Thursday, May 30, 2019

Phantom of the Opera (1962)

A notoriously difficult Hammer movie to see, their version of Phantom of the Opera has only been available in the UK as part of a box set.  I don't recall it having been on UK TV since the late seventies, (unfortunately, I missed its seventies showings), either.  Even on its initial release it was considered a disappointment and has never been held in the same esteem as other Terence Fisher directed Hammer horrors from the same period.  Indeed, the film's under performance at the box office apparently resulted in Fisher's exile from Hammer for a couple of years.  Part of the problem, as far as audiences were concerned, was that, despite excellent production values, Phantom of the Opera didn't feature either of Hammer's A-list stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher lead.  Instead, Herbert Lom headlines as the Phantom, supported by Michael Gough, in a rare Hammer appearance and Hammer regulars Thorley Walters, Heather Sears and Patrick Troughton.  All fine actors, but lacking the depth of Cushing or the sheer intensity of Lee.

While following, more or less, the plot of previous film versions of Gaston Leroux's novel, this Phantom relocates it action to London.  Its most damaging alteration, though, is its attempt to turn the central character into a tragic hero rather than a monster - in this version it isn't the Phantom who commits the murders, but rather his misguided dwarf lackey.  The true villain, though, is Michael Gough's Lord Ambrose, who stole the Phantom's music and was responsible for his disfigurement.  Obviously, by absolving the title character of responsibility for any of the murders and revealing him to be a badly maimed music teacher rather than a disfigured madman, changes the entire emphasis of the film, weakening its status as a horror film.  To be fair to Hammer, they were only continuing the trends established by the Claude Rains starring 1943 remake of Phantom of the Opera, which was a similarly underwhelming horror experience, with its emphasis on the romantic leads and relegation of the Phantom to virtually a secondary character, robbed of much of his villainous stature.  Of course, the trend to make the Phantom a tragic romantic hero culminated with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of the story, which eschews horror in favour of spectacle and romance. 

While most of the familiar set-pieces of the story are present in the 1962 version, they are rendered far less effective than in previous versions by the way in which they are reworked to accomodate a non-threatening, heroic Phantom.  The chandelier sequence now comes at the end of the film, but its fall onto the stage where Christine is performing is inadvertantly caused by the dwarf and the Phantom sacrifices himself by pushing the singer from under it in the nick of time, for instance.  The unmasking scene, traditionally a highlight of the story, also comes late in the film, but this time the Phantom isn't unmasked by a shocked Christine, but rather reveals his (not too impressively) scarred face to Lord Ambrose, in order to scare him.  While the film, overall, is a poorly conceived misfire, it has to be said that there only ever has been one satisfactory film version of the Phantom of the Opera: the 1925 silent version starring Lon Chaney.  Featuring an incredible central performance from Chaney and amazing productions values, (parts Paris recreated in Universal's studios and an extensive opera house interior set which would be re-used in many future productions - including the 1943 remake - for instance), the film is truly magnificent and doesn't shy away from presenting the Phantom in all his deranged anti-heroic glory.  No subsequent versions have come even close to matching the original's sheer spectacle, let alone its fevered atmosphere and bravura lead performance.



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