Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera; silent horror-drama, USA, 1925; D: Rupert Julian, Ernst Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick, S: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe

In Paris, there is a famous opera house that "enjoys" a bad reputation because it is built above a torture chamber. Recently, even rumors about a Phantom in the opera have been spreading through town. Still, the new owners buy the opera because they don't believe in such legends. But the Phantom, alias Erik, really exists and has fallen in love with the unknown actress Christine Daae, thus sending letters to the ballet star Carlotta in which he threatens her if she doesn't leave her role in the play "Faust". Christine is intrigued by the Phantom and even follows his advice to break up with her boyfriend Raoul. She descends on one occasion into the hidden hallways of the opera ad gets terrified by Phantom's deformed face. She reveals everything to Raoul, but the Phantom threatens he will kill him if she doesn't marry him. She accepts and leaves with him in a carriage. Still, she manages to save herself while an angry mob kills the Phantom.

Legendary silent horror drama "The Phantom of the Opera" doesn't hold up very well today because it lost some of its initial magic and genuinely creepy tone. It's an interesting tragedy with some raw use of expressionistic style, a classic tale about an outsider rejected by society: the Phantom, played brilliantly by Lon Chaney, is a truly fascinating character - he is clever and skillful, yet his physical appearance, doomed ugly by people, prevents him from doing something out of his life, so he tries to gain love from Christine by giving her gifts in the form of a "mediator" who helps advancing her career. It's a daring, dark film with a downbeat ending, and the scene where his face gets unmasked and scares Christine in the underground chamber is among one of the icons of horror. The story's structure is rather shaky at times and the finale is executed almost arbitrarily. That's partly due to the chaotic circumstances of the shooting of the film - Rupert Julian, Ernest Laemmle, Edward Sedgwick and Chaney himself directed a few scenes, each in their own way, but as a whole the film is remarkably coherent and even. Some moments, like the one in the masked party or the one with the trapped police officer Ledoux in the Phantom's underground basement are astounding, and as always black and white cinematography gives the story that unusual touch, since the directors failed to give it that masterful spark that would have made it a great, not only a good film. "The Phantom of the Opera" is a something like an opera inside an opera, a grand spectacle, just done in a rough way.


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