(Arthur Lubin, US, 1943)
This version of the often told Gaston Leroux's novel about a violinist (here played by Claude Rains) in the Paris Opera who falls in love with a young soprano (Susanna Foster) is directed by Arthur Lubin. Lubin made over a hundred films, mostly as a contract director for Universal studios. His non-genre background results in a film that is more melodramatic thriller than horror movie. A lengthy opera sequence opens the film during which we get a rare peek backstage at the less glamorous side of the opera. Cleaners with buckets do their thing just off-stage whilst the divas do theirs on it. It is here where Lubin's talents (and seemingly his interest) lies as he creates a wonderful, realistic backdrop to the tragic love story, complete with gossiping chorus girls, down-to-earth prop hands, Paris Opera management problems and prima donna performers. There are some humorist touches also that Edward Ward's jaunty score underlines.
Every cent of the production's budget seems to have been well spent on a strong cast, big stage numbers, stylish costumes, dramatic sets featuring sumptuous interiors and exteriors whose lighting has an Old Master-like quality (the film won Oscars for Cinematography and Art Direction). The set for Enrique Claudin's humble lodgings have a distinctively expressionist, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari styling (even his attire is similar) and that of the large, subterranean lair of the Phantom reflect Claude Rains' character. In contrast, the sets for everything else, based inevitably around the Paris Opera House, mirror the glamour of the opera and its artistes. When we first see Claudin, Rains' substantial and slightly scary make up harks back to the harsh panstick of the silent era. It would come as no surprise to learn that Rains himself might have been responsible for this stylistic touch. His performance as the passionate but edgy violinist who is forced to take early retirement as his abilities decline is an enthralling tour de force. Although the script requires him to turn from an eccentric but harmless and kind violinist to homicidal maniac literally overnight, Rains carries it off with aplomb. Credit is also due to Steven Geray for his humorous portrayal as Vereheres, one of the Opera House management team, petrified by the phantom that he is sure will destroy the company. If the opera sequences were removed this would be a good thirty minutes shorter. With them in, the emphasis is clearly on the drama and those expecting a gothic horror more in keeping with Universal's classics like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man will be disappointed.
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