top of page

The Phantom of the Opera (1983)

     directed by Robert Markowitz

          starring Maximilian Schell, Jane Seymour and Michael York

Beware, if you're trying to find a copy of this to watch (and you should, but it's understandable if you don't): this is ridiculously difficult to find. As a made-for-TV movie in the 1980's, it was largely ignored and only released on region 2 DVD in Germany, of all places (where, apparently, it was much more popular). I had to have a friend of mine in Bavaria (thanks, Elle!) hunt it down, buy it, and then make me a region 1 copy so I could even sneak a peek at it. The quality of my copy wasn't great, therefore, but damn if I didn't enjoy it anyway.


Apparently, everyone hates this movie. Its reviews on IMDB are certainly perfectly dreadful. So, once again, I'm forced to conclude that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. Obviously.


The first thing that everyone hates is that the locale has been changed; the story takes place in Budapest, Hungary now, rather than in Paris, and the "opera house" is actually the József Katona Theatre in Kecskemét, which has plenty of grandeur and isn't hard to see as an opera stage at all. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion over why the locale was changed; nobody seems to know, but I'd theorize both that it was much easier to get clearance to do on-location shooting in Hungary, and also that the dark, historically grimy streets of Budapest lent themselves better to the sense of foreboding and fear that Markowitz was trying to cultivate. Personally, I didn't mind the shift at all; there's really no reason at all for the story to be set in Paris other than that that was where Leroux himself was from, and Budapest does just fine.The story doesn't suffer for the change, and the location and sets are simply stunning.


The time period is slightly more problematic; while the exact placement of the story is never stated, there is mention of Bartók as a promising young composer, and of Caruso's acclaimed career still being active, so we can pinpoint the beginning of the film as taking place somewhere around the turn of the century, possibly as late as 1902-1905. The majority of the film takes place five years after this, so we're firmly in the first decade of the twentieth century, probably somewhere around 1905-1910. Now that we've figured that out, we can get on with being confused as to why the change was put into effect.


Why set the story three decades later than Leroux did? The Hungarian Royal Opera House was definitely doing brisk business in the 1880s; it's possible that the film was set later to avoid the period during which Mahler was director of the opera house, in order to use fictional characters during a less publicized time. I have no idea. I do know, however, that the change irked me as I couldn't find any particularly good reason for it, and also because the later time period necessitated a much later style of dress that drove me insane. I can't tell you how many notes I took that went something like, "Much too modern in dress, era is... wait, fuck." (Okay, yes, fine, that is my fault, not the movie's fault.)


So, now that I've alternately whined about and approved the setting, let's actually get to the plot. Sándor Korvin is the conductor of the orchestra, and his wife Elena is about to make her debut as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. Aha! Someone is using Faust in a movie version and it's not 1925! What a fuzzy glow that gives me. The problem is that Elena is less than confident, and she keeps making mistakes - not so blatant as forgetting the words, mind you, but producing tones that are less than scintillating. As a former vocal major, I loved the realism of her stumbles; they were very real and very recognizable, and any singer hearing them would have immediately cringed and involuntarily remembered similar sounds coming out of their own mouths. Production errors are particularly painful to the singer - keep the throat too tense or fail to support, and it's like there's a goat in your throat.


Korvin, who is also her teacher (hands up, anyone who sees the Phantom connection there), is however utterly certain that she can do it, and forces her to rehearse constantly until she's about ready to cry from frustration. He's honestly a big jerk, actually, often having no patience for his wife's pleas or uncertainty, but he always seems to have her best interests at heart, and he's certainly terribly besotted with her, so we forgive him his occasional outbursts of "No, you sing now!"


As a side note, I am distressed that I cannot, for the life of me, find any record of who the dubbing singers actually are. Faust and Mephisto are credited with the other actors and certainly sang their roles, but who did they dub over Seymour? She was fantastic, and I can't for the life of me find a record of who she was (I triple-checked, but while Seymour has an amazing array of talents, opera singing is not among them). It's very frustrating; she was quite versatile and I'd love to know if she did anything else.


Enter the sleazebag: the Baron Hunyadi. Like a certain other slimeball we might recall from a certain 1962 film, he likes to "sample" the female singers in the opera house he patronizes, and won't take no for an answer. Elena, however, being the happily married lady that she is, refuses his advances even when he threatens to destroy her career, and runs off home to Korvin (who, naturally, wants to go take the Baron's head off, but is dissuaded by the twin threats of jail and a cessation of paychecks).


Already, I am learning things from this film, when Korvin goes down below the opera house to discuss helping Elena with a strange, grubby little man. It turns out that the little man works for the opera house and is some kind of applause leader, who makes sure the audience knows when it's supposed to be applauding or cheering or crying, or any of those things audiences do at a performance. Intrigued by this idea, I went off to do some research, and behold: it turns out that not only were there applause leaders (usually called "claqueurs", from the French "claque", to clap) in theaters and opera houses in the nineteenth century, but that they were a staple of performance and a booming business in their day. Especially in France, where the practice originated, and later in Italy and England, every well-established opera house kept claqueurs on staff or regularly hired them from agencies (yes, there were entire agencies for these people) for their performances. Often, their services were tantamount to blackmail, as opera houses or performers would have to pay them off to prevent them from booing the house down. While there doesn't seem to be any record of the practice of claqueurs being as popular in Eastern Europe, it's not that far a stretch to suppose that an opera center as large as that in Budapest might have at least one. I love it when an adaptation not only stays true to its time period, but also teaches me about it.


So, anyway, Korvin secures the claqueuer's promise to help Elena out with applause where she needs it, but after he leaves, the Baron arrives (DUN DUN DUNNNN) and pays him to do exactly the opposite. Considering that Korvin is just some guy and the Baron is an angry, powerful guy who pays him, it's not really a mystery who the claqueuer is going to side with. Accordingly, Elena's debut is a disaster (one presaged by the movie's excellent score, which here gives way to ominous string sustains and pizzicato plunks to let us know that tragedy is imminent); she's booed practically off the stage during her final scene with Mephisto, which is a shame as she sounds amazing (all the work with her slave-driving husband actually paid off). The audience is not immune to mob mentality, so despite her gorgeous soprano she is booed, booed, booed when the claqueuer turns against her.


To add insult to what is a pretty serious injury for a singer, particularly one struggling as hard with low self-image as Elena is (intriguingly, Elena's crisis is not that she fears failure for herself, but that she cannot bear the thought of letting Korvin down after all he's done to support and encourage her), the most prominent opera critic in the city (also on the Baron's payroll) pans the hell out of her. Not one to endure any more of this torment than she has to, Elena hurls herself into the river and drowns; the score enhances this scene, again, with panicked violins as Korvin rushes around looking for her. The shot of a bird taking flight right before she jumps is obvious symbolism, as she is also taking flight - in her case, fleeing from her life and finding freedom from the expectations and censure of others, Korvin possibly included. Korvin, who loves his wife almost obsessively, goes predictably bonkers when he finds out.


So, like every other grieving dude who is blind to all reason and sanity, he goes off and murders the claqueuer with an axe. No, really. I snorted. It was just silly-looking. There's a reason the Phantom generally kills people by garroting them; axe-murder lacks dignity. It does, however, suggest the exciting era of horror films that are about to burst into popularity in the 1980s.


Not willing to stop his murderous rampage there, he heads for the reviewer next. I had problems believing in this scene, mostly because the use of silence didn't work for me here; it was intended to buid suspense, but it only made the dialogue fall flat. I didn't feel Korvin's menace as he threatened the reviewer, so I wasn't really as invested in the suspense as I would have liked to have been. I was, however, tickled pink by the reviewer's humorous lines, which I probably wasn't supposed to be (but hey, take what praise you can get from me, I say). Especially when he pulled a gun on Korvin and stated, smirking, "I keep this handy to deal with wild tenors." A good runner-up was the soon-to-follow lament, "Opera would be wonderful without the singers."


As is not probably surprising to anyone with an inkling of the Phantom story, Korvin and the reviewer get into a huge fight, which entails accidentally setting the room aflame, and Korvin is horrifically burned due to a bottle of alcohol falling on his face and setting it ablaze. This, too, was handled a little bit clumsily - alcohol should, in fact, obey the laws of physics, even when it's being used to further the plot - but it wasn't so bad that I couldn't stomach it. As is usual for pretty much every film adaptation made later than 1925, this inserted backstory inverts the Phantom's role; no longer an outcast from humanity from birth, he is now cast out by his society because of his integrity (or so we are meant to feel after all of the Baron's nasty shenanigans, though, quite honestly, KILLING PEOPLE WITH AN AXE somewhat dampens my sympathy for the character). This particular Phantom is also given a sense of wounded honor on a very personal level in order to further make the audience sympathize with his actions; being thrown out of society for not being a douchebag is bad enough, but having your wife die (being symbolically "taken from you") is a whole new level of suck. As with earlier versions, the change is intended to humanize the Phantom and make him more palatable for the viewer, but it unfortunately kicks the idea of being "damned" from birth by God right out of the pen.


In one of the most unexpected curveballs of the film, some random guy appears and drags the Phantom underground to what will later become his base of operations (as a side note, this is apparently a pre-fab lair, complete with many pretty candles. Huh). Who is this guy? Good luck figuring it out. It took me until the last half hour of the film when he was named (Lajos), and even then the name didn't actually tell us who he was. He's seen watching Elena's performance before the claqueuer brings the house down, and earlier observing the rehearsals, and he seems to know plenty about the opera house, but who is he? Never explained. It's fairly obvious that he's meant to be an analogue to Ivan, the dangerous murderer who saves the Phantom in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film; but if I hadn't already seen that film, I'd have been utterly confused. Like his less-than-illustrious forebear, he's basically a general aide to make the Phantom's underground life make a little more realistic sense, but he also destroys the idea of the Phantom's solitary, unloved life with his loyal presence. Interestingly, where Ivan provided extra sympathy for Lom's Phantom by keeping his hands blood-free, Lajos is mainly a background character; Schell's Phantom does most of his own dirty work.


I have to say that I love, love, love the attention to detail when it comes to the Phantom (formerly Korvin the Unfortunate). When he plays the organ, his hands are very realistically disfigured from the fire as well, helping to lend realism to the added background (there's nothing more trite than a Phantom whose facial scars come from some horrific accident but whose body remains pristine). He's also mostly hairless, which only makes sense (badly burned skin usually doesn't grow hair anymore), and his facial make-up is much better than I was expecting. The flowing, twisting aspect of the make-up jibes nicely with the fire/alcohol backstory, while the flattened, off-center nose almost disappears, reminding me of Chaney's famous make-up job (and Leroux's description, to a lesser extent, though it's nearly impossible to make up a nose-having person to look entirely noseless).


I also enjoy the fact that you see a few times that the Phantom has kept the claqueuer's cat; it shows him as not entirely without compassion even in his madness, and capable of a certain amount of gentleness. Of course, it's a trope - often, being kind or cruel to animals is shorthand in literature for being a good or bad person, but it's subtle enough here that it didn't come off as the director trying to bully us into a point of view.


Oddly enough, the Baron, the cause of all of Korvin's woe, seems to have escaped his murderous rampage; I was slightly confused throughout as I tried to figure out why on earth, if he was willing to murder the claqueuer (with an AXE), he had just given up on the man who paid the claqueuer. This question was never answered to my satisfaction, though the Phantom does finally get around to enacting his vengeance. You know. Eventually. Maybe he had a series of very important lunch dates or something.


The musical score for this film, as I mentioned earlier, is excellent. It relies heavily on violent foreshadowing followed by deafening silence, and delights in letting two separate themes, instruments, or productions battle it out until one triumphs over the other. The result is often almost too much for the ear to bear, but the mirroring of what's going on in the film is worth taking a moment to concentrate on the score. Strings, particularly the lower strings of the cellos and basses, are especially effectively used; stirring and dramatic during performances and crunchingly ominous when the Phantom is on the move, they are always exactly placed so as to heighten the tension of the scene in which they are used. The battling of two musical ideas happens several times, usually when the deeper strings suddenly assert themselves over the softer, more pleasant strains of a performance or conversation, a direct musical correlation to the Phantom's sinister influence overriding and drowning out the everyday lives and hopes of those he touches. The discordant, frightening twangs and stygian bass movements of the Phantom's encroachment very effectively unnerve the audience, even when the scene itself is innocuous.


Carlotta is once again replaced with an Italian diva, this time a shrewish drama queen named Bianchi. This is unsurprising since our modern conception of an operatic soprano is usually of an Italian diva or a Wagnerian soprano belting out some showboat aria, but it doesn't really serve much of a purpose. It would have been interesting to use a Hungarian soprano to fit with the change in locale, but I suppose that audiences would have been less able to connect with the presented stereotype had that been the case. Unlike most of her film predecessors, who have generally been innocent (if occasionally possessed of a bad attitude) of any real malice, Bianchi is a grade-A, first-class asspants. It helps us to have a nasty female character so that we can like Christine more by comparison, because Christine...


Hoo boy. Christine is almost unrecognizable as Leroux's sweet, undecided chorus girl. She, too, is an Italian soprano here, named Maria Gianelli, and her name certainly isn't the only thing that's changed. Maria isn't unlikable, exactly, but she's certainly no innocent Christ figure, nor is she a giving mother icon or a wondering, credulous child. She is a woman with a character very much defined by herself and not any of her relationships, and a conniving, ambitious woman at that (which may account, again, for some of the antipathy many viewers have toward this film interpretation). The first thing we see her do is to offer another singer her spot in the line-up as they audition for Bianchi's understudy; she says that it's out of kindness, to let the other singer have a chance before the director gets too "tired and disgusted" to really listen, but the reality is that she knows the other woman doesn't have much of a voice, and wants to follow her in order to look better by comparison.


It's certainly a change from previous versions of Christine, who were generally saintly; it's never malicious, but the calculating edge to her personality certainly brings her down to earth. She's a clever character, and relatable because of it, but she ceases to have much of her allegorical significance in this context. She's obviously ambitious, prone almost to boot-licking when she meets the director (Michael, who will later become our Raoul-analogue) and to putting herself in any advantageous position so long as it doesn't compromise her morals; the one thing she won't do, much to the slimy Baron's dismay, is sleep with anyone in order to further her career.


How do I know this? Because she TELLS us, and Michael. OUT LOUD. In PUBLIC. My problem with this Christine is not that she's a strong character - I like strong women characters, really I do! - but that she's all kinds of mad anachronism running around bundled up in a lacy shawl. Even having moved the time period forward thirty years, there are some things a young woman just didn't talk about in that era, especially with an unattached, unrelated male. While I applaud Markowitz for making note of the accepted sexual dynamic between chorus girl and patron, it's not the sort of thing Michael would bring up over lunch if he had any sense of propriety, and certainly something that should have made Maria upset or at the least prone to changing the subject. Instead, she just giggled. Alas. Other lines that Maria should absolutely never, ever, ever have said in a million years include, "I don't want a patron. It's too hard to vocalize lying down," and my personal favorite, which she accompanies with a saucy wink when Michael questions her virtue (again! Not appropriate! Ever!): "In most grand operas, the virgins always have the worst parts."


It's quite refreshing to see a Christine who is both sexual and not demonized for it, actually. Most versions either make a good-person Christine virginal or a bad-person Christine promiscuous, never any crossover in between. It's worth noting that Maria's frankness about sexual matters separates her markedly from the shy and easily scandalized Elena, and that dichotomy will play hell with the Phantom's brain later.


The romance between the singer and Michael, the director, is fairly well done. They're both rather abrasive for their time period, and their personalities mesh well; the romance lacked the rushed quality that Christine/Raoul relationships often have. Even in the early stages of their relationship, we are aware that the Phantom is going to mess everything up, often because of the same musical duels that provide us clues as to his probable upcoming response (for example, Maria and Michael dance to a sprightly Hungarian tune in a cafe, while the Phantom's grinding cellos invade and ultimately conquer to become the only sound in the scene).


The Phantom finally starts paying attention to things again after five years because of Maria; she looks uncannily like Elena and also has a beautiful soprano voice, which traits instantly capture his attention and obsession. The setup and backstory make this particular Phantom's plight more moving; seeing what seems to be a living, breathing reincarnation of the wife that was taken from him has to be heartbreaking for him, and the mental contradiction of seeing a dead woman walking and realizing that, in his damaged state, he is no longer capable of being a husband to her takes a heavy toll on his already fragile psyche. The Phantom essentially rejects the idea that he will be tortured by this Elena 2.0, instead taking an easier direction; he will simply transform Maria into Elena, and then there's no problem. Obviously, he can't really do that, but in his fevered mind, there is no other alternative; to accept that Maria is a different woman is to accept once and for all that Elena is dead and that he failed her, both as a husband and as a musical teacher. That acceptance is no longer an option for him. It would negate his entire life, and he is unable to face the tragic futility of his actions.


I've harped on quite a lot about the Greek mythology parallels in Leroux's original work, and most truly effective reiterations of the story, I've found, tend to include those references to classical myth. This film is no exception (though it doesn't go to the lengths some others do); the Phantom signs his name as "Orpheus" to all of his notes, and this particular Phantom is especially appropriate for that moniker. When applying the Orpheus myth to the Phantom story, Raoul is usually viewed as the Orpheus character, crusading to free Christine from her underground prison; but here it is the Phantom who is trying desperately to bring his wife back from the dead (and who will ultimately, tragically fail, just as in the myth). The change adds to the tragic air of this particular Phantom, and contributes to his ultimate role as a sympathetic, unwilling villain.


As a side note, I was totally entertained by the Phantom borrowing a paraphrased quote from Coleridge: "Swans sing before they die; 'twere no bad thing, should certain persons die before they sing." Early 1900s burn.


We have to pause for a second and look at the Phantom's masks, because they are all kinds of interesting here. His first mask, the one on the DVD cover and the one that he wears for the majority of the film, is a heavy, gargoylish affair that gives him an uncanny resemblance to the many statues and architectural cherubs scattered all over the opera house. The mask is so grainy and scaly-looking, in fact, and so cleverly obscured in most shots, that I wasn't entirely sure during the first part of the movie if that might not actually be his face; I thought he was wandering around mask-less to scare people like Leroux's Erik was prone to doing. This is obviously not the case, but once I realized that, the mask becomes even more frightening: how horrible must his actual face be that he's willing to hide behind that monstrous thing? Looking at it from another perspective, it lends a curious honesty to this version of the Phantom: rather than hiding his face behind an attractive or at least blank mask, he makes no bones about wearing an ugly one, making it clear that he isn't trying to pretend to be any less monstrous in appearance than he actually is.


Even better, however, is his second mask, which he uses exclusively for Maria. It is an uncanny representation of a human face - so lifelike, in fact, that I didn't pinpoint the Phantom in it for about half of the initial scene it appeared in. It's not a particularly attractive human face - it has a rather large nose and a droopy, jowly, basset-hound kind of a look to it - but it's extremely realistic, especially as Markowitz continues to use shadows and camera angles to prevent us from getting a prolonged look at it. It's not until we see that his lips don't move when he speaks that we realize with a jolt that it's another mask. I love this mask - not only because of the novelty of having been tricked by it for a little while, but also because it's a visual metaphor of the Phantom hiding behind a facade of humanity, a monster in man's clothing.


The last third of the movie is when Markowitz really kicks it into high gear. The symbolism and parallels between Maria and Elena and between this story and its predecessors come thicker and faster, with some truly spellbinding moments in the mix. When the Phantom first confronts Maria and offers to be her teacher, he fiddles with a doll as he's speaking, as Elena's singing plays hauntingly behind them on an old phonograph. The doll is dressed in fragile white lace and has puffy blonde hair; in fact, it bears a striking resemblance to Elena, his dead wife. When he finally makes his offer, he slowly twists the head off the doll, seeming almost not to realize what he is doing, and we understand that he has symbolically abandoned his wife's memory; he is no longer remembering Elena, having chosen instead to mold Maria in her image. He cannot both remember and mourn his dead wife and attempt to create her anew, and he is forced to choose between faithfulness to the dead and a desperate attempt at embracing the living in the only way he can understand. Part of the great tragedy of this version of the story is that the Phantom is trying to force Maria to be the wife he can no longer have, and in doing so has abandoned even the memory of Elena.


Maria, true to her ambitious nature, accepts the Phantom's tutelage in order to become a star, without fully understanding what she's accepting; the moment in which she takes the key to the Phantom's house, of her own free will, is extremely Faustian and appropriate. The violins in the background attempt to swell with Elena's gentle love theme, but they are drowned out once again by the raging bass strings of the Phantom - the lost love cannot be as prominent here as the Phantom's obviously loosening grip on sanity and the wrongness of the entire situation, and this sense of something being terribly wrong is reflected in the score.


The ominous cello muttering backs off, however, in favor of that gentle love theme as Maria explores the house the Phantom has given her. The theme has less to do with Maria and more to do with this obvious manifestation of the Phantom's love for his deceased wife. I was personally a little bit confused by Maria's naivete here; the man has just given her an entire house, a closet full of rich clothing, and all the amenities available, but she has no worries that he may expect some kind of sexual repayment for all of this (despite the fact that the way he phrased it when he asked her? Yeah, that totally sounded like a proposition to me). It is, I think, another example of Maria's mercenary nature; she may not be willing to sleep with a man to further her career, but she's perfectly happy to let one think she might while she gets an advantage out of it before telling him so. I also wonder how finding a picture of Elena in the new house doesn't blow her mind, but apparently she doesn't see the resemblance.


Then, of course, Michael and Maria are all scandalously getting it on! The instant cutaway from the bedroom scene to various shots of the gargoyles and carved faces about the opera house is a powerful and reasonably subtle reminder to the audience that the Phantom has eyes everywhere; in poor lighting, many of those statues could actually be him in his stony mask and we might not know the difference. The implication, of course, is that Maria has been Very Naughty and will probably face Consequences (even though, of course, being her music teacher doesn't give the Phantom any control over her sex life and she probably has no idea he's about to get upset over it.


The first of these consequences is Michael dumping her after she refuses to tell him who her patron is or what she's doing to get all this money and fancy stuff. Quite reasonably, he assumes that it must be the Baron who keeps oozing around in her vicinity , and that she's probably banging him, and is understandably upset. Maria still won't tell him what's going on out of deference to the Phantom's wishes, and instead gets all up in arms about his presumption for doubting her; it's one of those messy fights where everyone is technically right but no one is going to win. His response at the end of the argument is to fire Maria and have Madame Bianchi return to singing the role; I'm fairly certain I was supposed to be bummed out over this, a la every rom-com Big Misunderstanding ever conceived, but I wasn't really terribly worried about it. The romance between Michael and Maria is very secondary in this film, and really only present to make sure there's someone to come to Maria's rescue later, as there is no real love triangle to speak of (at least, not in the way that there is in Leroux's novel - the Phantom seems to be almost solely concerned with Maria's voice, perhaps seeking to atone for what he sees as his failure to properly coach Elena, which led to her death, and it is also fairly reasonable to posit that the Phantom is probably so badly damaged, both physically and mentally, from his ordeal that the idea of sexual love is no longer applicable).


Michael's decision may also have been spurred by almost having been killed in the public bathhouse by the Phantom; as the Phantom's backstory is different here, the strangling technique he employs in most versions is replaced by him throttling poor Michael with his dead wife's scarf. The evidence, again, points to the Phantom letting go of Elena's memory in his quest to recreate her through Maria; the scarf is not a keepsake or a remembrance, but now merely a tool that he utilizes in order to keep his plans on track. The sentimentality of it has gone, a clear sign that he is losing his hold on Elena's memory.


Maria, of course, is not going to take this snubbing by Michael lying down, and in typical clever form sends a note to the Phantom begging him to come to the opera's masquerade ball so she can out him and prove to Michael that he isn't the Baron. She has a short altercation with the Baron himself at said ball - I can't understand why, after the nasty things she says to him, he doesn't do something awful to her the way he did to Elena, but maybe he's just biding his time - which is notable only because of the Baron's not-so-subtle costuming. He wears devil wings, an obvious sign of his evil, evil nature, and an extremely long, black nose, which is both another sign often associated with the demonic or evil and also traditionally symbolic of promiscuity or extreme sexuality. The Baron isn't that big a player in this film, which is really all about the Phantom and Elena/Maria, but it was nice to see some thought put into him anyway.


Things don't go well for Maria, predictably, especially once she realizes that while she can hear the Phantom's ghostly bass voice (can I detour and say that I love his voice? The deepness and hoarseness of it are so much more menacing and evocative of evil than a tenor would be in this version, while also being a realistic consequence of the lung damage he must have incurred from all that smoke) whispering her name, she has no idea who he is in the masquerade because everyone is wearing masks. One has to wonder if she thought he was going to show up in his gargoyle mask, or if she just didn't really think that one through too well.


Markowitz does something interesting here, using quick cut-away shots and a blurring, surreal stretching of the picture to give us the sense that Maria is having difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy, almost as thought the Phantom's continual whispering of her name is having some kind of psychedelic effect on her. The juxtaposition of the scene against the normal order of things - specifically, that the regular people of society are all hiding their faces while the Phantom is out and about among them instead of lurking in his cavern - is certainly enhanced by this surreal imagery. The constant whispering is superbly effective, being unnerving without inspiring outright terror, and adding to the Phantom's strange sense of power here. The scene (which is the first in which he wears the human-face mask, by the way) is far from its original inspiration in Leroux's novel, in which Erik made himself perfectly visible in order to continue his campaign of terrorism, but it is nonetheless very powerful in context of this Phantom's origins.


To further ruin Maria's night, the Phantom is not pleased by her little plan and gives her a stern talking to, most of which she agrees with to spite Michael. He loses her, however, when he gets to the part where he tells her that he will kill any man she gets romantically entangled with again, and while she absolutely deserves to give him the finger for telling her what to do, I can't agree with her supremely boneheaded move to subsequently run off and take solace with the Baron. I'm not sure what her reasoning was here, unless she thought she could somehow convince him to protect her without his requiring sex in return; or perhaps, having been fired by Michael and ruthlessly competitive with the other performers, she simply doesn't have anyone else she feels she can turn to. The point is moot, however, since Lajos has stealthily offed the Baron's carriage-driver and drives them off to be intercepted by the Phantom instead of to the safety of the Baron's domicile.


As a side note, the Baron's presence is primarily necessary in order to bolster Maria's character; he functions much the same way that many secondary villains in romance novels do, in that he is basically intended to represent a threat to the heroine's purity that she can virtuously avoid/be saved from by the hero (though in this case, he will be removed not by Michael but by the Phantom, further blurring the line between hero and anti-hero). He performed the same function for Elena before her swan dive into the river.


The Phantom, interestingly, ignores Maria when she runs squalling off into the distance, choosing instead to focus his ire on the Baron; or maybe that's not so surprising, considering that the man did indirectly murder his wife. The fact that he ignores Maria gives us pause; at first glance, it seems that he is more concerned with getting his long-delayed revenge than with her, which leads us to believe that Elena's memory is still strong. However, a second look belies this first conclusion; the Phantom's long-buried sense of honor and justice is by no means inactive, and considering what the Baron was up to at the time of the kidnapping, the Phantom could easily be acting to protect Maria rather than in his wife's memory. The Phantom's telling final choice here, to let the Baron go in order that he can use his influence to help make Maria a star, confirms this - rather than killing him and avenging his wife, he has chosen to let him live in order to aid Maria, the clearest moment yet that shows the Phantom's abandonment of Elena and his new attachment to Maria (though, of course, even as he is abandoning Elena, he believes himself to be truly acting for his wife's good; he's simply forgotten who, exactly, she is at this point). Of course, he does catch up to Maria and bring her back later, so he doesn't lose much through this choice anyway.


In another of this films WTF moments (oh, it has them, which is why I'm surprised that I liked it so much), Lajos goes to drive the Baron home, but has apparently filled the coach with ravens. Angry... rabid... attack ravens? I don't know, but they peck the poor guy to death while Lajos giggles in the drivers' seat. I'm confused because Lajos is clearly disobeying the Phantom, who ordered that the man be set free, and also by the fact that the Phantom never remarks upon this or seems to even notice, despite the fact that the Baron's corpse turns up onstage in the middle of the next rehearsal of Faust and really couldn't have been missed. Lajos is behaving much like the 1962 film's Ivan again, in that he seems to be committing crimes without the Phantom's permission, but he does so less consistently and the result is confusing. The avian attack doesn't really make any kind of real sense, but it does make a bit of symbolic sense; it recalls the raven taking flight just before Elena's suicide near the beginning of the movie. Since the raven there was symbolically representative of Elena herself, we can view this otherwise bewildering and befeathered turn of events as Elena symbolically returning from the dead to finally wreak vengeance on her tormentor (a little bit of a stretch, I know, but the alternative is to think that there is a carriage full of hostile, murderous blackbirds for no real reason, and I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with a reality where that's possible).


The confrontation between Maria and the Phantom in his underground sanctum here is extremely poignant, and illustrates the vast gulf between the Phantom's perceptions and the reality of the situation. His dialogue makes it clear the he sees Maria as an innocent flower in need of his protection, exactly like Elena; obviously, she isn't, and so his attempts to offer her sanctuary from the outside world fall flat. His confusion over her refusal of his offer is genuine; he is at this point honestly almost unable to differentiate between her and his dead wife. Maria, who is a very free and independent spirit, cannot abide this captivity and is equally unable to understand his desire to protect her (or to make sense of why he keeps calling her "Elena" instead of by her actual name).


Some of the Phantom's lines in this climactic scene had me squealing with glee, because they were lifted almost verbatim from the most telling moments in Leroux's novel. The Phantom's lament that he wants to "be like all the others" is one of the most fundamental aspects of his character, that desire to no longer be shunned by society, while the assertion that he wants to "have a wife and walk with her on Sundays" ties both to that idea of societal acceptance and to the loss of Elena in this particular Phantom's backstory. The best moment, however, is just as it was in the novel; desperate for Maria to accept him and too mentally damaged to have any idea how to go about persuading her, he says pleadingly, "I only have to be loved to be good," Erik's classic line from the novel that so clearly illuminates his belief that he does have a core of goodness in him, if only someone could vanquish the evil that surrounds it (Erik, of course, believes this evil to be a curse handed down to him from God along with his deformity; Korvin doesn't have this belief, but his piteous begging for this reincarnated wife to love him has a deeply touching effect anyway).


All of this is lost on Maria, who fakes him out by touching him (and her touch has the same electrifying, almost reverent effect on Korvin, who has not been touched lovingly in five years - and certainly not by his dead wife - that it has on Leroux's affection-starved Phantom) and then yanks his imitation-human mask off when his guard is down. The change is instant; deprived of his human facade, the Phantom howls in agony and flees from Maria, sliding down the wall across the room to clutch his destroyed face and weep before crawling back toward her on all fours. The bestial screams and four-legged crawling are visual clues that back up his unmasking, showing us that he has retreated to beasthood after Maria rips away his "humanity". The score is all agitated violins and pitying string whines, giving us a neat aural clue as to Maria's exact psychological state, which encompasses both fear of the monster she's trapped with and a tiny note of pity for his clearly tormented state.


The Phantom's reaction, once he regains his feet and the power of speech, is to force Maria to look at his face, much as Erik did in the novel. His continual, pitiful wails of, "Look! It's not another mask, it's me! It's not a mask, it's me!" are both sympathy-inducing, as we empathize with his plight, and terrifying as he seems all too capable of hurting his stand-in wife in his extremity. Further, the statement gives us a very clear look into the Phantom's core of self-loathing: he, like Leroux's Erik, views himself as a hideous beast and is consumed with self-hatred for his inability to be like his fellow men.


He follows all of this up with more Leroux-faithful lines, mostly the ones having to do with no longer being able to release Maria now that she's seen his face, and I was floored by Schell's amazing acting ability. Some of these lines, while definitely lyric on the page, are badly, badly melodramatic-sounding when spoken aloud; I doubt that I would dare put them into a screenplay for fear of what the actors would make of them, but Schell (who, incidentally, is an Oscar-winner and one of the most beloved of German actors, which explains this film's greater popularity over there) is always right on the money, bringing what could be very stilted dialogue effortlessly to life. His entire portrayal of the Phantom is nothing short of incredible, elevating what could easily have been a role marked by cliched melodrama and shock tactics to a genuinely believable and complex character. I found both Seymour and York unremarkable - they had their great moments, but they also had at least one or two moments that were unbelievable enough to make me snort - and while I certainly wouldn't have kicked them off the set, they couldn't hold a candle to Schnell's nuanced portrayal.


I found it extremely interesting that Maria, trapped in the Phantom's lair, becomes almost beast-like herself. She becomes dirty and unkempt, scuttles back and forth on bare feet, spits her food in the Phantom's direction, and generally behaves in a way most unbecoming for a regular person. The implications are twofold: one, that Maria is again demonstrably not like Elena, who was a gently fainting lady to the very end, and two, that the isolation underground has the effect of bestializing its inhabitants, a phenomenon not limited only to the Phantom. In her final, great act of defiance, Maria retrieves the Phantom's discarded human-faced mask and throws it into the fire, where it promptly melts and is destroyed. This is certainly an act of defiance on her part, a rejection of the human mask that he has been wearing to disguise his true self from her, but it is also a strange kind of absolution for the Phantom; she is telling him that he never need hide his face from her again, and even if she hates him, the unexpected freedom of that thought is evident in his expression even as he is hurt by her actions.


Eventually, unable to escape the Phantom's (totally non-sexual, so it could be worse) clutches, Maria regresses to a childlike state wherein she huddles in the Phantom's chair and rocks herself, singing in a high, childish voice. So deeply sunk in her reverie is she, in fact, that when Michael does show up to save the day she almost doesn't recognize him, staring catatonically off into the distance as he tries to rouse her. The Phantom, perhaps viewing this as some form of acceptance of his dictate that she somehow turn into his wife, is unexpectedly tender; in fact, despite Michael's determined meddling, he says that he hasn't killed him specifically for Maria's sake, in order to avoid saddening her. This clues us in both that the Phantom is not a bloodthirsty killer without reason, still operating under his own curious set of morals, and also that he doesn't view Michael as a rival in any way.


Michael's ingenious plan to capture the Phantom at the opera house, using Maria as bait, is familiar to later audiences of the story as it has been used many times since, but this is its first appearance. In fact, Michael's ability to suss out clues and tramp through sewers, successfully finding Maria before the police have done much more than wander in circles, and then concoct a plan to capture her stalker recalls Raoul's role in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, which actually presented him as a police officer. Unfortunately for him, the Phantom is quite aware of his machinations and schemes to drop the chandelier on the audience - aiming for the police inspector, who takes the place of the replacement box keeper as the target of his ire, since this particular version of the story omits Madame Giry entirely.


The foreshadowing is heavy. The camera lingers on the chandelier several times, while the heavy, ponderous chugs of the Phantom's signature cellos fight for dominance with the atmospheric strains of Faust (here, neither theme really triumphs for a long time, their equality indicative of the importance of the Faust allegory to what's going on offstage). It's no coincidence that the Phantom makes his move as, onstage, Mephisto appears to claim beleagured Marguerite's soul (though it should be remembered that while he is representative of the devil here, the Phantom generally follows the characterization of Faust more closely). Maria adds to the buildup considerably, becoming more and more panicked as she watches Mephisto menace the heroine onstage, and increasingly aware of the large number of carved and stone faces in the architecture surrounding her; she hears the Phantom chanting her name in that same ragged whisper, which will continue to rise in volume until the climax of the scene, but here it is unclear whether he is actually projecting his voice to her or whether she might be simply hallucinating it, the illusion brought on by extreme fear and confusion.


The opera scene onstage hits its climax just as the tension becomes the worst, when an agitated Maria, who feels unsafe alone in her box, switches seats with the police inspector in order to feel more secure amongst the crowd; the opposing musical ideas finally choose a winner, with the terrifying Phantom's theme blaring away over the opera's music. The combination of climaxes is near-cacophonic, and certainly hard on the ear. Having already sawed most of the way through the chandelier's chain, the Phantom immediately panics when he realizes that Maria is now in the line of fire; even now, after she has rejected him, reduced him to a beast, disobeyed him, and run off into the arms of another man, he cannot bear the idea of hurting his "wife". It seems clear that the Phantom was intending to commit suicide by riding the chandelier down to the ground; he discarded his hat when he began work on it, symbolically relinquishing the need to hide himself, and climbed bodily onto the thing before starting to saw, indicating that he knew very well what he was doing. His motives are slightly less clear, but Korvin really has little left to live for - having achieved his revenge (even if indirectly through Lajos) and having lost his wife a second time (this time without even the comfort of being able to blame someone else), there seems to be little left to live for beyond one final, grand gesture. Maria's introduction into the equation spurs him to attempt to get back off the chandelier before it falls, possibly to go to her rescue, but he is unfortunately unable to do so. It falls and he rides it down, howling her name as he goes, until he is killed upon landing.


This little bit at the end annoys me, because the film had generally been doing a pretty good job staying realistic (or at least generally respecting the laws of physics), and it blew it all to hell at the very end. Somehow, after the chain has parted and the chandelier has begun its inexorable descent, Maria looks up, sees what's happening, and through some kind of magical time-bending ability has time to scream, jump over seats, and fight her way through a panicking crowd to Michael. In fact, pretty much everyone has time to get out of the way (which I understand from a directorial point of view; it's much more poignant to have Korvin manage only to kill himself in the end). The problem with this is that unless the opera house's roof is actually situated somewhere in the stratosphere, she would have about three, maybe four seconds tops before a ton of light fixture landed on her head and splattered her all over the floor. There's absolutely no way she would have been able to see what was happening and get out of the way in the middle of a crowded theatre; most people would need a second or two just to process and realize that omg there's a chandelier falling on my head, which doesn't leave much time for screaming your fool head off and swimming through the crowd like a salmon.


An interesting thought that has occurred to me after the fact: I have noted more than once that Maria bears little resemblance to the original Christine apart from her unfortunate kidnapping and teaching situation. Elena, on the other hand, exemplifies Leroux's timid heroine; if we choose to look at it another way, we could conceivably say that "Christine" actually dies at the beginning of the film when Elena drowns herself. In that case, this is an "aftermath" story - an ancestor to the current popular craze of writing sequels to Leroux's original work. It certainly makes sense in light of the Phantom's desperate, deranged devotion to Elena and the way that being deprived of her has driven him to extremely heinous acts. Something to think about.


What I found the most riveting, despite all the excellent things going on here, was that this film, in particular, shows the clearest progression through the trends we've been seeing in films up to this point. The sleazy date-rapist Baron is obviously a later form of D'Arcy from the 1962 Fisher/Lom production (and Swan from the 1976 de Palma/Finley), while Michael's role as director is just a short hop from Hunter's as producer in the same film, and the Phantom's final demise is almost identical, down to the final shot of the mask. The mute, murderous Lajos is a direct import of Ivan, the mute murderer from the 1962 film, and Michael's dogged insistence on ferreting out the Phantom recalls Raoul's role as a policeman in the 1943 Lubin/Rains film. Other choices - the performance of Faust, the use of a hat to hide the Phantom's head more fully, the Phantom's make-up, and much of the dialogue in the final lair scene - are directly pulled from the 1925 Julian/Chaney film and from Leroux's novel itself. Even the Hungarian washer-women cleaning the stage have been altered and stolen from the trio of lost-and-found ladies that seem so determined to give Hunter a hard time in the 1962 film. Sherman Yellen, the writer for this film, clearly did his homework and did it well; no popular version of the story prior to this one has been neglected, and elements of each have been carefully selected to give the film as much resonance and oomph as possible.


Even more exciting than being able to see where this film is coming from, however, is being able to see where it's going. Several conventions are first introduced here that will become staples for later versions, most notably Lloyd Webber's celebrated musical. This is the first time, for example, that we see the Phantom leaving single roses and notes for the cast, or that the Raoul character hatches a plan to use "Christine" as bait to trap the Phantom, or tyhe Carlotta character reliably uses an atomizer or throat-spray bottle, all of which will become part of the plot in Lloyd Webber's musical and the many versions that it will spawn. Being able to see the progression with such clarity is wildly exciting, at least for me, and there was more than a little bouncing and squealing going on in my apartment throughout the course of this movie.

bottom of page