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In the nineteenth century, the renowned professor of anatomy Dr. Thomas Rock gives classes to neophyte medicine students at the local university. Dr. Rock uses his assistant Dr. Murray to buy corpses for his experiments from body snatchers paying a little fortune for the cadavers. When the alcoholic scum Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom overhear the conversation of grave-robbers about Dr. Rock, they decide to supply fresher corpses that are worth more to the doctor, killing the poor inhabitants. Dr. Murray has unrequited feelings for the cockney whore Jennie Bailey that usually hangs around with the prostitute Alice. When Dr. Murray discovers that Fallon has just sold the corpse of Alice, he seeks out the worthless Fallon and Broom to stop them from murdering Jennie. Will he arrive in time to save Jennie?Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Inspired by the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox, noted Welsh writer and poet Dylan Thomas wrote the screenplays for The Doctor And The Devils in 1953 shortly before his death. Thirty-two years later Thomas screenplay, with work done to it by Ronald Harwood, was finally produced for the screen. That film stands up, twenty-five years after it was made, as a fine example of period drama brought splendidly to life.
The screenplay is brought to life wonderfully by its cast. Timothy Dalton, himself a Welshman, plays anatomist Dr. Thomas Rock as a man so passionate and desperate to learn more about the human body that he resorts to paying grave-robbers to do so. Dalton brings a strong presence to any scene he's in and his background as a Shakespearean actor is put to good use in scenes such as his opening of the lecture that starts the film or his final piece of narration as the film ends. Believably playing versions of the infamous body-snatchers are Jonathan Pryce and Stephen Rea as Robert Fallon and Timothy Broom, respectively. Both Pryce and Rea share fine chemistry on screen, making them believable as friends turned body-snatchers with Pryce playing up Falon's obsessiveness and Rea Broom's cowardice. The supporting cast is just as splendid as well including Julian Sands as Rock's troubled assistant Doctor Murray, Patrick Stewart as fellow anatomist Professor Macklin, Beryl Reid as one of the body-snatchers victims, Phyllis Logan as Rock's wife, Siân Phillips as Rock's troubled sister and the singer Twiggy as Murray's prostitute girlfriend in a performance that proves every once in a while a singer can actually act.
Period dramas rely heavily on their production values almost as much as their cast to bring them to life believably with this film being no exception. In particular the production design of Robert Laing and Imogen Richardson's costumes come together to bring to life the two clashing worlds of the film: the clean and cultured world of Doctor Rock and the dirty, grimy world of Fallon and Broom. The cinematography of Gerry Turpin and Norman Warwick helps to aid the production design and costumes as well while the editing of Laurence Méry-Clark bring pace, energy. Tension and even horror to those distinctly different worlds. The film is effectively scored by John Morris, including his haunting main title music. All this under the fine direction of Freddie Francis, himself an Oscar winning cinematographer in his own right. When put together these various elements insure that The Doctor And The Devils is well served by its production values.
The true building block of the film is of course its script. Written by Thomas, with work done by Ronald Harwood, the script is an intriguing fictionalization of the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox. Presumably this fictionalization was done by Thomas to allow him to play a bit loose with the facts and explore the themes he wanted to explore. As a consequence, the film is very much centered around Doctor Rock, a cultured man who believes in the advancement of knowledge at all costs as stated eloquently in the character's opening lines. Yet this belief leads him into murky moralistic waters when Fallon and Broom begin bringing him bodies that don't seem quite right and Rock turns a blind eye to the questionable actions of the two men despite the warnings of those around him. The film also looks at Fallon and Broom, men of the grim and filthier side of London who take up body-snatching and indeed murder for a bit of Doctor Rock's money. Or at least until things go wrong and their biggest attributes, Fallon's obsessiveness and Broom's cowardice, threatens to destroy them. It is the scripts exploration of how the cultured, nobly minded but possibly amoral Doctor Rock is, in his own words, brought down into the slime that bred Fallon and Broom that lies at the heart of the film rather then the murders and body-snatching of "the devils" he employed.
The Doctor And The Devils is not only an intriguing fictionalization of the tale of 18th century British body-snatchers Burke and Hare and their benefactor Dr. Alexander Knox but also a fine piece of period drama. This is thanks to the fine performances of its three lead actors, its supporting cast and its fine production values that brings the worlds of 18th century London to life. It is the Dylan Thomas (and Ronald Harwood) script though, with its exploration of the dangers of science without conscience and its consequences, that truly makes the film standout. Fact is stranger then fiction and, though fictionalized, The Doctor And The Devils proves that saying is still true twenty-five years on.
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