Doctor Faustus (Richard Burton) is an ageing university academic who is being lauded for reaching the pinnacle of knowledge, but as he is carried shoulder high he notices two ne'erdowells who snidely point out to him there is even more he could learn. Thus inspired, he realises that the books of mankind cannot tell him everything and he could use more supernatural means to get what he wants: access to the sort of information that is usually only of access to God Almighty - or the Devil himself. To that end, he begins his arcane rituals which will make him the most intelligent person on the Earth, though there's the matter of what he has to give in return to reckon with: he must give up his very soul…
Something about the Faust legend evidently appealed to Richard Burton, for he chose the subject of Christopher Marlowe's play of centuries before as the perfect material for him to adapt for the big screen. Consider this: a man who is blessed with supreme talent and ability uses it to great acclaim, then he gives in to the lure of fame and the most beautiful woman in the world, whereupon his chickens come home to roost and he is damned from then on. Did Burton see much of himself in Faust? It's tempting to think so, indeed he would return to the subject five years after this for the obscure Hammersmith is Out!, a movie which turned the Faust tale into a comedy, though those who saw it would dispute that description with some disdain.
Mind you, this telling was far more high profile since anything he and his wife Elizabeth Taylor did was hitting the headlines: he had gone from the potential heir to Olivier and Gielgud on the stage to a worldwide joke regarded as squandering his mighty talent, and nothing he could do could change the minds of the cognoscenti. He did have his fans, however, and they would turn out in droves for something like Where Eagles Dare, a blockbuster he did purely for the money and was starting to hate himself for that kind of well-paid but artistically wanting work. Hence he turned to the bottle, and stories of his hellraising became legendary even before he was raising actual Hell in this pet project, naturally termed a vanity project by his critics. All this would make you feel he was an underdog and deserved a little respect.
A little respect for tackling the classics, anyway, but though he had the assistance of theatre expert and all-round clever clogs Nevill Coghill for his direction, he really needed a bigger budget to do Marlowe justice in the way he obviously wanted to. Therefore, the impression this effort gave was if Edgar Allan Poe-era Roger Corman had opted to translate his own vision of the play to the screen, and that was not as satisfying as it may sound; it was colourful enough, and much use was made of cheap but fairly effective visual effects, but it didn't half look impoverished, as if Burton had shown up in an amateur movie by a bunch of students. Indeed, many of the cast really were drama students he was giving a break to, including future seventies Doctor Who star Ian Marter; Maria Aitken was supposedly in there somewhere as well.
Taylor was there too, in a variety of unspeaking guises from Helen of Troy to the Gorgon Medusa, even painted silver in one scene, but this looked like stunt casting rather than sincere support for her spouse; her movie star charisma was plain to see, but given so little to do other than be decorative was a waste of her time, even if her faith in Burton was touching. As for the critics, you could discern a great satisfaction in the sequence where Faustus is turned invisible by his demonic enabler Mephistopheles (Andreas Teuber) and got to blow raspberries in amongst the supposed intellectuals and keepers of the flame of accepted taste and learning, but it was a childish response overall. It was possible to relish the dialogue from the source text spoken in Burton's rich, inimitable style, but even here he went over the top with it, as if not wholly trusting himself to put it across with the correct gravitas. A curio for actor fanciers, but sadly also a marker of the decline of the Welshman's career, as almost everything he did after falling hard for Taylor was. Music by Mario Nascimbene.