What is Phantom of the Paradise? It’s many things:
- It’s a musical-comedy-horror-satire (I’m not sure how many video shops had this category on the racks).
- It’s a film that quotes directly from Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles as well the classic Phantom of the Opera film and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
- It’s a prescient commentary on the state of the music business and predicted the ghoulish nature of reality TV in the future.
- It’s Brian De Palma firing on all cylinders.
- It’s a movie that was largely rejected for years that now enjoys a cult following.
Phantom of the Paradise is cinema and cinema is visual. So here is a visual guide to Phantom of the Paradise.
Brian De Palma was inspired to create The Phantom of the Paradise when he heard a Muzak version of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and realized that the corporate side of music could turn any work of art into useless “product”.
“The system will destroy anything good” – Brian De Palma.
Early in the film, we are introduced to Winslow playing his composition “Faust” in its pure an intended form. Throughout the film, that music and the characters surrounding it are corrupted. Swan, on the other hand, represents the callous record industry: Swan’s declaration “An assassination on live TV? Now that’s entertainment!”, encapsulates the entire theme of the film in De Palma’s opinion.
So what we end up with is a story that unfolds that borrows from Faust, Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray: just with more rock and roll, and liberal cinematic references as well.
The scene with Swan feeding The Phantom from his suitcase of pills reflects the music industry of the day, when managers infamously worked both double duty as managers and drug supplier for major acts. These same managers later became infamous for their casual disregard to both the economic and physical well-being of the stars they represented, often outliving them and reaping the profits to this day.
The end of the music, and what Swan presumes to be the end of the Winslow himself, concludes with Swan stealing the product (Faust) from Winslow and leaving him literally face down in a pile of drugs, sealed in a tomb.
Even the tragic end of the film is a statement on the hollowness of the music industry, as fans dance wildly around the death of their idols:
Phantom is a fun film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also bleak in its message and tone.
-DE PALMA SHOTS-
Phantom of the Paradise is full of some impressive shots. Here are a few highlights.
Note: the “De Palma Shot” section for this film need to also be properly credited to Director of Photography Larry Pizer as well. Interestingly, among his many projects after Phantom, Pizer went on to be the cinematographer for an Alice Cooper documentary and a TV version of Phantom of the Opera.
When we’re first introduced to Winslow, we do so by way of a great shot where we see through Swan’s eyes while Philbin delivers a monologue (Philbin is named for Mary Philbin – the lead actress in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)).
This same introduction introduces us to the cynical attitude of the film, with Swan arguing that an artist who is at the top of charts today isn’t important because she will be forgotten tomorrow.
The actor who plays Philbin, George Memmoli, was a frequent collaborator with Martin Scorsese, and amongst his other credits was being hit over the head with a chair by Richard Pryor while filming Blue Collar (he sued Pryor for a million dollars over the incident).
HAILING A CAB
The shot of Winslow hailing a cab is style for its own sake. How would a cab driver actually see him there? He’s behind a mirror and in between two sections of the sculpture and a good 10 feet away from the street. He ends up chasing it down of course, but the shot is framed from here, because it looks great.
Super low angle – authority towers over Winslow.
GIANT STARS & STRIPES
Also appearing in Blow Out:
NICE DESK, IF NOT IMPRACTICAL
Another visually striking overhead slow tracking shot. How does Swan get into that desk? Does he use a crane or is there a way to crawl underneath? I think the point is purely visual, and on that point, it’s a pure success.
A QUICK RIDE TO THE TOP
The scene of The Phantom riding the counterbalance up to the top of the stage while Beef heads down to stage level is one of the most visually striking in the film. It is also typical of De Palma’s visual style where he attempts to use existing sets to create striking shots. Where Hitchcock would have sets created specifically to create a shot (and De Palma would do this too of course as well), De Palma’s approach of using existing opportunities is one of his contributions and influence on future film makers. It’s an organic approach to film making and visual style, not to mention normally less expensive.
A RE-USED DE PALMA SHOT
The rictus scream of Beef (from inside a coffin) when he turns to face the camera is later re-used at the start of Body Double when we see Craig Wasson’s character making a film within the film at the start of that film.
Craig Wasson, in a coffin, turns to the camera in a rictus scream in BODY DOUBLE:
STOOPING TO FIT – FRAMING AS A REPRESENTATION OF PERSONAL REALITY
Later in the film, we see The Phantom having to stoop down to fit in doors and ceilings at The Paradise:
According to De Palma, this is a visual reference to corrupted power creating a world around itself that reflects its own desire: everything in Swan’s inner sanctum is cut to his height. The Phantom, and most of the population in fact, is not a factor or consideration in Swan’s corrupted world of his own creation.
Several shots in the film are striking not just because of their composition, but because they foreshadow future scenes.
Winslow’s billowing jacket:
Echoes the Phantom’s billowing cape at the climax:
Winslow outside Swan’s office later that evening:
Echoes The Phantom on the roof:
These shots are also obvious references to THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939).
Dynamic shot with chase camera of Winslow after escaping from Sing Sing:
Echoes same dynamic shot of Phantom later in the film as he races to save Phoenix:
-DE PALMA SIGNATURES-
Brian De Palma is a practitioner of highly stylized, highly visual cinema. He is also never hesitant to use and re-use certain techniques and themes in his films that combine to make his films feel like “a De Palma film”. They are his signatures, and they’re all over Phantom of the Paradise.
Here are a few.
When we are introduced to Winslow (playing “Faust”), the camera swirls around him. De Palma loves a good camera swirl (see: Dressed to Kill, Body Double, etc.). Another camera swirl happens in the Psycho homage later in the film.
Brian De Palma is a fan of the screen wipe.
When Winslow catches his cab, we get a left to right screen wipe, which leads us directly to ANOTHER screen wipe, this time top to bottom.
A screen wipe is dynamic and inherently cinematic. They’re not commonly used now, because the trade off is that they take away from a film feeling organic. De Palma revels in his films actually being films (as opposed to say, “windows to reality”), which is inherent in his style.
OVERHEAD INTERIOR TRACKING SHOTS
Interior overhead slow tracking shots – also popular with Alfred Hitchcock.
“You’re being auditioned right now, the whole place is bugged. Swan is watching us right now.”
Brian De Palma loves to include scenes that include video or audio surveillance. This happens over and over again in his films and is even a central theme in some (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, Passion).
Swan’s surveillance in the Paradise is ubiquitous, including in the lower left display a camera trained on anybody watching the cameras:
Hand in hand with surveillance for De Palma is voyeurism, the act of watching somebody who is unaware of being watched.
See also – Body Double, Sisters
Later in this scene, we get surveillance on top of voyeurism, like a Russian doll, when Swan turns on a monitor that films The Phantom watching him and Phoenix. It also clearly appears that Swan is enjoying the surveillance of The Phantom and his suicide attempt (which fails due to his Faustian contract) more than Phoenix:
DISGUISES, ESPECIALLY MASKS
Brian De Palma loves disguises and especially masks and they appear constantly in his films (see: Body Double, Mission Impossible, etc.).
Bill Finley has said that the helmet caused him to have allergic reactions and he had a hard time hearing directions from De Palma while wearing, until later in the production when a small walkie-talkie receiver was added inside.
Another inherently cinematic rather than naturalistic technique.
De Palma also likes to use split diopter shots, where a special lens is used to create a split screen effect that is actually present in an actual scene setup (see: Blow Out).
FAST EDIT MUSIC VIDEO
The credits for Phantom of the Paradise end with a fast edit montage music video style. De Palma would also include a music video style sequence in Body Double, that time right in the body of the film.
Jake is introduced into the club by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in BODY DOUBLE.
Body Double (1984)
Phantom is about corruption, and nobody becomes more corrupted than Winslow, although Winslow’s corruption is tragic in that it is imposed upon him rather than something he seeks out himself.
De Palma originally wrote the role of Winslow for Bill Finley, but while he worked with Paul Williams on the music, he decided that Williams should actually play the role himself (Williams was interested in expanding his acting career at the time). Williams was worried that he wouldn’t be scary enough to play The Phantom, so De Palma cast him as Swan instead.
Bill Finley was a regular in De Palma films, appearing in Murder a la Mod, Sisters (the film immediately prior to Phantom), The Fury, Dressed to Kill, and The Black Dahlia.
Swan is the source of the corruption. Swan represents “the man”. He is both corrupt and corrupter.
Swan was originally named “Dorian” in early scripts – a more heavy handed reference to the influence of the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” on the character.
De Palma has said that Swan was based largely on super producer Phil Spector, famous making the careers of many major stars and curiously enough later convicted of murder.
Phoenix wants fame, but ends up also being corrupted along the way, despite the efforts of Winslow/The Phantom. Phoenix is central the tragedy of the film.
Phoenix was played by Jessica Harper who went on to star in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA and also appears in STARDUST MEMORIES.
Jessica Harper is currently a successful author of children’s books which have won The Parent’s Gold Choice award.
Jessica Harper is proud of the fact that she beat out Linda Rondstadt for the role.
It’s easy to miss, but you can see Phoenix as a background singer before she is required to replace Beef:
Beef is comic relief, but also another “product” to Swan.
Gerrit Graham was originally cast as Swan. Peter Boyle was originally considered for the role of Beef. After working with Paul Williams on the music, De Palma decided he should play the role of Winslow and The Phantom. The roles of The Phantom and Swan were soon switched around after Paul Williams decided he couldn’t pull off the menace of The Phantom, Boyle was already unavailable and Gerrit Graham got the part.
De Palma directed Graham to play Beef to be like Little Richard.
The same band play The Juicy Fruits, The Beach Bums and The Undeads. The bands originally worked on their performances independently while De Palma came up with interesting ways to shoot each band.
Brian De Palma originally wanted Sha Na Na as the 50s nostalgia band, but they became unavailable at the last minute due to internal problems within the band (Sha Na Na were actually on filming call sheets). Paul Williams and De Palma hastily assembled the band that we see instead.
It’s possible that De Palma included The Juicy Fruits band at the start to demonstrate how nostalgia was causing pop music to eat itself, a trend in rock which continues to this day, where pop music of 20 years ago is often quoted in new pop music as “nostalgia”.
The Paradise is the club that Swan opens with “Faust”.
The film was originally going to be “The Phantom of the Fillmore”, named for the famous rock venue in San Francisco, but the owner of the Fillmore (Bill Graham) wasn’t interested in having that happen.
Death Records is Swan’s recording label.
Death Records was originally going to be called Swan Song, but Led Zeppelin already owned the rights to that name and wouldn’t allow it to be used in the film.
If you look very carefully when Winslow goes to visit Swan, you can see the original name above the doors:
In closer shots of the same area, you can clearly see the touch up job:
(this same sequence is actually sped up, Keystone Cops style, doing a gag with the rotating doors)
Other examples of the logo being hastily removed with inserts:
De Palma regrets the way these inserts look in the film, but they were a legal necessity.
THE RECORD PRESS
“According to William Finley, the record press in which his character Winslow Leach was disfigured was in a real pressing plant (it was an injection-molding press at an Ideal Toy Company plant). He was worried about whether the machine would be safe, and the crew assured him it was. The press was fitted with foam pads (which resemble the casting molds in the press) and there were chocks put in the center to stop it from closing completely. Unfortunately, the machine was powerful enough to crush the chocks that it gradually kept closing. It was Finley’s speed and timing that saved him from being seriously hurt, as he got his head out just in time. His scream in the scene was, in fact, not acting.”
You can clearly see the foam pads in high-def and they bend around Finley as he does the stunt:
Despite the fact that it looks like something imagined for the film, the room of electronics that we see the Phantom in is an actual working synthesizer known as the TONTO (“The Original New Timbral Orchestra”). It was used by many artists, including Stevie Wonder, The Doobie Brothers, and Quincy Jones.
None of the sound in the film is generated by TONTO though.
Outside of an ongoing homage to Phantom of the Opera (1943), there are three sequences that directly reference scenes from other films. De Palma is never afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, but these scenes transcend mere “influence” as they are more direct quotes with their own twists added for good measure.
A TOUCH OF EVIL
One of the most impressive scenes in the film is an homage.
The entire scene with the bomb in the car is a reference to the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ A TOUCH OF EVIL. It’s also a long shot (just like the one in A TOUCH OF EVIL, arguably the one shot that started the whole contest of directors trying to out one shot each other), but in splitscreen! Is that a long shot to the second power?
De Palma has said that choreographing the double single shot was very complex, adding in the difficulty of making sure that the two cameras never “saw” each other either. Rewatching this scene, it really technically impressive.
A Touch of Evil (1958)
This also all ties back to Hitchcock’s rule of suspense and the “bomb under the table”:
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” – Alfred Hitchcock
We know that there is a bomb in the car, so this scene is probably the most suspenseful of the entire film.
De Palma is often accused of being a Hitchcock imitator and Orson Welles is another huge influence on him, so just as Quentin Tarantino would later blatantly borrow from De Palma, here De Palma blatantly borrows from one of his own influences.
No director had a greater influence on De Palma than Hitchcock did, so it’s fitting that he would directly reference Hitchcock onscreen. De Palma’s previous film (SISTERS) was accused of “imitating Hitchcock”, so this scene was a fun way for De Palma to play on that.
The shower sequence in PSYCHO is one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema.
De Palma adds a flourish with a camera spin inside and outside the shower itself, where Hitchcock kept the audience in the shower with Janet Leigh – and while the key elements are all there, De Palma quotes liberally:
The critical difference being that where Hitchcock resolves his scene with terror:
De Palma resolves his with humour:
Staying consistent with the tone of Phantom and also mocking those accusing him of being a copycat.
EXPRESSIONIST FILMS: THE CABINET OF DR.CALIGARI
The backdrop for The Undeads performance is clearly reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema such as The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari.
The Phantom of the Paradise is thick with small elements you might miss on first (or fifth) viewing. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.
The opening credits were narrated by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), who goes uncredited for his work.
SET DRESSING BY CARRIE
On the subject of visual style, one of the people who helped provide it as a set dresser was Sissy Spacek, who was assisting her boyfriend who was Phantom’s production designer. She had auditioned for the role of Phoenix but lost out to Jessica Harper.
Obviously that all worked out OK when she got the lead in De Palma’s next film.
USE OF SUBJECTIVE CAMERA
In the scene where Winslow returns to the Paradise is done with a handheld camera from Winslow’s perspective with his laboured breathing prominent. This is the same style of shot that became infamous in slasher films a few years later. At the time of Phantom of the Paradise, this was not a commonly used perspective, seen sometimes in the films of Mario Bava (ex: “Twitch of the Death Nerve”) and Robert Siodmak’s “The Spiral Staircase” before Bava.
CAPES OF THE PHANTOM
The Phantom’s capes change throughout the film.
Silver/Black Cape (his helmet isn’t on quite right here either):
Probably due to the filming sequence, the silver cape appears again late in the film:
William Finley has explained that the silver cape was reflective and was ruining shots at the start of filming.
Red velvet cape:
This cape appears a lot in the film, and likely solved the problem of reflectivity.
Red/purple satin cape:
I’m not sure why we see this cape, although considering Phantom of the Paradise was filmed fast and cheap, it was probably a best-option solution from whatever was available.
THE “IMITATOR” IMITATED?
Critics of De Palma have accused him of being an imitator of other great directors, but elements of The Phantom character at least appear to have been later imitated in STAR WARS.
Darth Vader, the main villain of the original STAR WARS films, also wore a mask, had a rectangular voice box, dressed in a black leather suit with a cape, and used his mask to hide a badly wounded face.
De Palma and George Lucas are friends, so it’s a safe bet that this has been settled over beer at some point.
THE PERFECT VOICE
When Swan adjusts the voice of the Phantom and declares it “perfect”, this is a joke because the voice he’s adjusting is actually his own (ie: that is actually Paul Williams singing).
SIGNED IN BLOOD
Swan pricks the Phantom’s finger and has him sign his contract in blood:
Members of KISS accused The Phantom of the Paradise of stealing ideas from them (specifically the face paint for “The Undeads” band), but KISS would later “creatively borrow” the contract in blood a few years after Phantom when they signed a deal with Marvel Comics and made a show of also dropping their own blood into ink used for the comic printing.
The Undeads from Phantom – KISS accused De Palma of stealing their look, possibly with a degree of merit, but the film references several styles and bands throughout that were popular at the time.
The performance by “The Undeads” is also much more reminiscent of Alice Cooper, with on-stage assistants and magic style stage tricks. The song they perform is also much closer in style to Alice Cooper than KISS.
Members of KISS dropping blood into the ink for their comic:
KISS also released their own “Phantom” musical four years after Phantom of the Paradise – the infamous and nearly unwatchable “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park”, which is now basically disavowed by their own membership:
Phantom ends in tragedy. The themes and message of the film were well ahead of its time though, so the film itself lives on.
I was not myself last night …