The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

D: Rupert Julian
S: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry

The first film version of Gaston Leroux's romantic melodrama is cast in the twisted shadows and baroque decorations of the German Expressionist cinema. Directed for the screen by New Zealander Rupert Julian and photographed by Charles van Enger and Virgil Miller, the film was a triumph for producer Carl Laemmle, who delivered a wonderful match of style to content which would later inform the cycle of talkie horrors from Universal throughout the 1930s and 40s including adaptations of Dracula, Frankenstein and cycles based on The Mummy and The Wolf Man. Here, without sound, the camera is free to move about the impressive sets to find the best angle from which to shoot the drama which unfolds. The story concerns the mysterious goings-on in the Paris Opera house when an unidentified patron attempts to bolster the career of a young singer, even if it takes murder to do so.

The film centres on a remarkable performance by Lon Chaney as The Phantom. Both in make-up and underneath the mask, his marvellously physical acting works in conjunction with the stylish lighting and cinematography. It frequently resembles the 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in its blend of the inanimate with the animate, and in its exploration of some of the same romantic themes. It lacks the social dimension, of course, and eventually comes to a climax which is more concenred with the action than its meaning or story purpose (and brings to mind later films such as Hitchcock's The Lodger and Fritz Lang's M). But it holds attention throughout, and Chaney remains a joy to watch after decades of imitation.

The most recently restored version is based upon the 1929 print, using a combination of tints and the famous two-colour technicolour sequence from the original enhanced with digital technology. This produces spectacular results, especially in the scene where The Phantom eavesdrops on a conversation between Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry on the roof of the Opera, his red robes flowing about him in the breeze. It also comes with a new score by Carl Davis which sneakily cites Andrew Loyd Weber's popular stage musical version from time to time.

The pleasures of The Phantom of the Opera are in viewing it in context. It does not really stand up in the wake of films which followed it even from its own stable, but it is a very enjoyable work with closer links to Expressionism than time would later allow. It is also worth watching for Chaney alone. Though few will find him particularly romantic or sympathetic, he is certainly suitably loathsome and sinister, and it is just wonderful to watch him achieve his effects on the audience through a combination of mime and make-up which enhances both. It is also the closest to the original novel of the film versions to date, though that may or may not represent a plus depending on your expectations.

All-in-all it is a fine example of Hollywood hokum with a touch of European influence (albeit seen via a New Zealander) which is more interesting to film buffs than a general audience. Still, you can't go far wrong with it: it is simple, clear and generally quite effective. That alone makes it worth watching in an era where films tend to fall over themselves to appear more clever than they are.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.