David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) follows the life of hideously deformed John Merrick (John Hurt), and his trip from circus freak, his salvation through the intervention of a wealthy doctor (Anthony Hopkins), and his introduction into London society. Based on factual writings and not on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play that had come out a year earlier, THE ELEPHANT MAN is a first-class film all the way.
Lynch, whose only previous film was the 1977 cult film ERASERHEAD, directs with sensitivity and keeps his trademark surreal images to a minimum, complemented by Freddie Francis’s stunning black and white cinematography. The performances are uniformly excellent but the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Hurt’s soulful portrayal of Merrick, a performance whose emotion is conveyed strictly through the eyes that peek out from under pounds of latex makeup.
John Morris‘s Oscar-nominated score is also a standout, capturing all the pain and poignancy of Merrick’s story. The opening credits begin with a haunted carnival waltz in minor mode. Morris has said that finding the right tone took several weeks. “The theme had to convey someone who worked on the edges of the circus and the melody had to be poignant.”
The theme goes through many permutations throughout the film. In the main titles, it serves as Merrick’s theme within the carnival world. As the film opens, we hear the waltz as a music box. “I wanted to evoke the Elephant Man’s childhood and his life with his mother,” said Morris. In the film’s most harrowing scene, the tune is given an evil spin as a group of freak-seekers burst into Merrick’s room, twirling him around, dousing him with liquor, and forcing him to see his frightening reflection in a mirror.