Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-10-28 08:36

Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Hans Jacoby, John Jacoby, & Eric Taylor (writers), Gaston Leroux (novel)
Directed by: Arthur Lubin
Starring: Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, and Edgar Barrier

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"You'll love it here when you get used to the dark. And you'll love the dark, too. It's friendly and peaceful. It brings rest and relief from pain. It's right under the Opera. The music comes down and the darkness distills it, cleanses it of the suffering that made it. Then it's all beauty. And life here is like a resurrection."

As horror moved into the 40s, Universal was still coasting on the successes of the monsters that helped them shape the genre for American audiences: Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, all of whom were still showing up in sequels in some form or another. To keep the train rolling, Universal looked back to its past by re-adapting Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, which has to be the one of the most adapted horror tales after Stoker and Shelley’s novels. They of course distributed one of the first passes at the material in 1925 when the elder Lon Chaney stepped into the role of the phantom, and this 40s update actually recycled the grand sets from that earlier effort and infused it with a dash of Technicolor to create one of the more memorable horror films of the decade.

In this version, Claude Rains is the man who will become the phantom; he starts as frustrated violinist Enrique Claudin, who is dismissed from his duties at the opera. As he has spent most of his fortune funding the private lessons of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), this leaves him desperately in search of money. He hopes that his latest concerto will gain him fame and glory, but his music is stolen by a publisher; when the two have a confrontation, Claudin is left disfigured by photographic acid. He then seeks refuge in the bowels of the opera, where he haunts the theater and plots to aid Christine’s rise to fame by killing off her rival singers.

Of all the Universal classics, Phantom of the Opera is perhaps the most immaculately designed and well-produced. With its enormous, gorgeous sets, lavish cinematography, and spectacularly staged scenes, it’s one of horror’s great arthouse films that works purely as artifice alone. The auditorium set itself is stunning, featuring intricate baroque designs that burst off the screen thanks to the Technicolor; contrast this with the dank, minimalist lair of the phantom, which envelops the screen in darkness, and you can see how this thing paints its characters swiftly and visually. Expertly capturing the gothic beauty of Leroux’s original novel, the film is an exquisite exercise in production design and art direction and serves an early example of mis-en-scene playing a transcendent role in horror.

It also features aspects we’ve probably come to take for granted these days, such as elaborately choreographed sequences and grand musical numbers (though if there’s a real criticism of this version, it’s that it’s probably a little too indulgent with the opera numbers whose content don’t fit in with the film’s macabre sensibilities). Take for example the scene where the phantom is chased by Edgar Barrier’s police inspector, which features multiple dynamic angles and stunt work in a thrilling sequence that features a dashing sense of danger and excitement. Even more impressive is the famous climactic scene where Claudin climbs high above the auditorium to cut down the large chandelier, which will crash down on the unsuspecting audience below. Masterfully drawn out and finely edited, it’s a perilous, suspenseful moment that’s big and bold, with the aftermath being appropriately chaotic as it impressively teems with hundreds of extras. This is a genuine cinematic spectacle that’s a fine example of an already great moment being re-imagined; audiences saw this in 1925, but perhaps not on this scale.

Underlying all the spectacle is one of the more interesting, swift interpretations of the source material (I won’t say the most interesting because the ‘89 version starring Robert Englund is pretty weird). Since Rains was a huge star at the time, one could hardly expect Universal to stick him in an obscuring guise for most of the film; as such, we spend time with Claudin before he becomes the deranged stalker. Since the phantom is one of the more pitiful horror villains, Rains’s gravitas in these early scenes helps to establish that aspect of the character. The moment where he realizes his music has been stolen is great due to his palatable indignation; his transition into a madman might seem a bit abrupt and discordant if not for this. That piteous melancholy surrounding the character is rarely lost, save for the moments where the film is being a pure horror story; the climactic scene that finds him alone with Christine in his dungeon is a perfectly sad moment, scored by his own somber concerto that set all of these tragic events in motion.

Surrounding Rains are a set of other popular stars at the time, including Foster, a radiant beauty whose girlish charms are perfect match for the virginal Christina. She finds herself caught between two men--the inspector and her operatic co-star (Nelson Eddy), and the film finds some unsuspected levity in the rivalry between these two. Their begrudging respect makes this a better love triangle than most, as we avoid any sort of missteps that would make either the “bad guy.” Both are instantly affable and serve as fine foils to the phantom. The interactions between the two are marked by a playful humor; each practically trips up over each other both physically and verbally as they vie for Christine’s affections, and it’s just good, classic movie foppishness that I love.

The Phantom of the Opera is full of stuff like that, including the horror elements, which are delivered with the usual classic horror tricks: lots of shadowplay and implied grisliness. We first hear about the phantom before we see his shadows stalking across the walls in eerie fashion, and he only really reveals himself during one murder scene. After drugging Christine’s stuffy, red-headed rival (Jane Farrar), he threatens her to leave the theater; upon refusing, he quickly barges in. The deed is of course kept off screen, but there’s still something terrifying about his resolved swiftness, as the nice guy we previously knew has completely descended into murderous insanity. The trick of restraint is also applied to the phantom’s hideous visage too; while Rains’s disfigurement pales in comparison to Chaney’s ghastly makeup, the colorful distortions here must have been a ghoulish delight for audiences in 1943.

I’m not sure this version of Phantom of the Opera ascends to the heights of its Universal brethren, but it comes pretty close. Between the fine performances, the wonderful score, and the extravagant production values, it’s definitely one of the most elegant horror movies ever made. It’s arguable that the horror elements are somewhat suppressed by the artfulness and the grand dramaturgical displays, but they’re recovered deftly enough in the third act, which is full of suspense, murder, and mayhem. A picturesque take on a classic, The Phantom of the Opera is thrilling and effective as both a sad and horrific tale of terror.

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