Hammersmith is Out (1972)

Article 4371 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-19-2013
Directed by Peter Ustinov
Featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter Ustinov
Country: USA
What it is: Darkly comic allegory

An aide in an insane asylum is promised power and riches by an inmate. He springs the inmate, and the riches start rolling in… but the inmate’s methods of acquiring them are highly questionable…

Richard Burton must have loved the Faust story, only five years after having done DR. FAUSTUS, here he is again in another variation on it. The big difference is the switching of roles; he played the Faust character in the earlier movie, and here he is playing Mephistopheles. Granted, the movie is no straight telling of the story; it is, in fact, downright strange, and it is one of those movies that I would imagine would alienate quite a few people. I found it rather engrossing, myself, partially because the movie is full of interesting lines of dialogue and partially because it’s one of those movies where Burton turns on the quiet intensity, and that’s when I like him best. Peter Ustinov does a weird turn as the Doctor of the asylum; allegorically, he is God in this one. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance is not bad, but I will admit to being put off a bit by it; it’s not the type of role I would imagine her playing. Beau Bridges is effective as the crass bumpkin who becomes Hammersmith’s pawn.

The fantastic content is a little more difficult to pin down, and it may not qualify. Despite the fact that the Faust story has plenty of fantastic content, that’s not explicit in this symbolic take on it. There’s the theme of madness here, and Hammersmith may be looked on as a serial killer, though the fact that he only kills to accomplish his chosen ends rather than as a psychological compulsion makes that less likely. Actually, the most telling clue that the fantastic content may be real is a single line from Burton’s character in which he describes human beings in a way that implies that he himself is not one of them. At any rate, this might be an interesting choice to watch if you’re into quirky, dark allegory.


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