I never fail to be very moved by this wonderful film - the casting, performances, production design and cinematography are pitch-perfect. Everyone feels exactly right for their roles.
It was Lynch's first proper mainstream film with someone else's script, and his first after Eraserhead. Lynch speaks glowingly of Mel Brooks' support for the film and relates an incident where his heart sunk when he realised Brooks had gone to a private screening of Eraserhead. He thought he was finished, no hope of landing the job. However, when Brooks emerged from the screening, he hugged Lynch and said how daft he was and he was perfect for The Elephant Man (or words to that effect).
Much of the Victorian England scenery has pre-echoes of late 20th century industrial decline that Eraserhead is infused with, with belching chimneys and clanking clocktowers. Lynch was very lucky to have filmed this in 1979, when much of the older building stock was undemolished in London. The Long Good Friday was filmed the same year. Both these films feature a very young Dexter Fletcher (around 13, looking about 9), in the latter film merely a blink-and-you'd-miss-it appearance. As well as the strong male leads, there's great female characters, played by Hannah Gordon, Anne Bancroft and Wendy Hiller, who plays the ward sister to such great effect. A woman who seems a bit brusque and dismissive at first in that classically Victorian manner, but is essentially very compassionate.
I had forgotten Freddie Jones, who plays Bytes, Merrick's cruel master, was in it. I had recently watched his son Toby Jones play the poet John Clare in Andrew Kötting's By Our Selves (where Jones snr makes a short appearance). And, speaking of appearances, it's well known that Bowie played Merrick in an off-Broadway production in 1980, and I couldn't help noticing that a scene early in the film, where the young nurse, played by Leslie Dunlop, drops Merrick's breakfast when she gasps at her first glimpse of him, made me think of Candy Clark's screaming fit in The Man Who Fell To Earth, when she sees Newton's true appearance.
I was always confused by his apparent suicide at the end, where he wants 'to sleep like normal people' - why would he do that when he was so happy (having returned from the standing ovation for him at the theatre). However, it seems, where the facts were concerned, he was discovered in his clothes on top of the bed, not in it, and at a diagonal across the bed, as though stalled in an attempt to raise himself, whereupon he died of asphyxia at just 28.
John Hurt relates a story about memorabilia he kept from the film, which included the cast of Merrick's cranium. It was left on top of a wardrobe in a small flat he had in Hampstead. During this time he'd bought a house elsewhere, and someone told him there had been a break-in at the flat, but nothing was taken. What became obvious was that as soon as the wardrobe was opened, the cranium (with hair attached) must've fallen out (possibly in the dark) and given the intruder a hell of a fright, whereupon he took flight. The back door was broken down.