Color, 1990, 185 mins.
Directed by Tony Richardson
Starring Burt Lancaster, Charles Dance, Teri Polo, Ian Richardson, Andrea Ferreol, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Adam Storke
Image (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

The second television version of Gaston Leroux's classic novel, this Phantom of the Opera plays up the romantic, theatrical, and humorous aspects inherent in the story while ignoring the cliffhanger and horrific elements of teh famous Lon Chaney version. Adapted by Arthur Kopit from his stage play (which preceded Andrew Lloyd Webber's version and, unlike Webber, gave credit to the original author!), this two night production was helmed by the unlikely choice of Tony Richardson, best known for his British studies of nonconformity like Tom Jones and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Partially shot in the real Paris Opera House (a filmic first), this version of the familiar story may not really be strictly faithful to its source but does make for entertaining and elegant viewing.

A young ingenue, Christine (Sports Night's Teri Polo), toils away as an underling at the esteemed Paris Opera House where Carriere (Burt Lancaster) oversees the mammoth stage productions. Coached along by a mysterious phantom teacher (Charles Dance, excellent as always), Christine steps in and becomes the star of the evening when misfortune befalls the reigning diva, Carlotta (art film regular Andrea Ferreol from A Zed and Two Noughts and La Grande Bouffe). It turns out that Carriere is actually the phantom's father; his masked son resides beneath the opera house where he attempts to deal with his deep-rooted psychological torment and pines for a normal existence.

Though shot for television, this production looks relatively opulent and could often pass for feature work. While Lancaster seems a bit out of place with the rest of the proceedings in a role mostly created from scratch, everyone else performs convincingly, with tongue suitably but not distractingly placed in cheek. Kolpit's script makes a relatively smooth transition to the small screen, even with the removal of a few musical numbers present in his stage version.

This full frame DVD presentation looks much cleaner and glossier than the television broadcast, which aired most recently on A&E. Even better, the full stereo soundtrack has been restored, and it's a knockout. Astonishingly clear channel separation and rich, robust bass make this a true sonic delight, despite the fact that some of Christine's solo bits were rather sloppily dubbed. The score by the late John Addison (Sleuth) particularly benefits from the audio upgrade, as the music often subtly plays around the romantic and comic angles without resorting to traditional shrieking horror motifs. The DVD (whose chapters are split between the two separate halves of the program) also includes a "trailer," i.e., the four minute recap aired before the second night. While this may be skewed more for the Beauty and the Beast crowd than die-hard monster fans (after all, you never get to see the phantom's face, only Christine's reaction), this Phantom should make for a breezy, hokum-filled three hours with few complaints.

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