The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

DIRECTOR: Terence Fisher

CAST: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Michael Gough, Edward de Souza, Thorley Walters, Ian Wilson, Miles Malleson, Michael Ripper, Patrick Troughton, Renee Houston, Miriam Karlin, Harold Goodwin.

SYNOPSIS: In turn-of-the-century London, trouble is afoot on the opening night of Joan of Arc, the new opera by Sir Ambrose d'Arcy (Gough). The production is postponed indefinitely when a murdered stagehand falls through the scenery mid-performance. The next day D'Arcy and his producer, Harry Hunter (De Souza), audition the young singer Christine Charles (Sears) for the opera, and rehearsals for the new production go ahead with Christine in the lead role. In her dressing room, she hears the voice of a man (Lom) telling her he will teach her to sing for him. Newfound suitor Harry is quick to discover where the voice is coming from, and soon he is on the trail of the mysterious 'Phantom of the Opera' -- the true author of D'Arcy's opera.

COMMENTS: Fisher here makes a valiant attempt to breathe new life into an old tale, but the result is one of his most inconsistent films. He clearly wants to make the Phantom a sympathetic character, a torn individual who ought ultimately to be pitied, rather than feared or hated; the opening titles recall those of The Curse of the Werewolf, whose antihero is a close cousin of Herbert Lom's Professor Petrie (the Phantom). Clearly by the end of the film Christine and Harry have come to pity the Phantom, and the denouement would certainly be moving if it weren't for the contrivances leading up to it.

Little in the story is actually believable: As Fisher himself admitted, the character of the Phantom lacks sufficient motivation. Why has he fallen in love with Christine? His brutal manhandling and selfish abuse of her as he slaps her around makes it hard to have sympathy with him, and ultimately hard to believe Christine would have pity on him, on which the force of the story's conclusion depends.

The mechanics of the plot are also poorly worked out, in particular the chain of coincidences that leads Harry to the Phantom's lair. It's all too far-fetched, even for a Hammer horror, and requires too big a stretch of the audience's imagination. It would help if the character of Harry were interesting; instead he is dull and one-dimensional, much like the slimy D'Arcy, whose dialogue tends to be confined to ham-fisted, bah-humbug-like histrionics along the lines of, "You're all fired!" and "You call this clean? Do it again!"

Given all this, is there anywhere the film succeeds? It must be said there are one or two rather quite brilliant flourishes. The drama of the opening scenes is executed with Hitchcockian precision. And the pre-titles sequence, in which we are introduced to the Phantom's underground home, is hauntingly beautiful: The camera pans through the empty theatre (filmed on location in the Wimbledon Theatre) and then through a tunnel and into the Phantom's dank, subterranean chambers. Edwin Astley's music (which in some of the opera sequences is rather uninspiring) is excellent at this point, having an ethereal quality at the same time as its groans evoke the murky waters of the Paris sewers.

With this sequence, the film begins as it ends: with the Dwarf (Wilson) looking upon his master (the Phantom). This is actually the most believable relationship in the film, and the only one which really works on an emotional level. In the film's opening shots, he sits motionless, gazing intently at his master, mesmerized by his music; at the end, his face is the last we see as he looks down from the rafters of the theatre at his dead friend.






Thorley Walters, Michael Gough, Edward de Souza in scenes filmed on location at the abandoned Wimbledon Theatre, London.

Edward de Souza braves the wet and cold on the Hammer backlot. As Harry, he played a part originally intended for Cary Grant.

The Phantom weeps silently as Christine sings his music.

Heather Sears and Herbert Lom on Bernard Robinson's inspired subterranean set.

The Phantom unmasked, crushed by the falling chandelier from which he has saved Christine. The make-up was by Hammer regular Roy Ashton.

An effective shock moment from the film's memorable opening sequence.





David L Rattigan 2005





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