Driven mad by his retirement from the Paris Opera, a dirty publisher, and an acid bath, Enrique Claudin (Claude Rains) dons the mask of the Phantom.
Universal was here before with their now public domain silent version (and they would return in the ’60s), Lon Chaney’s immeasurably disfigured face an instantly recognizable icon. Rains interpretation does not carry that same prominence.
The studio plays with the original story, with soft romantic humor as Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier) fight for the love of Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster). Their bumbling act is amusing if often spliced in at awkward times, post-murder hardly the right location.
Phantom comes across as a glossy, certainly expensive production. The often used (and still standing as of 2013) opera house set absolutely beautiful. The contrast with the Phantom’s gray scale sewer is superb, and lush, saturated costumes burst from the Technicolor frame.
Even by 1943, this story had screen presence multiple times prior. Claude Rains performance only peaks in the closing moments, the rest of the film often plodding. Phantom’s 1943 edition sells the operatic lifestyle with colorful side characters (Fritz Feld as a dismissive Lecours is outstanding) and fancy locations. The arc of romance is never strong enough, and lengthy stage sequences do little to push the story in any direction. They exist for the flash.
With a well paced eventual reveal of the Phantom’s face, Jack Pearce make-up again scores as the film reaches a crescendo, expected but no less tense. Dubois slow curiosity, fear, and movement is enough to make the sequence a show stealer. Rains’ shock and disbelief is better handled than any of the murders, and sadly, only comprises two minutes of the piece. There are far too many better choices for Phantom lovers to spend time here.
Universal’s treatment of the ’43 version in HD is handled beautifully, certainly helped by the Technicolor source that is popping with unmatched primaries. Opera garb is flush with reds, blues, and purples, all primed to push enormous saturation. Phantom walks the fine line between aggressive mastering and going too far; the image never bleeds.
With exceptions allowed for age, Phantom is coming from a clean print of mild to no damage for most of its run time. Chemical dissolves will rot the image as expected, no amount of restorative work able to compensate for the methods of old. Prior to fades, analog halos can be found – sometimes to a distracting degree – with little sign of tinkering by Universal… at least in this way.
Grain structure reveals something amiss, however slight. While the encode is able to resolve the slim facade of the film stock, in close there is evidence of smearing. Small motion does not comes across as blur, and in the mid-range, imagery can be slightly clumpy. Looking at hair often reveals a lack of definition and more of a dulled surface. Some smoothness is also questionable.
Aggressive cleaning/restoration is certainly a possibility (there is a ridiculously wide margin in quality between this and footage elsewhere in the bonuses), but this is a case where the ends may justify the means. Texture is able to pierce the veil of digital tweaking, and the resolution boost brings out the costumes marvelously. This is more of a showcase now then it probably ever was before.
From this DTS-HD 2.0 mono affair, the score comes flying from the speakers with startling clarity. Opening drums have all of the force needed to convey their depth, and within the highs, you will not hear any distortion. Opera scenes carry the vocals with amazing force, and orchestration backing the performances are crisp.
Age is never a factor here, a total lack of hiss or popping impressive. Fidelity and fullness are supreme qualities within this mix, while obviously imperative to the material. Enjoy it, this is a good one.
Historian Scott MacQueen pulls double duty with a commentary track while hosting a 50-minute look at the Phantom in The Opera Ghost. This feature digs into not only the Claude Rains version but many of the others while exploring their unique elements. Six minutes of scrolling production photos and a reused 100th anniversary piece, The Lot, are left.
Note: This review is based on the UK version of the disc. Contents (video, audio, extras) aside from the menus, are identical to the US release.