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 title character, and has the unfortunate tendency to overemphasize the Phantom as a charming and sympathetic character. It matches what the 1943 film did well (save for the extra spoke in the love triangle), but keeps from being the ideal adaptation by repeating the previous film’s flaw of making the Phantom too much of a good guy.
An Extra-Charming Phantom
The plot here is more or less the same as in previous adaptations, 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) commits in this film is 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’s the one wronged party. And he pays for that by accidentally setting a fire, getting etching acids splashed on his face, and becoming the disfigured Phantom. This tracks with the previous adaptation’s change to make the Phantom not disfigured from birth, but mangled in some sort of accident. That change would continue to take root in further retellings well into the future.
A Horrific Face to Cover an Angelic Soul
Almost as though to offset the extra-nice Phantom in this play, Lom’s character has a more disturbing visage than his charming yet insane Rains counterpart. His mask covers his whole face save for a single eyehole, which gives him an uncanny look intended to unsettle the audience. 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.
A Strong Entry to the Hammer Horror Collection
As with the 1943 adaptation, this version of The Phantom of the Opera is excellent as its own film. It’s a shame that this version of the Phantom often gets forgotten when listing off classic Hammer Horror monsters.
However, as an adaptation, I think it once again misses some of the beautiful complexities of Leroux’s original. This film romanticizes things too far, painting the Phantom as a starving artist who was wronged yet never truly went mad. 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. By contrast, the original Phantom was damned from the beginning and only somewhat redeemed by Christine’s mercy.
Because of that extreme level of nobility, I think the Phantom’s death at the end of this film loses a bit of impact. This Phantom is a guy who toed the line of wrongdoing but only once went over, and then got punished for his actions. He does make a heroic sacrifice, true, but I feel it has less of an impact when he’s already a somewhat heroic figure. The beautiful moment of Leroux’s Phantom getting what he wants only to back off because of an epiphany given to him by Christine remains unrealized in all the film adaptations.
I don’t feel this film does the original novel justice, but then again no adaptation has. And, if nothing else, Lom presented a truly memorable and beautifully haunting rendition of the Phantom.
Images: Hammer Film Productions