When it comes to classic tales of unrequited love, pretty much any version of Phantom Of The Opera is way at the top. Wait, did you say love? I did. This may strike you as odd. Around here, after all, we generally prefer hearts with a more, shall we say, displayed-in-jars aesthetic. Even odder is the denizens of Castle Blogferatu skulking about in such territory when it comes replete with the likes of Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster just a-beltin’ out them tunes. Still, here we are.
Now, are there problems with this as an adaptation? Of course. For one thing, the entire “Phantom as a former violinist turned composer who gets burned by acid” idea strays pretty far afield from the source material. As does the complicated love triangle of Christine, Anatole, Raoul, and Claudin (more of a love trapezoid really). As does the death of Claudin.
Are there problems with this as another version of the 1925 movie? Not really. It’s clear from the outset that director Arthur Lubin is not only not remaking the Lon Chaney version, he’s also actively avoiding it. And why wouldn’t he? By 1943, the Lon Chaney image as the Phantom was already iconic. To compete with or attempt to recreate it would be foolhardy at best (ahem, Gus Van Sant). But does it still work as a standalone movie? Certainly.
First there’s Claude Rains as Claudin/The Phantom. From The Invisible Man on, I was sold on the guy. Indeed he’s the first person of any import we see as the film opens. Second, and this is ultimately what I’ve been leading up to, Lubin may in fact have borrowed heavily from the same kinds of ideas that were fast becoming hallmarks of film noir.
I’m not talking necessarily about the physically somber, dark-imaged, light and shade elements of German Expressionism, not with Technicolor. But there are certainly the psychologically somber, dark-imaged, light and shade elements of human nature. Less Caligari, less hardboiled detective, and more, say, Mildred Pierce.
Here’s a serviceable definition of film noir from An Introduction To Film (Sobchack and Sobchack): “focusing on the seamy underbelly of the urban world, the big city full of corruption and deceit, a disillusioned world with few heroes and few if any redeeming social values.” This is a world of “nighttime imagery, urban landscapes,” and “ambiguously corrupt characters whose chief activity is double-dealing in a society which seems to have no redeeming members and no hope for a moral and civilized survival.” Plenty to work with here.
Starting with Claudin, we’re already situated squarely in noir territory as Claudin’s mistrust of human nature has tragic consequences. Dismissed from the Paris Opera as a violinist when it’s discovered that he is losing the function of his fingers, he has also squandered his fortune quietly bankrolling the career of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster).
When her voice teacher discovers Claudin’s predicament, his first concern (in true noir fashion) is money. To continue as Christine’s benefactor, Claudin tries to sell a piano concerto he’s written, only to murder the music publisher for mistaken theft, a mistake that also causes Claudin’s disfigurement.
Not enough noir for you? Then let’s look at the Christine/Anatole/Raoul storyline. The first scene may start with Claudin, but the curtain literally opens on the menthol-cool stylings of the opera’s baritone, Anatole (our boy, Nelson Eddy, who interestingly had top billing over Rains).
In the wings is Raoul (Edgar Barrier) who beckons Christine off the stage forcing her to miss a curtain call. He immediately suspects Anatole’s motives for wanting to aid Christine in her operatic career. Soon after, he interrupts Christine and Anatole as they rehearse (providing the obligatory Nelson Eddy duet). This sets up the rivalry between Anatole and Raoul.
But even the minor characters are vile. Mme. Biancarolli is all calculating viciousness in her accusations of Anatole and Christine. In further noir style, she concedes to financial intimidation by the opera manager, but not without her own career-ending machinations against Christine. Soon she is eliminated in order to forward the scheme of the not necessarily so villainous Claudin.
All of these things play themselves out with amoral abandon. The competing lovers up the pressure on Christine. The Phantom foils one plot after another against him until his unrequited love seals his fate. So where does that leave us other than film noir’s moral grey areas?
“The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.” Tom Stoppard said that. In this case the bad guy isn’t all bad, the good guys have ulterior motives, Claude Rains dies, Nelson Eddy doesn’t get the girl, and Susanna Foster rejects love in pursuit of fame and fortune.
Well, at least someone has the right idea.
(not clear how many via chandelier crash)
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