It has always been a question whether "The Phantom of the
Opera" (1925) is a great film, or only a great spectacle. Carl Sandburg,
one of the original reviewers, underwent a change of heart between his first
Chicago Daily News review (he waited for the Phantom's unmasking "terribly
fascinated, aching with suspense") and a reconsideration written a month
later ("strictly among the novelties of the season"). It was not, he
added on the level of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" or
"Greed," mentioning two of the greatest films of all time.
was right about that, and could have added the greatest of all silent horror
films, Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922), whose vampire may have influenced
Lon Chaney's performance as the Phantom. But as an exercise in lurid
sensationalism, straining against technical limitations in its eagerness to
overwhelm, the first of the many Phantom films has a creepy, undeniable power.
story is simply told -- too simply, perhaps, so that all of the adaptations,
including the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, have been much ado about
relatively little. In the cellars of the Paris Opera House lives a disfigured
masked man who becomes obsessed with the young singer Christine. He commands
the management to give her leading roles, and when they refuse, he exacts a
terrible revenge, causing a great chandelier to crash down on the audience.
lover, a pallid nonentity, is little competition for her fascination with the
Phantom, until she realizes with horror that the creature wants her to dwell in
his mad subterranean world. She unmasks him, is repelled by his hideous
disfigurement, flees to the surface and her lover, and is followed by a Phantom
seeking violent revenge. There is no room for psychological subtlety here.
is the idea of the Phantom, really, that fascinates us: the idea of a cruelly
mistreated man going mad in self-imposed exile in the very cellars, dungeons
and torture chambers where he was, apparently, disfigured in the first place.
His obsession with Christine reflects his desire to win back some joy from a
world that has mistreated him. Leroux and his adapters have placed this sad
creature in a bizarre subterranean space that has inspired generations of set
designers. There are five levels of cellars beneath the opera, one descending
beneath another in an expressionist series of staircases, ramps, trapdoors, and
a Styxian river that the Phantom crosses in a gondola. The Phantom has
furnished his lair with grotesque fittings: He sleeps in a coffin and provides
a bed for Christine in the shape of a whale boat. Remote controls give him
warnings when anyone approaches and allow him to roast or drown his enemies.
Christine, he offers wealth, luxury and opera stardom, and she is in no peril
"as long as you do not touch the mask" -- oh, and she must love him,
or at least allow him to possess her (although his precise sexual plans are
left undefined). Perhaps warned by the fate of the hero in her current
production of "Faust," she refuses this bargain, although for an
engaged woman, she allows herself to be dangerously tempted.
taking over the leading role from an ominously ill prima donna, she follows a
mysterious voice, opens a secret door behind the mirror in her dressing room,
descends through forbidding cellars, is taken semi-conscious by horseback and
gondola deeper into the labyrinth and sees the coffin where he sleeps. At this
point, her sudden cry of "You -- you are the Phantom!" inspired me to
write in my notes: "Duh!"
lover, the Viscount Raoul de Chagny, is likewise not a swift study. After the
Phantom has presumably claimed dozens of victims with the falling chandelier
and threatened Christine with death if she sees him again, Raoul agrees to meet
her at the Masked Ball. This is held in the Opera House on the very next night,
with the chandelier miraculously repaired and no mourning period, apparently,
for the dozens of crushed and maimed. Christine tells Raoul the Phantom will
murder them if they are seen together, but then, when a gaunt and spectral
figure in red stalks imperiously into the grand hall, Raoul unmasks himself,
which is, if you ask me, asking for trouble.
determines to sing her role one more time, after which Raoul will have a
carriage waiting by the stage door to spirit them safely away to England. This
plan is too optimistic, as the Phantom snatches Christine from her dressing
room, and the two are pursued into the bowels of Paris by Raoul and Inspector
Ledoux -- and, in a separate pursuit, by the vengeful stagehand Buquet (whose
brother the Phantom murdered), leading a mob of torch-carrying rabble. The
hapless Raoul and Ledoux are lured into a chamber where the Phantom can roast
them to death, and when they escape through a trapdoor, it leads to a chamber
where they can be drowned.
of this is fairly ridiculous, and yet, and yet, the story exerts a certain
macabre fascination. The characters of Christine and Raoul, played by Mary
Philbin and Norman Kerry, essentially function as puppets of the plot. But the
Phantom is invested by the intense and inventive Lon Chaney with a horror and
poignancy that is almost entirely created with body language. More of his face
is covered than in modern versions (a little gauze curtain flutters in front of
his mouth), but look at the way his hand moves as he gestures toward the coffin
as the titles announce "That is where I sleep." It is a languorous
movement that conveys great weary sadness.
Phantom's unmasking was one of the most famous moments in silent film. He is
seated at his organ. "Now, when he is intent on the music," Sandburg
wrote, "she comes closer, closer, her fingers steal towards the ribbon
that fastens the mask. Her fingers give one final twitch -- and there you
are!" There you are, all right, as Chaney, "the Man of 1,000
Faces" and a master of makeup, unveils a defacement more grotesque than in
any later version, his mouth a gaping cavern, his nose a void, his eyes widely
staring: "Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!"
other famous scene involves the falling chandelier, which became the
centerpiece of the Webber musical and functions the same way in Joel
Schumacher's 2004 film version. In the original film, it is curiously
underplayed; it falls in impressive majesty, to be sure, but its results are
hard to measure. Surely there are mangled bodies beneath it, but the movie
stays its distance and then hurries on.
more impressive is the Masked Ball sequence and its sequel on the roof of the
opera house. The filmmakers (director Rupert Julien, replaced by Edward
Sedgwick and assisted by Chaney) use primitive color techniques to saturate the
ball with brilliant scarlets and less obtrusive greens. Many scenes throughout
the film are tinted, which was common enough in silent days, but the Masked
Ball is a primitive form of Technicolor, in which the Phantom's great red cloak
sweeps through the air like a carrion bird that enfolds him.
on the roof, as Raoul and Christine plot, he hovers unseen above them on the
side of a statue, the red garment billowing ominously. Chaney's movements in
all of these scenes are filled with heedless bravado, and yet when he pauses,
when he listens, when the reasons for his jealousy are confirmed, he conveys
a strange way, the very artificiality of the color adds to its effect. True,
accurate and realistic color is simply ... color. But this form of color, which
seems imposed on the material, functions as a passionate impasto, a blood-red
overlay. We can sense the film straining to overwhelm us. The various scores (I
listened to the music by the great composer for silent film Carl Davis) swoop
and weep and shriek and fall into ominous prefigurings, and the whole
enterprise embraces the spirit of grand guignol.
Phantom of the Opera" is not a great film if you are concerned with art
and subtlety, depth and message; "Nosferatu" is a world beyond it.
But in its fevered melodrama and images of cadaverous romance, it finds a kind
of show-biz majesty. And it has two elements of genius: It creates beneath the
opera one of the most grotesque places in the cinema, and Chaney's performance
transforms an absurd character into a haunting one.
The new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom
of the Opera" opens nationally on Wednesday. See also the Great Movie
reviews of "Nosferatu," "The Man Who Laughs," "The
Fall of the House of Usher" and "Orpheus".