The Elephant Man

I Am Not An Animal!

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.

The Elephant Man CD
“The Nightmare”
“Recapitulation”

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.

Morris’s brilliant score captures the poignancy of the story without overly manipulating our emotions. The music is beautiful enough to wrench even the most hardened of hearts.

  1. You didn’t mention the film’s most memorable score moment: Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

    This is a great score and a great film. Hurt is outstanding, of course. But Anthony Hopkins’ performance is absolutely beautiful as well.

    1. I didn’t mention the Barber moment for a couple of reasons. The post was about this one particular scene. And as effective as I think the Barber is (I defy anyone not to shed buckets of tears), I would have preferred an original cue from Morris. The piece took me out of the story a bit. I suppose if you don’t know the piece it might not have that effect. Still, even with that quibble, it’s a very moving scene and the Barber is used very effectively. And I agree about Hopkins’s performance.

  2. Loved the play. Hated the movie. I’d seen A.C.T.’s phenomenal production on stage in San Francisco about a year prior to the film’s release, and I’ll never forget how aghast I was when I witnessed Lynch’s dreamchild, a queasy hybrid of stately, Oscar-bait production values butting heads with the director’s edge-of-reality demesne. It wasn’t until Lynch was untethered enough to call his own shots with the masterwork “Blue Velvet” that I began to understand and gratefully admire his unique vision, but that doesn’t discount the fact that “The Elephant Man,” a film that fairly wailed for a button-down translation, had already been fucked up.

    Same goes for Morris’ score, a carnivale pastiche that simply didn’t jibe with what I had personally envisioned for the film of Merrick’s life. It feels oddly cheap and blowsy and queer, and it’s infected with the same dissociative sensibility that I believe sours the clash between Edwardian London and the Oz of Lynch’s making. Not bad, per se. Just … wrong.

    My favorite Morris: “Young Frankenstein.” Playful, bittersweet, affectionate, and haunting — a serious comedy score.

    1. Wow, Steve, we totally disagree on this one! I too saw a production of the play, at Dallas Theatre Center. I was moved by the play and I like how Bernard Pomerance left it up to the audience to imagine what they saw. But I also appreciate Lynch’s film version. And since it wasn’t based on the play, I won’t even compare the two.

      I personally think Lynch is self-indulgent director and ELEPHANT MAN is the only film of his I can stomach. And while I agree with you that the story calls for a “button-down” telling, because of the almost “supernatural” nature of the lead character, I allow his bizarre touches. In my opinion, being tied to a story helped rein in the bizarre excesses that plague his later films.

      As for Morris’s score, except for the misstep of including the Barber, I enjoy every note. Perhaps it’s because the music recalls a movie that affected me so profoundly then and still affects me today. Considering Lynch’s vision, I think the carnival atmosphere is pitch-perfect. And I think it’s one of the most haunting themes I’ve ever heard.

      I will agree with you about YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Great film and Morris’s score is perfect. As you said a “serious comedy score,” and years before Elmer Bernstein got all the credit for doing the same thing with AIRPLANE.

      (By the way, I had to look up “demesne.” You learn something new every day. LOL)

  3. Pistols at dawn, Lochner. The American cinema is desperate for more visionary auteurs like Lynch. Even his messes are fascinating failures, and the great ones are genius: “Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” Brilliant all. And without them, we’d be denied the music of Angelo Badalamenti!

    Apology accepted. ;)

    1. Well, that’s six hours right there that I’ll never get back. And I’m not too keen on Badalamenti either.

      Outside of ELEPHANT MAN, the only way I’ll ever sit through another David Lynch film is if you rig up a contraption a la Malcolm McDowell in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

      So I guess the only apology (and I use the term loosely) is “Sorry, not convinced.” :)

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