - particularly John Hurt as Merrick. Hurt is unrecognisable under a mountain of make-up and prosthetics (designed from actual plaster casts of the real Merrick’s head) yet he manages to convey the character’s impossibly deep emotions with ease, using both movement and voice to get across what would usually be said with facial expressions. Hurt justifiably one a British Film Award for his role at a ceremony where the movie also scored Best Film and Best Art Direction (the film was also nominated for eight Academy Awards; it won none of them). Anthony Hopkins as Treves is a spot-on balance of compassion and professional drive, while there’s able support from luminaries such as John Gielgud, Freddie Jones, and Anne Bancroft. Keep an eye out, too, for a very young Dexter Fletcher (later seen in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels) as well as Star Wars robot R2-D2 himself, Kenny Baker…!

While the subject matter sounds like heavy going, The Elephant Man is actually an intensely moving, often uplifting film, though ultimately this story is a tragedy. One of the all-time classics of British cinema - and also one of David Lynch’s finest films - it’s a work that, over 20 years after it was made, still works as well as it did on the day of its release.


Universal’s long-awaited DVD of The Elephant Man uses a 16:9 enhanced video transfer done at the Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1, a format that is essential to the enjoyment of this film. Lynch has always used the widescreen frame to full advantage, and while his framing isn’t as extreme here as it was on Blue Velvet, it’s still a travesty to see this movie in anything other than its full widescreen glory.

The transfer comes from French company Canal Plus, who released this very same version on DVD in France (the movie, originally produced by EMI films, has seen release at various times by Warner, Columbia, Canal and now Universal!). And while it’s a very fine telecine transfer that looks fabulous on DVD, it’s important to point out that, for whatever reason, a theatrical print appears to have been used here. The end result of that is some occasional unwanted visual distraction, mainly in the form of very slight vertical film scratches (some of which were clearly on the original camera negative, others just as obviously print damage). There does appear to have been some kind of subtle digital cleanup done on this print, as well as some rather too-obvious edge enhancement and the occasional bout of aliasing on finely detailed scenes, but taken overall the transfer actually looks very good, not least because DVD handles a black and white film image so wonderfully well.

While not perfect, this is the best The Elephant Man has ever looked on home video - the tonal balance is lovely, and there’s certainly plenty of detail in dark scenes (some of which are deliberately overexposed, washing out blacks to a very cinematic murky grey) and surprisingly, given the source, there are no reel change markings visible. The print used is also refreshingly free of flecks of dust, dirt and scratches. There is, though, some minor telecine wobble at times, mainly visible on the opening credits.


More disappointingly, the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track on this disc contains a Dolby Surround audio track sourced directly from the optical audio of the film print itself. This is plainly apparent right from the opening credits, when the telltale sounds of optical audio track damage can be heard - essentially, a lot of crackling and clicking. This happens at the start of every reel and continues for some time, though it does eventually settle down. It’s not as annoying as you might think, but it’s a crying shame that a magnetic master couldn’t have been used for this transfer.

As a result of the use of an optical track, frequency response is very limited, rolling off at around 15KHz. Despite that, dialogue is generally crisp and clear (the exception being Hurt’s dialogue from behind his make-up, which occasionally is muffled and hard to understand; this is, though, the way the film was originally recorded) and the innovative sound design (by Lynch and the late Alan Splet) still manages to have its intended impact.


Some static but nicely designed menu screens lead to a disappointing absence of extras features on this disc. Aside from a slightly staid but generally well-done trailer (preceded by the original EMI logo, it’s in excellent shape and presented at 2.35:1 as well as being in 16:9 mode), there’s a photo gallery with eight fairly small images (probably sourced from publicity stills) and six biographies and filmographies for the principals - David Lynch, Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud and Anne Bancroft. A commentary track would have been most welcome, but to date Lynch has shown no desire to do one for any of his films.


The Elephant Man is an exquisitely made, emotionally powerful piece of cinema that holds up as well today as it did when it first made its way onto the screen. Universals’ DVD release of the film is very welcome, and while the source material is far from perfect, it’s still of high enough quality to finally show off the technical brilliance of this film on home video. For those who’ve never seen this film before, this disc should prove to be a revelatory experience.

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      And I quote...
    "...an exquisitely made, emotionally powerful piece of cinema that holds up as well today as it did when it first made its way onto the screen."
    - Anthony Horan
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