Doctor Faustus (1968)

February 7, 1968 (New York Times Review)

Screen: Faustus Sells His Soul Again:
Burtons and Oxford Do the Devil's Work

"DOCTOR FAUSTUS," starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, is of an awfulness that bends the mind. Born of a theatrical performance that the Burtons gave at Oxford in 1966, the movie (which had its premiere last night at the Cinema 57 Rendezvous, and which opens tonight at the Baronet) presents itself as being as faithful as cinematically possible to the play by Christopher Marlowe.

But either Richard Burton, who plays Faustus, wished himself, understandably, in some other part, or Nevill Coghill, Merton Professor of English at Oxford, who adapted the play, was anxious to improve the text a little. Because at one point Faustus unaccountably begins the beautiful "Is it not passing brave to be a king/And pass in triumph through Persepolis?" speech from "Tamburlaine." And at another, he grimly speaks the "Back and side go bare, go bare" song from "Gammer Gurton's Needle." The whole enterprise has the immense vulgarity of a collaboration (almost Faustian, really) in which Academe would sell its soul for a taste of the glamour of Hollywood; and the stars are only too happy to appear awhile in the pretentious frier's robes from Academe.

The Burtons, both of whom act themselves as carried over from "The Comedians," are clearly having a lovely time; at moments one has the feeling that "Faustus" was shot mainly as a home movie for them to enjoy at home. One or the other of them is almost constantly on camera—in various colors, flavors, and shades and lengths of hair. Miss Taylor, who never speaks a word, plays almost all the female parts, from Faustus's devil wife through Helen of Troy and Alexander's Paramour. In this last role, she is, for some reason, frosted all over with silver—like a pastry, or a devaluated refugee from "Goldfinger."

Burton, who has almost all the lines (the play has been quite badly cut) is worse. He seems happiest shouting in Latin, or into Miss Taylor's ear. The play's most famous, lines sound like jokes in the context of so much celebrity: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" Well, no, one wants to say, but all the same …

The movie (directed by Burton and Coghill, and produced by Burton and Richard McWhorter) is full of all sorts of cinematic rococo touches (screens within crystals, and eyeglasses and eyes of skulls), which should be appropriate to the necromantic aura of the text, but are not. here is some horrible electronic Wagnerian theme music, by Mario Nascimbene. here is also one fine, very pious performance as Mephistopheles in friar's robes by Andreas Teuber, an Oxford student.

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