Criterion Prediction #187: The Elephant Man, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Elephant Man
Director: David Lynch
Cast: John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, John Gielgud
Synopsis: Dr. Traves (Hopkins), a surgeon, rescues a deformed man from an abusive and degrading freakshow. As Traves studies the deformities, he develops a kinship with the man, known as John Merrick. Based on the real events that followed Joseph Carey Merrick and Frederick Treves in late 19th century London.
Critique: If someone asks me, “What’s your favorite David Lynch movie?”, I usually can’t land on a title because the answer to that question changes every couple of years. A couple years ago I would have said Blue Velvet. If you asked when I was seventeen, it would have been an empathic Eraserhead. While it’s tempting to crown The Elephant Man as Lynch’s subjective best, it’s almost an abstract qualifier. Still, the director’s sophomore title is easily one of his best features. Lynch is rightfully hailed as an artist both on and off screen and The Elephant Man retains what would be his trademark aesthetic indulgences. But the final product is a shared canvas, in terms of authorship. This is as recognizable as any of Lynch’s work but its impact is heightened due to the collaborative nature of the movie.
With The Elephant Man, it feels like Lynch had a place to let his creative instincts run wild but in the structure of Victorian London with a biographical story. In the long annals of the stranger than fiction territory, the tale of Merrick is tailor made for the sensibilities of the director. The industrial backdrops that Lynch bathed in for his maiden feature Eraserhead are cranked up to eleven and buttressed by visual chops in what would be a fruitful partnership with the cinematographer Freddie Francis. The avant-garde horror aesthetics of Lynch and the more classic Amicus/Hammer veteran director/DP Francis unleash waves of enveloping atmosphere, at times stately and strikingly composed and at others steeped in surreal expressionism. The Elephant Man is a darkly lyrical and even heartfelt journey unlike anything that came before or after.
Hopkins delivers a subtly brilliant performance as the humanistic surgeon Treves, Bancroft is a treat as usual and, of course, Hurt’s transformative presence is unforgettable.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: The film’s merits on its own serve as a Criterion worthy qualifier and, given the growing presence of Lynch in the collection, there’s no doubt that The Elephant Man would be a celebrated inclusion. But on a more legitimate note, there’s no legitimate Blu-ray of the film released in North America. Plus, seeing as it’s streaming on the newly anointed Criterion Channel, who’s to say it’s not en route?