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Doctor Faustus (February 22/04)

Based on the 16th century play by Christopher Marlow, Doctor Faustus ranks among the worst stage-to-screen adaptations churned out by Hollywood. Marlow's hopelessly outdated text is certainly a contributing factor, but the scenery chomping central performance by Richard Burton and the flimsy sets also weight heavily of the sheer awfulness of the movie.

Though the story is a fairly simple one - a man sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for youth, knowledge, and a beautiful woman - the script's allegiance to Marlow's play turns the movie into an almost incoherent experience. Unless one is intimately familiar with the source material, it's virtually impossible to discern what these characters are prattling on about. The interminably talky nature of the story is exacerbated by the complete lack of plot, as the majority of the movie follows Faustus as he talks and talks (and talks) about nothing in particular. None of this dialogue has any meaning; it's mostly introspective soliloquies that might have worked on the page, but come off as pompous on screen.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the film's visual look is exceedingly unpleasant and garish. Co-directors Burton and Coghill's overindulgence in '60s gimmicks - the two even utilize a kaleidoscope effect, for crying out loud! - give the movie a dated feel (though it's highly unlikely that the film looked good even upon it's original release). Not helping matters are the sets, which look as though they were picked up on the cheap from Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The only way these sets might have worked would've been on very darkly lit stage, but even that's pushing it.

And then there's Burton's performance, which is a marvel of unrestrained histrionics. He hits all the wrong notes as Faustus, turning the character into someone that we're never convinced is an actual person. There's nothing in his actions or words that makes him seem like anything other than the creation of a 400-year-old dead guy. Impossibly irrelevant, the character's slow descent into the netherworld is often interminable - and the fact that we're rooting for him to just die already probably doesn't help. Elizabeth Taylor pops up as Helen of Troy, a role that requires the actress to merely stand around looking "sexy." Her presence is baffling, especially when you consider that she has exactly one word of dialogue, but it's probably safe to assume she agreed to appear only because of her then-husband Burton.

Doctor Faustus is a complete misfire on every single level, a failure the likes of which most supposedly bad movies can't even come close to. Even fans of Burton would be well advised to keep away, unless you absolutely must see everything he was in.

no stars out of

About the DVD: Columba Tristar Home Entertainment presents Doctor Faustus with a newly remastered letterboxed transfer, along with several bonus trailers (From Here to Eternity, Suddenly Last Summer, and The Eddy Duchin Story).
© David Nusair