David Lynch was, for the most part, an unknown when Hollywood, specifically Mel Brooks ( of all people !!! ), took him on to direct "The Elephant Man". He had only one feature film under his belt at the time, the incredibly dark, disturbing and hypnotically dreamlike "Eraserhead". Not exactly a precedent for taking on a film of such deeply moving and upsetting emotional tenor, but Brooks had complete faith in him. That faith was paid off in spades.
"The Elephant Man", since deleted by Paramount ( !!! ), is, in my opinion one of the best films of all time. The cast is incredible. John Hurt gives his greatest performance to date and he is completely unrecognizable as John ( Joseph ) Merrick. Anthony Hopkins' Frederic Treves is a study in reserve and restraint with tumultuous emotions and conflicts boiling under the surface. Freddie Jones as the slimy, despicable Mr. Bytes conjurs up both a hatred of his callous, opportunistic exploitation of another man's suffering and something akin to pity for the "losing his grip" desparation he portrays. Sir John Gielgud is Sir John Gielgud, all class, refinement and authority. And Dame Wendy Hiller transforms from a seemingly heartless, officious dragon lady into a woman of true compassion and strength. Finally a special mention of Anne Bancroft's turn as Dame Madge Kendall is absolutely necessary. For it's in the scene where she brings John Merrick the collected works of William Shakespeare and they randomly pick a scene from "Romeo and Juliet" to read from where we have the most heart-rending emotional moment in the entire film. I defy anyone not to be VERY deeply moved, even to tears, when she tells Mr. Merrick " ... you're Romeo".
The film is shot in black and white which is a stroke of genius. All that black, white and gray summons up the grit and inhuman texture of the early industrial revolution in dirty old London. It also functions as a metaphor for the gray areas of moral ambiguity that challenge both the characters in the film and the Victorian mores that alternately reach out to "do the Christian thing" and that see John Merrick merely as a "circus animal".
As "Hollywood" as the film was ( a big budget Paramount picture ) Lynch gets to fly here and the film is absolutely full to the brim with his stylistic signatures. The dream sequences hearken back to "Eraserhead", also in black and white. There are those industrial sounds too, so marvellously recorded and altered by Alan Splet, another "Eraserhead" alumnus. Also a strong visual signifier from the "Eraserhead" palette are the infamous "holes" or openings that, in the Lynch visual lexicon, connote portals of transition to another level of consciousness. What strikes me most here is how EACH AND EVERY shot is a shining example of brilliant composition. Each one is framable and warrants hours of attention. Lynch's vision is almost "Rembrandtian", playing beautifully with stunning contrasts of lights and darks, with chiaroscuro as it were.
"The Elephant Man" is an entirely satisfying, artistically outstanding, and emotionally cathartic experience that stands the test of time with great strength and style. David Lynch's finest work.