The Phantom of the Opera: The 1962 Film

Lom's Phantom is definitely scary looking.The 1962 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera is everything the 1943 film was but more so. It has strong acting, with the Phantom played by Herbert Lom, plays up the disfigurement of the Phantom more, and has the unfortunate tendency to overemphasize the Phantom as a charming and sympathetic character. It matches what the 1943 film did well (except for the extra spoke in the love triangle, which I thought was a really good addition to the mythos), but keeps from being the ideal adaptation by repeating the previous film’s flaw of making the Phantom too much of a good guy.

The plot here is more or less the same as before, with the notable addition of the Phantom having a dwarf sidekick. In this film, the dwarf commits the murders that Leroux’s Phantom had done in the original. That means that this Phantom has relatively little blood on his hands, since it’s arguable that he didn’t actually order any murders and that the dwarf was acting on his own. The worst crime this Phantom (aka Professor Petrie) committed was breaking into a printing factory to destroy music stolen from him and published under somebody else’s name. Even in this crime, it’s hard to feel bad for Petrie, since he was the one wronged at the start. And he pays for that by accidentally setting a fire, getting etching acids splashed on his face, and becoming the disfigured Phantom.

Almost as though to offset the extra-angelic Phantom in this play, the Lom Phantom has a more disturbing visage than the charming yet insane Rains Phantom. His mask covers his whole face save for a single eyehole, which makes him look like a monster when without showing his true face. Clearly, this version of the story is trying to play up the idea that looks can be deceiving – we have a more frightening Phantom than before, yet he commits almost none of the wrongs that his previous incarnations did.

Even in his signature crime of kidnapping Christine, the Phantom gets absolved. Rather than escape, Christine and her lover Harry (replacing Raoul) actually decide to let the Phantom train her, after which she is released to perform on the stage. And even after that, the Phantom is made an unquestionable good guy when the signature chandelier drop becomes an accident rather than malicious and the Phantom sacrifices his life to save Christine.

As with the 1943 adaptation, this version of The Phantom of the Opera is excellent as its own film. As an adaptation, I think it once again misses the complex beauty of Leroux’s original. The original Phantom was a tragic figure, but he was also a dangerous psychopath. This film romanticizes things too far, painting the Phantom as a starving artist who was wronged yet never truly went mad. The original Phantom appeared as a monster from the get-go, and his madness comes from the fact that he never had any love or sympathy, even from his own mother. Eric Lom’s Phantom is easy to judge as a good guy – he’s weird and creepy, but he always remains an artist who cares about beauty and music to the extreme. The tragedy of Leroux’s original Phantom was that he was beyond redemption. Maybe if he had met Christine earlier and received some love as a younger man, he wouldn’t have done the things he did. As it was, he didn’t get the love he needed until it was too late and he had descended too far into insanity.

For this reason, I think the Phantom’s death at the end of this film loses a bit of impact. The original Phantom was a guy who had gone over the edge of madness and managed to pull up short of doing some supervillain-level evils just in time. This Phantom is a guy who toed the line of wrongdoing but only once went over, and then got punished for his actions. The chandelier falling on him doesn’t bring the same “Oomph” as it could have. He might as well have fallen down a well, or run over by a horse. The tragedy of his life had already occurred, and the climactic action here is already completed when he hears his masterpiece performed by Christine on stage. Leroux’s Phantom was a guy we see very rarely even in modern literature – someone who is truly both good and evil, capable of acts of beauty yet also horrible crimes. Lom’s Phantom, on the other hand, is a much more typical tragic hero whose end is almost a non-sequitur thrown in at the conclusion of the film out of a realization that the Phantom traditionally dies at the end.

Again, by itself, the 1962 Phantom is still a very good movie. It doesn’t do the original novel justice, but I don’t think any adaptation has. Next time around I’ll look at the Broadway musical that came the closest to accomplishing that feat, then I’ll torture myself with a look at the other Phantom adaptation that came out in the 1980s.

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