The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

     directed by Terence Fisher

          starring Herbert Lom, Heather Sears and Edward de Souza

Let me not be overly harsh: as horror movies go, especially the older ones, this was actually quite good. I certainly enjoyed it, and I definitely wasn't bored. The acting was hit or miss depending on the character (Sears I could have taken or left, but Lom was dynamite), but the music was ravishing, and Fisher certainly seems to have known what he was doing. The main reason this falls short is that it fails to retain the core themes of the Phantom story, which a retelling really ought to do if it wants to have the same resonance. This version is an interesting story in its own right, however, and deserves a good viewing.

 

And let me just note to others that might be trying to find it -  at the time that I reviewed it, this was really hard to find! You would think that it would be easier to get hold of than the 1943 version since it's two decades younger, but no. It was only available on DVD if I wanted to buy the entire collection of Hammer horror films (which is fine if you also have a hankering for Brides of Dracula or Kiss of the Vampire, but which was not an overly exciting prospect for me personally).

 

We get right into the horror aspect of the film with the opening sequence, which shows us the dark and forbidding opera house and quickly segues down to the Phantom's underground lair, complete with pipe organ (every time I see this in a version of the story, I wonder how he got an entire pipe organ into an underground sanctuary, and every time I conclude that he must have built it himself, possibly through wizardry). The underground lake is replaced here by a direct connection to the sewers, which lacks glamour but is, at least, fairly realistic. The misery of the Phantom's condition can really only be heightened by forcing him to live next to a river of sewage.

 

Fisher makes sure we don't get a clear shot of the Phantom even as we see him playing the organ in his hideout, but we do get a shot of the thick, bluish flesh of his hands (I spent the entire movie trying to figure out if he was wearing gloves or if his hands were made up to look like the skin was that color; I think I ultimately settled on the idea that it's meant to be his hands, and that some kind of necrotic nastiness has occurred after his tragic accident), leading us immediately to conclude that he's either A) not entirely human, or B) seriously physically fucked up. Fisher leaves us with a freeze frame of one eye glaring up from behind the Phantom's mask while the credits roll; the freeze encourages us to stare and try to figure out what exactly his face actually looks like, and also, as the seconds drag by, suggest that the Phantom may, in fact, be dead, either physically or metaphorically. The opening music is all strings and brass flares and timpanic drums, very much what the average person thinks of when they think of classic horror music, while Fisher incorporates and plays on the line between operatic soprano singing and screaming.

 

Fisher knows his stage stuff; the opera is realistically hectic and crowded backstage, complete with gesturing divas, harried stagehands, and displeased stage animals. Shots of the full opera house are lacking (the filming was done in the London Opera House, and dammit, I wanted to see more of it), so while you get a good sense of the space backstage and the size of the stage itself, the house remains something of a minor mystery, but this may have had more to do with building and budgetary constraints than with Fisher being lazy. He makes a point of letting us see the chandelier, which pretty much every director ever to tackle this story does - OMG LOOK CHANDELIER COULD IT BE SIGNIFICANT - but not as overtly as he could have (and by the way, this is a serious, no-nonsense businessman of a chandelier; it's solid iron, none of that brass and glass frou frou, and probably weighs far too much).

 

This is where Fisher begins to set up the underlying character of the Phantom, and it's not the one you would expect: really, he's a nice old guy and everyone should just stop picking on him. We start this out by seeing all the havoc he's wreaking in the opera house in an attempt to stop the new opera Joan of Arc from being put on; he breaks the timpani, steals the composer's and musicians' scores, tears pages out of music at random, pops out of a wall and scares the daylights out of the lead soprano, and just generally makes a nuisance of himself. That's the key: he's a nuisance. Nobody gets hurt by any of the things he does; he's out to stop the opera, not to hurt anyone in it.

 

But wait, you say. Didn't a dude just get hanged on the stage in the middle of the first performance? Well, yes. But that will be explained later. Trust me: the Phantom is a nice guy and everyone should stop picking on him. Also, note that this is the first time a Phantom story uses the hanging onstage; in Leroux's version and those following it to this point, the hanging has always occurred backstage, where it causes quite a lot of consternation but generally doesn't throw the entire house into a panic the same way. Like the lynch mob introduced in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, this will be absorbed and reiterated as a new feature of the Phantom story in most following adaptations.

 

It should be noted that the music in this version is gorgeous. Other versions have had great scores (the 1925 Julian film's comes to mind... well, some of them, at any rate) or good operatic attempts (the 1943 Lubin really went for the opera), but this one blows them away. The principal opera being performed is Joan of Arc, which is, of course, amazing, and the singers (unlike those in the Lubin/Rains production) are fantastic (the actors are dubbed, of course, but I'm down with that when it works well, and it works well here). The change from Faust is interesting, and betrays the change in direction of the rest of the film; where Faust was appropriate for Leroux's tale about a man damned by society and by his own actions, Joan of Arc instead focuses on its heroine's beauty and steadfast purity, traits which Sears' Christine exemplifies. This movie may be ultimately about the Phantom, but as far as the characters are concerned, it's all about Christine. And anyway, as I said, that Phantom character is just a really nice guy, you know? Faust isn't an appropriate metaphor for a nice old dude who never hurts anyone.

 

I mentioned it before, but Lom is really very impressive in this role. Despite being hidden behind a mask and not getting any real screen time for the first half of the film, he does an amazing job of emoting around these acting handicaps. Despite the fact that we only see one eye for the majority of the film, that eye is always full of emotion; we feel the longing as he watches the opera performed, and the worshipfulness as he listens to Christine. The shambling menace and maniacal fervor with which he pursues Christine's voice and haunts the opera house leave little to be desired, conveying an impressive amount of fear as well as providing a nice contrast for the sympathy we'll feel later. When we find out what a nice guy he is, of course.

 

I haven't mentioned D'Arcy yet, but he's going to become a repeating-adaptation favorite; D'Arcy is the asshole composer of the opera. In case anyone had any delusions of viewing him as anything other than a monumental jerk, he's not only an intensely controlling prima donna who throws tantrums at anything that could be even obliquely construed as a challenge to his authority, but he also attempts to get Christine drunk and date-rape her (this was foreshadowed when he sat down and started unbuttoning his jacket while he listened to her audition; trust me, it was much creepier than it sounds), and then kicks her out of the opera despite her amazing talent when she won't go along with it. He proceeds to hire some other chick he wants to bang despite her less stellar pipes, and then fires the Raoul character, Christine's admirer (and producer of the opera) Mr. Hunter when he tries to argue with him. He is, in short, a complete and total villain, and he's quite ably portrayed and easy to hate. He has an extraordinarily important function in this film: namely, he's the villain, because someone has to be. And it's not the Phantom. Who is a nice guy.

 

I have some questions about D'Arcy: most pressing is the question of why he thinks he's in charge. So he composed the opera. So what? He's not the producer (that would be Hunter), the conductor (that would be the guy down there with the baton), the manager (that would be the dithering guy who is having conniptions over all the disasters going on) or in fact involved in the production in any way. So where does he get off firing the leading lady, the producer, the conductor, and the entire orchestra (I'm not kidding; he really is that much of a maniac)? Composers, then and now, might be invited to help a production and respected as creators, but they usually have very little say in how their compositions are mounted and performed unless they stipulate it very carefully in their contracts. Most people will be nice and follow the majority of the composer's wishes because they want the piece to be performed correctly and be a success; but this does not extend to humoring his hissy fits when they actually damage the production.

 

He fired Christine for refusing to sleep with him, which just doesn't make sense - she's a member of the opera company. Nobody can fire her except the manager of the opera company, and even if D'Arcy had been given that power for some reason, he could only fire her from his show, not from the entire opera company. That's not the way it works; she works for the opera, and performs in whatever shows they're putting on that season. D'Arcy could maybe try to pull strings to force the actual people in charge to fire her permanently, but we don't see that happen - he's the one whose word is apparently law.  Also, there is no way he could fire the producer, because Hunter's the one paying for the production. Unless D'Arcy's decided to foot the entire bill for the show himself, that's the most boneheaded move ever. I didn't completely get derailed by D'Arcy's apparent omnipotence, but the silliness of it detracted somewhat from the hatred I was supposed to feel for the character.

 

Christine is sweet, innocent, poor, humble, universally beloved, and generally the perfect Christine in the same vein as her original incarnation in Leroux's novel. And, also like the original Christine, she is a strong lady who isn't taking any of your nonsense; she refuses to let D'Arcy bully her into anything, and is quick-witted enough to get herself out of sticky situations in the socially proper manner. Her last name has been changed to Charles here, but that makes sense as they've lifted the entire story and reset it in London (probably a good move on their part; Hammer is very, very British, and most of the actors and portrayals would have looked odd in any other nationality). Her costuming is frequently incorrect; she's showing off the goods way more than a demure young lassie in the late 1800s would dare, especially in Victorian England, unless we're meant to think she was just in costume through the entire movie. Fisher seems to be playing very fast and loose with the time period in general, so it was more of a background annoyance than something that had me frothing at the mouth.

 

Harry Hunter, her "Raoul", is similarly simple to understand: he's a nice person with a streak of bravery and a pretty smile, but ultimately he's a supporting character for the stronger presences of Christine, D'Arcy, and the Phantom (though it should be noted that his romance with Christine is very sweet, and much more believable than most previous versions have managed). As is unsurprising considering the immature and somewhat limp state of Leroux's original character, Hunter is portrayed as stronger, more intelligent and commanding, and far less prone to fits of unseemly emotion than his forbear, most likely as a result of Fisher attempting to keep the character appealing for a more modern 1960s audience.

 

Fisher uses contrast, most notably between silence and sudden noise and between shadows and light, to impart greater impact to scenes that would have been only mediocre otherwise; the shots just aren't spectacular, though most benefit from direction and become at least effective. The Phantom's earlier scenes, in particular, are much more effective because of the use of shadow to represent and approximate him, rather than allowing the audience to get a good look at him; this heightens the mystery and keeps us interested and guessing for much longer than would have been possible with an early unveiling.

 

So, the Phantom, let's talk about him. He's a nice guy - did I mention that? He's a continuation of the Phantom in Lubin's 1943 film; an innocent, less-than-worldly composer with a great deal of talent named Professor Petrie, whose work is stolen by an unscrupulous dastard (D'Arcy) and who is horrifically scarred by flames and acid when he attempts to stop it from being published under someone else's name. He then haunts the underground of the opera (no one ever explains how he knows anything about the opera house or how he gets in there from his underground lair, since he's not a former orchestra member the way Lubin's was) and makes a nuisance of himself attempting to stop the stolen opera from being performed. The worst thing he does is the kidnapping of Christine, whose voice he desperately wants to train up to its fullest potential; the highlight of his nastiness is when he slaps her for refusing to sing, and then later throws some water in her face when she faints. As the Phantom generally goes, that's... well, it's certainly not okay, but it's also not really strangling people and leaving their bodies for the stagehands, is it?

 

But, wait, people have been strangled. What on earth is going on here? A tiny little man named Ivan is what's going on here. In order to keep his Phantom the noble, tragically misunderstood character that he had in mind, Fisher needed to have the murders and terrorizing come from a different source, and so Ivan was created. The character is named after his actor, Ivan, because... well, because he's not really important enough to have a name of his own in terms of character.

 

When the injured and disfigured Petrie washed up in the sewers beneath London, he was discovered and saved by Ivan, who was apparently living there because he's a rather unpleasant little man who has possibly been shunned or kicked out of his community in some way. We can possibly assume he is mentally ill or developmentally disabled, since he appears to be unable to talk and swings from helpful but enigmatic to suddenly murderous for no reason, and doesn't seem to have any real attachment to or understanding of any other people beyond Petrie himself. Now Ivan brings the gloomy Petrie supplies and generally takes care of him, but is also prone to going on murderous rampages through the opera house for no apparent reason; he 's the one who hangs the stagehand at the beginning, as well as ambushing and stabbing the Rat-Catcher, in what is, I believe, the character's very first reappearance since his original role in Leroux's novel\.

 

Ivan's violent outbursts and the assertion by Petrie that he is "uncontrollable" allow the Phantom's hands to remain bloodless while still allowing the terrifying grip on the opera house to be attributed to his ghostly vengeance (in fact, he fills the role of the siren in Leroux's novel when he swims through the sewers chasing his prey, an appropriate parallel as Leroux's Erik was prone to blaming the siren for actions even though they were clearly the same person). It's very much a contrivance in order to keep the Phantom character blameless, and although I could maybe have forgiven the clumsiness of it, the decision to throw ill and/or disabled people under the bus - Ivan, who acts as the fall guy for all bad things in the movie with the justification of "well, he's crazy" and a side order of gross bias based on his hunched stature - is a tiresome stereotype that I really wish the horror genre would grow out of some day. This ain't Victorian England; can we all agree already that illnesses and disabilities aren't the result of being "evil" or "having a wicked soul" or any of the other nonsense from that time period?

 

To add to all that, the Phantom's traditional psychological problems, which are a key part of his character and interact in important ways with the societal rejection and stigma within which he has matured, are mostly absent, again because the filmmakers most likely didn't consider them qualities that a "good" character should have. He certainly seems unstable, which we might assume is a post-traumatic result of the shock of D'Arcy's betrayal and the subsequent scarring, but it also may be intended to read more like senility (Petrie is an old man, as Leroux's Erik originally was).

 

The Phantom's plea to Christine to allow her to teach him does not fall on deaf ears; she consents, and he tutors her despite the kidnapping and slapping and Hunter (he who is appropriately named) having to swim through a sewer to find her. Another notable change to the story is that the Phantom has absolutely no carnal desire toward Christine whatsoever; he wants to sculpt her voice, and has no interest in the woman who owns it. This is probably partly a facet of the sympathetic reworking of the character (it's very difficult to make intended or implied or attempted rape sympathetic) and partly a function of evolving societal sensibilities, which by the 1960s would have looked much more askance at a sixty-year-old entering into a relationship with a 20-year-old than they would have fifty years before. It's not surprising, considering that the 1943 Lubin/Rains film's Phantom was already more of a benefactor than a would-be lover.

 

I was really despairing that any of the themes of the original piece had survived (not that this is the worst story ever told, but it's markedly different from the original), but the penultimate moments of the film were packed with symbolism and relevance. The decision to change the opera from Faust to Joan of Arc is extremely effective in light of the Phantom's new, kinder, gentler, minty-fresh persona; while Leroux's Phantom was equivalent to Faust in his damnation and desperate desire for acceptance, love, and redemption, Fisher's Phantom is more closely equivalent to Joan, who is martyred for her principles but continues to proudly proclaim them even as she burns to death. The burning of Joan of Arc at the stake (and, of course, Christine is playing her, which only heightens the metaphor with irony) takes on a new relevancy; symbolically, she is being burned like the Phantom, who acted to save his own integrity and life's work and was punished for it. The entire scene as she is excommunicated by those in power is parallel to the Phantom's life, wherein he has been expelled from society by virtue of his disfigurement and the man who has stolen his work and made a criminal of him.

 

The Phantom's insistence and manic pursuit of Christine to sing the role of Joan now makes sense; he needs the perfect Joan because Joan's story is now his story, and he needs to see it reproduced faithfully as much as he needs to hear it performed well. The understanding and adulation of the crowd for Joan is really for him, and it is no wonder that he weeps as she garners the audience's sympathy in her final, magnificent aria. She has been exonerated in their eyes, so he, too, is understood and welcomed back into humanity.

 

Then, of course, Ivan returns to accidentally knock that gigantic iron chandelier down, and the moment of transcendent symbolism is over. The chandelier almost flattens Christine, but the Phantom leaps out of his box and shoves her out of the way in the nick of time, naturally getting smashed to smithereens himself. It's sad, and we continue to feel sorry for the poor guy, but tthere is no greater meaning in his sacrifice, no higher allegory or statement about human nature to give it that extra oomph. There is no true evil in the Phantom, and so there can be no redemption; there is no love in his relationship with Christine, and so there can be no transformation because of it.

 

Possibly as a function of this lack of subtext, the movie ends with breathtaking speed - the chandelier falls, the Phantom leaps, wham, boom, smush, the mask is lying on the floor, THE END. It's a little bit disorienting, and certainly doesn't provide the audience with much in the way of a reflective coda. Even the revelation of the Phantom's face (a decent enough makeup job, but certainly nothing impressive - the missing eye is a nice touch, but the scars and burns seem fairly unrealistic and don't conform to the splashing pattern you would expect from having seen him be injured) is barely a second or two in length as he hops out of his box and becomes one with the stage floorboards.

 

And, hey, what about D'Arcy? He was a total bastard, wasn't he? Wouldn't you like to know how he got his? Feel free to feel frustrated and denied when I tell you that he didn't. After stealing Petrie's work and destroying his life, attempting to rape Christine, firing everyone in the opera house who didn't agree with him, and generally treating everyone like garbage, D'Arcy gets off relatively scot-free. The Phantom appears and unmasks, terrifying D'Arcy into fleeing... but that's it. D'Arcy lives, is never found out as the fraud that he really is, nor does anyone cause him any real injury or inconvenience. The scene seems to be trying to suggest that the Phantom is "scaring him straight", so that he won't dare do all this again, but there's no real assurance or even overt declaration that this will actually happen. He just heads off to continue being an asshole somewhere else, or so we assume. It's the biggest loose end of the film, and the major reason detractors of this film don't like it. To quote another film that is near and dear to my heart, "You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this for?"

 

Overall, it is a convincing and interesting interpretation of the Phantom story, but it ultimately left me flat. It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination (well, okay, Ivan's addition... that might be a little bit of what I would call bad), but it didn't achieve that higher level of greatness that would have made it truly engaging. Fisher is a credible director, Lom is an amazing actor, and the singing is to die for, but the lack of greater significance keeps it, in the end, from being a truly impressive film adaptation.

 

I really wish I had watched this movie in its proper chronological place, because it so beautifully ties together the films preceding and following it. It's clearly heavily modeled on the preceding Lubin/Rains film; it borrows the composer-whose-work-was-stolen-and-who-was-then-scarred-by-acid-when-attempting-to-rectify-this background for the Phantom, as well as taking the slightly unpleasant police inspector/second Raoul character from the Lubin production and turning him into the entirely unpleasant D'Arcy. This dynamic of two men competing for Christine's affections, one heroic and one dastardly, will then be carried on to the 1974 de Palma film, in which D'Arcy has transcended just being a slimeball and has become the downright demonic Swan, now a facet of the Phantom character himself, and de Palma's Phantom's record-press accident is almost exactly the same as Fisher's Phantom's tragedy at the printer's. Even having watched them out of order, the parallels and growth seem clear. I can't speak for the 1980's films until I see them, but this looks like a definite trend that was lost when Lloyd Webber's musical version of the film restored some of these mutations to something closer to their original, Leroux-generated forms.

 

So why does this happen, exactly? For a few reasons, I think, most having to do with human nature and the ability of film creators to recognize and exploit it. For the first few film versions of the story, the Phantom is irrevocably set into his original role as the villain (pitiable, in some cases, but still definitely the bad guy) in a horror story; as such, he was transformed from a fearsome villain into a somewhat human-like monster, the better to allow audiences to share in Christine's terror and root for Raoul's heroic rescue. The sympathy for the character's plight is there, but it is downplayed. Later, as sheer terror went out of vogue for films and the audience was looking for a more intricate, personal plot, the introduction of an additional character helped to give the viewers something else to focus on; the meat of the film involves the mystery and the relationship between Christine and her suitors, and moves the Phantom to more of a secondary role as the antagonist to an already established dynamic. This shift away from fear and toward personal relationships allows for more sympathy for the title character, and his backstory is changed accordingly to make him the wronged party - still a villain who behaves inappropriately and must be vanquished, but one whose actions have an understandable and sympathetic origin for the audience.

 

By the time we hit the middle of the twentieth century, cultural movements throughout the Western world promoting tolerance and freedom of expression lead the filmmakers to make the Phantom more sympathetic yet, until he is almost completely blameless and merely a victim of the misbehavior of others. The pendulum will swing back with the film versions in the seventies and eighties, when horror movies became big again and the audience wanted a truly evil villain to scare their pants off, but that's still to come.

 

A side note: I was wracking my brains trying to figure out where I'd seen Edward de Souza's name before, when I realized that he was in The Golden Compass just recently, as one of the chancellors. Half a century and still rocking the acting business!

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