The Movie in my Mind: “The Phantom of the Opera” (1962)

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Anyone interested in the saga of Hammer Films knows the story–one day out of the blue the Hammer brass learn that Cary Grant is interested in doing a Hammer Film. Wow! Cary Grant! Hammer had used American actors and actresses in the past, but they were either second-tier performers or top attractions who had aged and fallen upon hard times. But Cary Grant–he was still active, he was still BIG. The Hammer project that Grant’s name became attached to was their upcoming re-make of “The Phantom of the Opera.” This was part of an on-going deal that Hammer had with one of their American distributors, Universal-International, to film new color versions of the classic Universal horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. The Phantom had been filmed twice before by Universal, each time the role had attracted top acting talent–Lon Chaney, Sr. in the 1926 silent-film and Claude Rains in the lavish 1943 Technicolor musical-drama. Hammer would have to treat this project a little differently, with a bit more respect. This was not to be a typical Cushing- or Lee-vehicle. And this is where the problems began.

Let’s talk about the good things first. By re-locating the setting from the grandiose Paris Opera to a London opera house they were able to eliminate their old problem of mittel-European inn-keepers and coachmen with Cockney accents. The physical details of the production were up to their usual high standards and, rather then create a cod-Russian opera as Universal had done in 1943 by grabbing snatches of music from existing works, Hammer hired composer Edwin Astley to write a faux-Victorian opera on the theme of St. Joan of Arc. The music is certainly a high-point of the film. They eliminated the comic undertones of the Rains film–the by-play between the opera manager and his assistant and the friendly rivalry between the heroine’s two suitors and instead aimed for a serious, even tragic tone. The casting was spot-on with Edward de Souza as a rather dashing stage manager, Heather Sears as a comely soprano and Michael Gough as a villainous nobleman trying to pass another man’s work off as his own. So where’s the problem?

Cary Grant was a no-show. Whether he, or his agent, had second thoughts about Grant appearing in a “Hammer horror,” or whether the money just there to pay him, there would be no Cary Grant top-billed in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Herbert Lom was brought in to replace Grant–and this should have been a stroke of good fortune for Hammer. What Lom lacked in U.S. box-office recognition, he more than made up for in talent. Lom could play any sort of role: compassionate psychiatrist, Nazi spy, London gang lord, Italian-immigrant trucker–all were within his skill-set. He had already made a bit of an impression in America playing an increasingly-harried Napoleon in King Vidor’s film of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and he would go on (in a mere two years) to attain a sort of pop-immortality as Peter Sellers’ foil in the Pink Panther films. So far, so good. Now comes the hard part. To make the film more palatable to Grant, and more in keeping with his suave image, there would be no insanity, no murders. But how could you do “The Phantom of the Opera” without murders? Simply, you give the Phantom a sidekick, a psychotic hunchback who scuttles about the bowels of the opera knifing anyone who trespasses there. So, in this version, the Opera Ghost becomes a bit of a pathetic creature, cheated of his deserved fame, disfigured by acid and driven half-mad as a result. The true monster of Hammer’s film is Michael Gough’s sleek, slimy Lord Ambrose d’Arcy who pays a man a pittance for his life’s work, then crosses out the composer’s name and writes in his own. “MY name on MY music,” as Lord Ambrose explains before horse-whipping the poor fool who had the temerity to complain. Gough excelled as portraying this type of completely-despicable character. (In later years who would believe that the same actor portrayed the faithful Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films?) As he proceeds from outrage to outrage, the audience confidently expects to see this cad receive his comeuppance. Anthony Hinds’ script seems to be heading in that direction. On the night of “his” opera’s premiere, Lord Ambrose is confronted in the Director’s office by a ragged, masked figure. How could he recognize him as the Professor Petrie of years past? He arrogantly demands that the intruder remove his mask and, in the face of the stranger’s non-compliance, rips it from his face. WE DON’T SEE THE PHANTOM’S FACE. We see Lord Ambrose’s terrified reaction as the mask slips from his fingers and he flees the room. Exit Lord Ambrose. Not much of a comeuppance as comeuppances go–a few weeks to get over the shock and he’ll be right back to seducing chorus girls during champagne suppers.

Now I realize that Hinds may have lacked the time or the inclination to go back to the beginning–Oh, this to be a Herbert Lom Phantom, NOT a Cary Grant Phantom–but a bit of minor re-writing might have turned a disappointing Hammer Film into a great one. Let’s continue with the remainder of the film. The hunchback has deserted the bowels of the opera and is now lurking around backstage. Spotted by some stagehands he flees to the higher reaches of the house. As this is going on, Petrie’s opera is drawing to its rapturous conclusion. The Phantom watches from his private (because it’s “haunted”) box, tears streaming from his one good eye. The hunchback still eluding his pursuers has climbed onto one of the chandeliers, but it begins to loosen under his weight. The chandelier is going to fall to the stage the young star Christine will be killed. She is the Phantom’s protégé, he has trained her to be a great singer. She is Professor Petrie’s legacy. So what does he do? Tearing the mask from his own face, revealing a bluish, one-eyed, acid-scarred countenance, he leaps to the stage–undoubtedly scaring the poor woman out of the year’s growth, and is himself crushed by the fallen chandelier. Now, as the Frog said to the Scorpion, “Where is the logic?” Christine has only known her teacher as a masked figure. Wouldn’t the sight of this horrific creature swooping down on her freeze her in terror? Wouldn’t the proper time to have revealed this horror have been the moment when Lord Ambrose unmasks his victim/nemesis? And since the Phantom had a little friend who enjoys suddenly attacking and stabbing strangers–he even stabbed the poor rat-catcher for goodness sakes–would it really have killed Hammer to have Ambrose open that office door only to encounter a knife? The audience would have gone home satisfied that a bad man had been punished for his misdeeds, there would have been a logical reason for the hunchback to be in the public area of the opera house, there would have a logical reason for his flight from the stagehands, and the Phantom could have made his death leap masked. Being crushed by the chandelier could have caused his mask to become dislodged so that the audience could get one last good look at Roy Ashton’s masterful make-up job, and they could have still closed on the somber image of the Phantom’s mask lying on the stage. The way the film now ends, there isn’t even any reason for Lord Ambrose to confess that he stole another man’s work. Petrie is dead and if Harry and Christine threatened to tell the true story, it would still be the word of two nobodies against a peer of the realm.

Terence Fisher wanted to direct a romantic and tragic film. He very nearly succeeded.

P.S.–It is now being stated in a recent excellent discussion of the film that Grant was never interested in the role of the Phantom, that he had his eye on the role of stage manager Harry Hunter, the romantic lead. If true, this would certainly have been more in keeping with Grant’s image, circa 1960, as an aging but still suave romantic lead. But this still would not let Hammer completely off the hook. If we accept that Grant was pegged to play the romantic lead, then why did Anthony Hinds bend over backwards to create a kinder, gentler Phantom? If Grant was only to be the romantic lead and rescuer of the damsel-in-distress, then why didn’t Hinds make the Phantom at least as murderously mad as Claude Rains was in the 1943 remake, rather than providing him with a murderous hunchback servant/protector? I can almost buy that the Hammer brass intentionally watered down the action because, for the first time since venturing into the horror genre, they were actually trying to avoid an “X”-certificate, but I wonder that their backers at Universal didn’t insist upon a more traditional Phantom. In the past, Hammer always upped the horror content ante when re-doing Universal’s catalogue of monsters. Why would they have toned down the Opera Ghost if not because Grant was interested in the part?

A bigger problem that I have with the latest attempt to rehabilitate this film is author Kirk Henderson’s contention that Michael Gough’s Lord Ambrose D’Arcy has been revealed as a thief and his reputation is destroyed, therefore the villain is adequately punished for his crimes. Aside from wishful-thinking on the part of the author, I find no support for this reading. What will happen is that the dead Professor Petrie will be dismissed as a poor demented soul who thought that the opera “Saint Joan, the Tragedy of Joan of Arc” was his work. Petrie is dead and I don’t see the hunchback, even if apprehended, testifying in court on Petrie’s behalf. No, what we have is two disgruntled opera employees, who had reason to bear Lord Ambrose a grudge, attempting to blacken his reputation. Their word against the word of a Peer of the Realm in a Victorian London courtroom. No, I doubt very strongly that Lord Ambrose would be branded a thief and sent to Coventry for the remainder of his days. Give him a week or two to recover from his shock, and the realization that Petrie is no longer around to trouble him, and he’ll be right back to seducing chorus girls over champagne-and-oyster suppers.

Final word: I like the film. It’s a quality product, but it’s not top-of-the-line Hammer.

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