The Elephant Man is an example of how not trying to do too much is sometimes the most you can do. Today, we see David Lynch as a director who never really just “pulls a Lynch.” There always exists separation from one movie to the next, and although you can easily draw comparisons and common themes through his body of work, it’s hard to call any one film the “most Lynchian” of the bunch. But in 1980, Lynch had one feature, the bizarre, brilliant Eraserhead, and a handful of shorts (most notably, The Alphabet and The Grandmother). He was belated heir to the surrealist throne, and if he ever abandoned that title (to Guy Maddin, perhaps?), he certainly claimed the title as the most popular surrealist. The Elephant Man, Lynchian in mood and mise-en-scene but narratively straightforward, is a large part in giving Lynch the latter crown. With $25 million at the box-office and 8 Oscar nominations, Lynch was a star, and it was also clear that there was more than just a weird, creative mind at work—Lynch absolutely understands how to craft a picture.
You can say what you will about the script’s relentless sentimentality or about the pro-bourgeois subtext, but Lynch certainly did his part. The black and white of The Elephant Man is not quite noir but certainly has expressionist influences—notice John Merrick, the titular character, hiding in the shadows and even being showcased as one early on in the film—and it thus creates a very grim but realistic look. In the first half hour particularly, before you see Merrick’s (John Hurt) face, The Elephant Man plays as some kind of modernist horror film, relying on shadow and Lynch’s customarily excellent sound design to unsettle and fascinate the viewer before they really know what the film is about. When it finally becomes clear that the film is not only about Merrick’s integration into society, but also about his helper Frederick Treves’ (Anthony Hopkins) moral confliction, the transition is seamless so much as to be nearly undetectable as it is happening. What is left, with the same frightening cinematography, is a moral drama wondering whether anything separates Treves from the man who used to showcase Merrick at a circus, as well as a tearjerker about a gradual societal acceptance (among some) of Merrick and the ins-and-outs of his character. Merrick responds to affection and demonstrates a surprising amount of intelligence, but Treves is showcasing Merrick too, the biggest difference being in theory more than practice.
The Elephant Man is admittedly a bit self-aggrandizing in both routes, but Lynch’s sure hand keeps the levels in check. The film has an evocative, wonderfully orchestrated score (maybe Lynch’s best), but it is particularly potent in a late-stage break-in and impromptu “freak show” that silently makes the viewer draw a line between human and monster. It’s an obvious, even cliché component of so many stories like this one, but that Lynch delivers it purely through selective editing (many of the shots in the sequence are sustained) and a powerful score makes it especially memorable, and it’s timing within the context of the film is particularly smart. The whole film is also aided by the wonderful acting of both Hurt, whose voice work in particular is outstanding, and by Hopkins, who brings a great mix of determination and stubbornness. Together, the two are able to provide an agreeable balance to the film’s two main stories, and it makes the scenes that the two share particularly powerful.
Many have argued that The Elephant Man is just an individual’s pursuit to join the masses, and while technically true, such a simplistic reading is removed from reality. Merrick is not a symbol of the lower-classes, but of the disenfranchised, the discriminated, and the ignored. His plight to be like the others, to enjoy the theater and drink tea, is one that echoes the oppressed and persecuted the world over. It’s the simple truths that The Elephant Man displays so effectively that make it a noteworthy film. It is finely crafted despite the simplicity of its script; Lynch takes what he is given and runs with it, turning what could easily be melodramatic excess into an eye-capturing dose of humanity.
All this does not make for Lynch’s best film; the script and story issues are valid and it’s far from his most creative and stimulating work, but it is an emotional film that showcases Lynch’s versatility and puts his film-making, not just his mind, at the top.