BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Sep 9th, 2003 •

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(Image Entertainment) Double-disc edition, containing both the 1925 and 1929 release versions.

Chaney is not an acquired taste; he’s a universally accessible screen presence, and his work, though in part lost, is nonetheless gloriously represented on DVD, mainly by Image Entertainment through the tireless work of David Shepard, and now, through the efforts of Brownlow, Gill and Stanbury (‘B,G&S’). You can also, through Image, obtain THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, OLIVER TWIST & THE LIGHT OF FAITH, OUTSIDE THE LAW & SHADOWS, NOMADS OF THE NORTH & THE SHOCK. Additionally, from Kino Video, you can find THE PENALTY & Chaney’s one reel western, BY THE SUN’S RAYS. These titles span the years 1920-1925, leaving much more transferring to be done in the years to come. Several of his other fine films are still extant on laserdisc, and hopefully it won’t be long before they’re on DVD as well. Co-incidentally, only one of these DVD-available titles – OUTSIDE THE LAW – was directed by Tod Browning, the filmmaker most closely associated with the career of the Man of a Thousand Faces. And Rupert Julian, Universal’s choice to direct PHANTOM, was one of those odd and ill-considered assignments that led to nothing but acrimony between director and star, and to less-than-stellar final results.

The project caught Chaney’s eye. Universal suggested it could be done for $100,000, but the actor’s business manager thought it couldn’t be done properly for less than twice that figure, and in the end they were both wrong, as the budget soared well beyond $600,000. Finally, though, Hollywood never quibbled with success, and the film was a spectacular example of it, though not, as the back jacket of the earlier (1995) Image release states, “Regarded by many as the first great horror film, and certainly the best of the silent era…” Ah, DVD jackets. What can you do? I’m sure sitting on your shelves near this classic will be one of the several DVD releases of NOSFERATU, a film every bit as good as Chaney’s, and released three years before. The liner notes on the ’95 DVD release are more honest about the film – it’s initial reediting due to bad screening cards, and the feeling that, classic though it may be, 1925’s audiences and critics noticed the unevenness of the final product even while they were delighting in it.

But all this is old news, and the new news, spectacular in the extreme, is that Image has released a new double-disc DVD – the B,G&S version. If I hadn’t already been sitting, I would have had to sit down for this. The sharpness, richness, completeness of the ’29 print are wondrously improved over any previous version anywhere, reconfirming the ability of both current technology and today’s film archeologists to perform deeds to which the word ‘miracle’ justly applies.

The new release also eclipses Shepard’s version as regards tinting. His use of the process obscured detail. That’s not how it was: this is how it was. None of the strong colors – blues, reds, ambers, etc., ever obfuscates art direction or facial nuance. It’s a textbook model of how tinted silents should appear.

The1929/30 version is feted with not one, but two scores, the first a regal and full-bodied, if not passionate effort by silent film staple Carl Davis, the other the original 1930 soundtrack edited to fit the picture, dialogue attempts and all. And the ’25 preview cut on disc two contains yet a third score, a rather vigorous one, by Jon Mirsalis. Three should be more than enough, right? And yet the score for the ’30 Shepard version is the most energetic and passionate of all, and I’m reluctant to move it on even though I’ve got three alternates. Maddening!

Another problem: I prefer the Technicolor Bal sequence in Shepard’s version. The long shots in the new release are tinged with an ugly, fluctuating green. The woman in the pearl-pink dress is better represented in the old release. But the phantom’s pose on the staircase, colorwise, may be slightly better on the new disc. Also, the recreation of the Handschiegl color process used in the ‘Apollo’s Lyre’ scene on the roof of the Opera is nothing short of extraordinary in the B,G&S version, the phantom’s cape, shimmering like the Banshee in DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, is breathtaking.

And finally, another problem, the image on the B,G&S version, vastly superior though it is, has visible ghosting throughout, which exists in neither of the other versions, either on disc two, or on Shepard’s release. Having come from England, I’m going to assume that this is a problem with PAL conversion. It should have had a second pass; so much time and effort, and obviously money, went into this incarnation, nothing should have slipped by quality control.
The ’97 DVD release had no commentary track. The B,G&S version features the inimitable Scott MacQueen, delivering a barrage of facts and poetic narrative so dense I had to listen to it twice to actually retain some of what I was hearing. There’s a spectacular trove of research on display and, to relate just a snippet, MacQueen explains, or hypothesizes, that Jean Cocteau was influenced by the film, the telltale signs of which can be seen in his LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Criterion), except that, compared to Julian’s film, one sees the difference between a poet and a hack. Which makes them a great double bill…or a great teaching tool.

This PHANTOM is as important an event as THE LOST WORLD was a few years back. Both were very much worked over by MacQueen. The true extent of his input isn’t revealed on the disc or liner notes, but however prodigious it was, the man deserves our gratitude.

Disc 1 contains the1929 version, color tinted to the original specifications, with the Bal Masque sequence matching the original Technicolor two strip, and featuring two scores: a Stereo orchestral score by Carl Davis, and the original 1930 soundtrack edited to fit the picture. This restored version produced by David Gill, Kevin Brownlow & Patrick Stanbury. Additional video work and bonus features produced by film historian/restorationist Scott MacQueen, who also contributes the audio commentary.

Disc 2 contains the original 1925 New York Release version with yet a third score, by Jon Mirsalis. Also, a video interview with Carla Laemmle by David Skal, a Faust opera extract from the 1929 Tiffany Sound feature MIDSTREAM. And an audio-only interview with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

Directed by Rupert Julian, Edward Sedgwick & Ernest Laemmle. Presented by Carl Laemmle. Scenario by Edward T. Lowe, Jr., adapted from Gaston Leroux’s novel by Raymond Schrock and Elliot Clawson. Photographed by Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger and Milton Bridenbecker. Art Direction by Charles D. Hall. Music composed by Gabriel Thibaudoux.

Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Snitz Edwards.

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