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DOCTOR FAUSTUS (directors: Richard Burton/Nevill Coghill; screenwriters: Nevill Coghill/from the play by Christopher Marlowe; cinematographer: Gabor Pogany; editor: John Shirley; music: Mario Nascimbene; cast: Richard Burton (Doctor Faustus), Elizabeth Taylor (Helen of Troy), Andreas Teuber (Mephistopheles), David McIntosh (Lucifer), Jeremy Eccles (Belzebub), Ram Chopra (Valdes), Richard Carwardine (Cornelius), Patrick Barwise (Wagner), Elizabeth O’Donovan (Empress), Adrian Benjamin (Pope); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Richard Burton/Richard McWhorter; Columbia Pictures; 1967-UK/Italy-in English)
“Weighed down with tedium and old-fashioned dialogue (using the verse’s ‘Old English’ language) that worked on the written page but is misplaced on the screen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Richard Burton co-directed along with Nevill Coghill (Merton Professor of English at Oxford) this curious curio version of Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century play of Doctor Faustus that’s weighed down with tedium and old-fashioned dialogue (using the verse’s ‘Old English’ language) that worked on the written page but is misplaced on the screen. It’s filmed in Rome and records a performance given by Burton at Oxford University in 1966 with the entire cast, except for Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor, Oxford University amateur actors from their Dramatic Society. Burton hogs the pic by having almost all the dialogue, but his famed acting chops are not enough to erase the production’s vulgarity, futility and boredom. Liz is a mute in this one, as she dons different disguises to attract a voyeuristic Burton on the prowl for a good piece of flesh.

An elderly German medieval scholar of alchemy, astrology, and philosophy, Dr. John Faustus (Richard Burton), the esteemed professor of Wittenburg, conjures up in his workplace a would-be servant named Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber, an Oxford student), dressed in black friar robes, and makes a blood pact with Lucifer’s lackey to sell his soul to the Devil to sate his insatiable quest for knowledge, beauty, power and a return to his youth. Faustus then goes on a search for beauty and wisdom, while Mephistopheles shows his master the seven deadly sins. Eventually Faustus conjures up Helen of Troy (Elizabeth Taylor) and is so taken with her beauty that he plans to become her lover. When Faustus’ time is up after 24 years, he descends to hell as was worked out in the pact with the Devil.

The ill-advised low-budget inert film, more like a home movie with Hollywood stars slumming around with Academics in a high culture offering, features garish photography, talking skulls (something the Hammer studio would have in its tawdry horror flicks) and trick kaleidoscope effect photography from the 1960s to take the viewer’s mind off Burton’s constant one-note chatter. Those gimmicks backfire and cheapen the endeavor to a point that makes its artiness seem more worthless than a snowball in hell.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”