100 Film Favorites – #10: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Tim Burton, 2007)
Now, at long last, the moment you’ve all been waiting for is here. That’s right – after more than three months, we’ve finally come to the Brian Terrill Movie Night 100 Film Favorites Countdown TOP TEN.
To kick off our final batch of favorite favorites, we have yet another entry from director Tim Burton. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film adaptation of the 1979 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical of the same name. The story opens with two men sailing into a London harbor aboard a tall ship. The first, a young and idealistic man named Anthony Hope, muses (musically) that he “has sailed the world, beheld its wonders / from the Dardanelles to the mountains of Peru…but there’s no place like London.” His companion, a grizzled older man (Johnny Depp) concurs that “there’s no place like London…I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders / for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru.”
The older man, who goes by the name of Sweeney Todd, recounts a tale of “a barber and his wife,” and in a flashback we learn “Todd’s” sad back story: Once a barber named Benjamin Barker, he ran afoul of the sinister Judge Turpin, who coveted Barker’s wife. The judge (Alan Rickman) had Barker arrested on false charges and transported to an Australian prison colony, where he has languished for 15 years. Now, he has returned under the Sweeney alias with two goals: re-unite with his family and get revenge on the judge.
Soon, Todd is down to just the second goal. Upon returning to his old neighborhood (the titular Fleet Street), he encounters Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), an old acquaintance of Barker’s who now ekes out a living selling “the worst pies in London.” Lovett informs him that, following his transportation, the judge raped Barker’s wife at a party. In the aftermath, Mrs. Barker poisoned herself, and Turpin adopted the Barkers’ infant daughter, Johanna, as his own. Furious, Sweeney takes Anthony under his wing, training him to become the new Zorro and extract mutual revenge…wait, wrong movie.
Same thing, right?
What actually happens is Todd sets about rebuilding his barber business. In the town square, he interrupts a performance by the preeminent local barber/showman/patent medicine purveyor, Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). Todd challenges the flamboyant Pirelli to a contest: Whoever can shave a patron fastest will be declared the superior barber, and if Todd loses he must hand over his valuable collection of vintage silver razors. Though Todd’s preparations are lengthy and slow, he suddenly flashes into action as Pirelli nears the end of a boastful song. Over the course of a single drawn-out high note from Pirelli, Todd completes an entire, lightning-quick shave. Pirelli grudgingly concedes his defeat, and soon Todd’s barber business is booming at his new “Tonsorial Parlor,” located in Barker’s old digs above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Once word spreads of his superior skill, Todd hopes, the judge just might stop by for a visit.
Meanwhile, Anthony has fallen for the now-grown Johanna, whom he spies in the window of Turpin’s house. Anthony’s “gandering” does not go unnoticed by the judge, however, and Turpin has the boy beaten by Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), a corrupt police official whom Turpin has in his pocket. Anthony nevertheless vows that he will find a way to “steal” Johanna away from the lustful judge, who now aims to wed the girl himself (was marrying your adopted children acceptable back then? Experts on early Victorian history, please advise).
Sweeney’s revenge scheme hits a bit of a snag when Pirelli shows up at his barber shop, demanding blackmail payment. “Pirelli” is also living under an assumed identity: he was once the unremarkable apprentice to Barker himself, and recognized his old employer by his ornate set of razors. Since “Pirelli” has now lost much of his clientele due to the stunt in the marketplace, he has decided to exploit Barker’s status as a fugitive to extort money from “Todd.” In response, Todd snaps and bashes Pirelli’s head in with a tea-kettle, slitting his throat with a razor after he stirs a second time. Hearing the commotion, Mrs. Lovett walks in to find the room liberally spattered with blood. Before they have a chance to dispose of Pirelli’s body (or decide what to do with his assistant, a young boy named Toby), Judge Turpin himself strides into the establishment, as he has heard that Todd is “the most accomplished of all the barbers in the city.”
Hurriedly throwing a jacket on over his blood-soaked shirtsleeves, Todd begins shaving the judge. Before the barber can slit Turpin’s throat, however, Anthony barges in to joyfully announce that Johanna has agreed to escape and elope with him. This news infuriates the judge, who brushes off Todd and angrily departs. Seeing his chance at revenge evaporate, Todd is apoplectic with rage. Having an “epiphany,” Sweeney declares that “we all deserve to die,” and he is now determined to kill not only the judge, but anyone and everyone he possibly can. As the internet might say, that escalated quickly.
To cover his tracks, Mrs. Lovett proposes a “delectable” solution: Beginning with Pirelli’s body, she will use her industrial-grade cooking equipment to process the carcasses of Todd’s victims into fresh-made meat pies. Todd converts his barber’s chair into a slide/trapdoor contraption designed to drop fresh corpses straight into Lovett’s basement “bakeroom.”
The new pies, of course, prove highly popular, and business booms at Mrs. Lovett’s pie place. Coupled with the growing renown of Todd’s Tonsorial Parlor, our murderous pair of protagonists is soon in fine financial standing. In fact, their “respectable business” is doing so well that Mrs. Lovett has aspirations of retiring to live in a seaside cottage with “Mr. T” (and Toby, whom she has more or less adopted to work in the bakery). While Lovett is passionate about these plans, becoming more and more overt in her romantic overtures toward Todd, the vengeance-crazed Todd mostly ignores her, simply staring into the distance, his eyes alight with the dull glow of the rage burning inside him.
Everything comes to a head when Anthony stops by to report that Judge Turpin has committed the “uncooperative” Johanna to the Bedlam insane asylum. Sweeney concocts a plan to have Anthony visit the institution, posing as a wig-maker’s apprentice (the hair used to make wigs is shorn from mental patients’ heads). Anthony happily frees Johanna, but Todd has ulterior motives: He writes to Turpin, saying that Johanna has “seen the error of her ways” and is eager to return to the judge. Turpin, Todd says, must come at once to the barbershop to claim his repentant young bride-to-be.
Meanwhile, several people are slowly becoming suspicious of the wild-eyed barber who has so many customers walk into his shop…and never leave. Toby expresses his wariness of Todd to his “mum,” Mrs. Lovett, and when the boy discovers Pirelli’s purse among Lovett’s possessions (a gift from Todd, she says), he vows to tell the police. Mrs. Lovett instead guides him into the bakehouse where she grinds her meat, and locks Toby inside.
Beadle Bamford has also grown suspicious of the horrible stench coming from Todd & Lovett’s chimneys, and comes to investigate. But Sweeney entices him into his special chair, and soon the Beadle’s bloody carcass plummets down the chute and lands in the basement, at the feet of a terrified Toby.
A final nuisance comes from a beggar woman who has long been suspicious of Mrs. Lovett’s operation, appearing throughout the film to cast her angry glances and manically mutter “MISCHIEF! MISCHIEF!” After dispatching the beadle, Todd finds her snooping around, and quickly slits her throat as well, as he spies the judge coming up the walk. Promising that Johanna is excited to reunite with Turpin, Todd invites him upstairs for a quick shave. During a reprise of their earlier duet (extolling the virtues of “pretty women”), Todd stands before the judge and says, “The years no doubt have changed me…”
Turpin finally recognizes the barber he banished so long ago, and has just long enough to whisper “Benjamin Barker…” before the vengeful Todd gives him a big ol’ stab right in the jugular. Blood sprays the camera, and Todd savors the release of a job well done.
But things take an unexpected turn when he joins Mrs. Lovett in the basement. Looking closer at the corpse of the beggar woman, “Todd” realizes that she was actually his wife, who now lies dead by his own hand. He confronts Mrs. Lovett, who states “I never lied: said she took a poison, I did, never said that she died.” Lovett hid the survival of Barker’s wife from him, due to the pie-maven’s own infatuation with the “beautiful” barber. Now, says Lovett blissfully, they are at last free to be married.
Outraged, Todd sweeps Mrs. Lovett off her feet and hurls her into her own oven.
Todd sits on the cellar floor, cradling his wife’s dead body. He doesn’t protest when Toby, enraged by the murder of his “mother,” slinks out of the sewer and slits the barber’s throat with one of his own discarded razors. As Todd’s blood joins that of a half dozen others now drenching his person, the barber slowly dies in the dank basement, amidst a heap of corpses.
Musical theater, everyone!
Like Zorro, the character of Sweeney Todd originated in early 1900s pulp magazines, and there have been numerous adaptations of his sordid tale throughout the decades. Sondheim’s musical (itself adapted from a 1973 play) opened in 1979, with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett (the Lovett role was written specifically for Lansbury).
In the early 80s, a young Tim Burton saw the show while still an animation student at CalArts, and was instantly enamored with its “cinematic” nature. Ever since, he harbored an ambition to one day adapt the musical into a feature film. When another director for a Sweeney Todd project dropped out in the mid-2000s, Warner Bros. brought Burton on board to finally realize that goal.
So why do I like Sweeney Todd enough to put it in my coveted Top Ten?
-There’s something about the Victorian era that’s very cool. The time period is certainly “trending” right now, with an abundance of steampunk and other Victorian-influenced media achieving crticial and commercial success in recent years. I think the era sparks the imagination because it was a time when humankind was making some fantastic scientific and industrial progress. There were mysteries yet unsolved, but the boundless ingenuity of the human spirit would delve to the bottom of them. (Also everybody wore top hats, and that’s cool too).
That said about the “boundless ingenuity,” Sweeney Todd turns the idea of mankind’s glorious potential on its head and portrays people as animalistic: driven by lust, greed, fear, hunger, and little else. Though huge technological advancements loom on the horizon, they’ll do little to elevate man’s status as a rutting, scrabbling animal.
-It’s a musical about murder. I think the Countdown thus far will show that I’m something of a musical theater fan. That’s not always the manliest label to ascribe to one’s self, but horror-musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and Little Shop of Horrors show that “the musical” as a form is more than just a one-trick pony.These shows infuse a smattering of blood and guts alongside the song, dance, and occasional jazz hands, and the end result is a mess of gory, campy fun replete with plenty of memorable tunes. Sweeney Todd goes above and beyond in all these regards, particularly upping the gore factor. The score by Sondheim is also fantastic, with “Pretty Women” my favorite number of the bunch.
This post is reaching absurd lengths, so I’ll try to make my final points concisely:
I prefer Burton’s film to the stage show on which it is based. Several of his changes I see as considerable improvements: namely, that he upped the tempo of many of the songs, and changed the character of Toby from a mentally-challenged young adult (in the stage show) to an actual frightened child. Though Burton also opted to axe some of the play’s musical numbers (including the opening, which reveals that Sweeney dies at the end of the story), these choices seem also to have contributed to the film’s effectiveness. And though some were wary of the notion that Johnny Depp would be doing his own singing in the film, he carries the role of Sweeney very well. Unlike Hearn’s Todd, who seems open to the idea of “starting over” in a new life with Lovett, Depp’s is filled with rage every moment of the movie, seething just below the surface, and Depp’s (occasionally) thin vocals compliment that angry tone.
Two final notes, and I’ll let you on your way:
In the Bigpaw post so long ago, I mentioned that there’s a lack of dedicated “Thanksgiving” media. Well, Sweeney Todd is my go-to Thanksgiving feature. While it’s certainly not as family-friendly as something like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, I think the film is an apt selection for the holiday. This may be due largely to the fact that I first saw it at Thanksgiving time, but I also feel it’s thematically fitting: the film deals with some of the most primal aspects of our existence, including hunger and dedication to family, both things celebrated at Thanksgiving.
Finally, I was first introduced to this film by my friend and roommate, Kyle Zora, just before Thanksgiving of our freshman year at William and Mary. It was a pretty great year overall, but I have especially fond memories of packing up my stuff and watching this movie before heading off to catch the train home from Williamsburg for the first time. And every year after that, I watched the film before I left for the train station each Thanksgiving. Perhaps the film may be more your cup of tea at Halloween time, but it will always remind me of late fall, and the feeling of coming home after a long time away.
Tidbits: I once won a superlative for “best pit orchestra costume” for my portrayal of Sweeney Todd. I didn’t have a straight-razor, so that’s the end pin of my bass clarinet I’m brandishing.
Finally, here’s one of the most remarkable movie-themed fan projects I’ve come across: It’s the entirety of Sweeney Todd, recreated in a mod of The Sims 2. It’s almost entirely spot-on, except for the Beadle, who for some reason looks like a Final Fantasy character. But that somehow makes it even better: