“The remake of a classic may be worth everybody's while. The sequels rarely are. I never had any sense of embarrassment over the first Dracula nor The Face of Fu Manchu...alas, in the follow-ups to both there was much to make me look shifty and suck my paws. Knowing this, I nevertheless repeated each character many times over. I did so because they were my livelihood." (1)
~ Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee, no matter his roles in prestige productions like The Three Musketeers, The Man with the Golden Gun or, more recently, in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises, will forever be associated with his most famous role - Count Dracula. But in the 1960s, Lee was also busy playing another famous villain – Sax Rohmer's evil Chinese mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu. It was a part Lee played in 5 films, and similarly to the Dracula series, but in a much more pronounced fashion, the early films started strong but each sequel brought an incremental drop in quality. Generally speaking, the Hammer Dracula films all have something good going for them and are beloved by horror fans to this day. This can't really be said for most of the Fu Manchu films (the abysmal last two of which were directed by infamous Eurocult figure Jess Franco), although Lee himself was happy with the first film, The Face of Fu Manchu, a well-produced, lively action thriller with plenty of period flavor and a good cast.
The most well-known of all “Yellow Peril” novels, the Rohmer Fu Manchu series ran to 13 titles published between 1912-1959. The books are speedy, very readable pulp thrillers but are definitely products of their time. The Face of Fu Manchu takes some of the best elements of the books and puts them up on screen.
The film opens in China with master criminal Fu Manchu (Lee) being marched out to his execution under the watchful eyes of his arch-nemesis, Sir Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard (Nigel Green). A few months later, once Smith has returned to London, he begins to sense Fu Manchu's hand in a series of strange deaths and abductions centered around the River Thames. It seems Fu Manchu is very much alive and, together with his sadistic daughter, Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), and assorted henchmen, is once more up to no good.
This time he's kidnapped a scientist, Prof. Muller (Walter Rilla ) and his daughter Maria (Karin Dor), in order to force the professor into perfecting a poisonous gas made from the Tibetan black poppy. Soon Nayland Smith, his Watson-ian friend Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford) and Muller's assistant, Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) are on the trail, leading to a satisfying array of fistfights, car chases, narrow escapes from death and other feats of derring-do. The film builds to an explosive climax, as Smith and company follow Fu Manchu and his captives to Tibet, the source of the poisonous black poppy. Smith and Jannsen don monks' robes to infiltrate the royal stronghold of Fu Manchu's allies and rescue the Prof. and Maria, leaving a bomb buried in the box of black poppies. The film ends with the palace blown to smithereens, but the ghostly voice of Fu Manchu ominously intones “The world shall hear from me again.”
Joachim Fuchsberger as Jannsen.
The film has more than its share of chilling sequences and sadistic moments typical of the genre, including Fu Manchu's warning to the British government, “Remember Fleetwick,” leading to the fatal gassing by air of 3,000 inhabitants - including army troops - of an English village; the nasty dispatch of one of his female followers who dares betray him by trying to free the professor, callously drowned in a soundproof chamber, her lifeless body then released into the watery tomb of the Thames; not to mention any number of stranglings, knifings and assorted other carnage, though as fitting the standards of the time, it's all relatively bloodless.
Karin Dor (left) looks on in horror.
The Face of Fu Manchu was produced and written by Harry Alan Towers (under his screenwriting pseudonym Peter Welbeck). Towers enjoyed a prolific, long-lasting career in film and television, and produced some entertaining films, notably the jazzy all-star 1965 version of Ten Little Indians, with Hugh O'Brian and Shirley Eaton. Towers performed similar producer / screenwriter double duty on the four Fu Manchu sequels, but the results were, unfortunately, increasingly slapdash and inferior to Face, with which he had taken his time to finesse the script.
The cast and crew filmed in Ireland, where Lee described the conditions as “execrable. The weather was bleak and miserable. Everyone in the unit was croaking under the impact of flu. The elderly German actor Walter Rilla almost died. We worked in a number of ramshackle, dilapidated dwellings abandoned by the occupants and the water ran all the time down the walls.” (2)
Luckily the project was in the capable directorial hands of Don Sharp, and the end result is a fun, pacy yarn with plenty of action and intrigue. Much as in his work in the Dracula films for Hammer, Christopher Lee brings a sense of cold, implacable menace that haunts the film, despite his limited screen time.
“The make-up for Fu Manchu was extremely complicated. It took two and a half hours to put on and left me extremely uncomfortable. My features were rendered immobile – I had only my eyes left with which to act. And at that, my eyelids were fixed and I was unable to blink. But I was not disposed to grumble at any of it. My own equilibrium was coming back with my confidence in the picture. “ (3)
James Robertson Justice, left.
Despite this lack of expression caused by the makeup, the 6' 5" Lee brings his customary imposing menace to the role, and he's nicely balanced by the tiny, 5' 2" Tsai Chin as his imperious daughter. Ms. Chin would go on to greater fame in her brief pre-credits scene with Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice. She's given lots more to do here and makes the most of it, including disguising herself as an old woman in a wheelchair to infiltrate a heavily-guarded wing of a museum.
Fans of the 1960s series of German-made Edgar Wallace krimis (basically, highly entertaining "old dark house" crime thrillers) and Dr. Mabuse films will recognize some familiar faces here in Fuchsberger, Rilla and Karin Dor (coincidentally, also a Bond girl in You Only Live Twice). While there's a hint of a romance between Dor and Fuchsberger (paired frequently in the krimis), it doesn't really go anywhere, and Ms. Dor is mostly stuck in "damsel in distress" mode. Howard Marion Crawford makes for a solid Dr. Petrie, but is somewhat supplanted by the younger, more strapping Fuchsberger, who's given most of the physically-demanding stuff. Fine Brit character actor James Robertson Justice has a nice bit as Sir Charles, curator of the Museum of Oriental Studies which houses some scientific papers that Fu Manchu wants to get his hands on.
But the film truly belongs to Nigel Green. With his ramrod-straight, military bearing, piercing eyes, hawk-like visage and dry, wry line delivery, Green makes an especially strong, unflappable hero, just the man to tangle with an evil mastermind like Fu Manchu. Sir Nayland Smith is an obvious riff on Sherlock Holmes, and Green strides confidently through the picture, very droll, very English, and always in command. He only gets to share one brief confrontation with Lee, which is a pity, but overall he and everyone else involved treats the story seriously, without any trace of the camp that would creep into the subsequent films.
The film was a success in the United States, its old-fashioned movie serial action, tinged with modern spy flair, leading it to be dubbed the “chop-suey Bond.” Nigel Green apparently saw the writing on the wall and opted not to return for the following year's The Brides of Fu Manchu. Douglas Wilmer, a very good Sherlock Holmes on U.K. TV, took over the reins, and came back for the third film, Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967). Former Robin Hood actor Richard Greene finished out the series in 1968 with the last two films, Blood of Fu Manchu (also known as Fu Manchu and the Kiss of Death and Kiss and Kill) and Sax Rohmer's Castle of Fu Manchu. The less said about these final two efforts, the better; Lee's main memories of them being his time spent on the local golf courses whilst filming.
Of course, Lee wasn't the only actor to portray Rohmer's evil mastermind over the years. The first talkie version, 1929's The Mysterious Fu Manchu, starred Swedish-born Warner Oland (the first, and best, Charlie Chan). 1932 saw Boris Karloff assume the role in The Mask of Fu Manchu (with a young, slinky Myrna Loy as his daughter, here more accurately called Fah Lo See). Henry Brandon headlined the 1940 Republic serial, Drums of Fu Manchu. And Peter Sellers gave a comedic turn as both Nayland Smith and Fu Manchu in 1980's labored The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.
Many modern viewers might be put off by yet another older film where a Caucasian actor plays an Asian. This of course was common policy even into the 60s in the States and especially the U.K., where casting a known box-office draw like Christopher Lee was preferred to choosing from the small pool of little known (if ethnically better suited) actors of Chinese descent working in Britain at the time. (For an example of this policy, just look at the all the Caucasian actors cast in villainous or otherwise roles in most of ITC's spy and adventure series of the day; the only Asian face of note usually belongs to the ubiquitous Burt Kwouk).
While I can see how dated and silly this might seem to today's audiences, I think ignoring films like this and the earlier Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan movies due to this sort of inauthentic casting is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and means turning one's back on some pretty damn entertaining films. As long as the ethnic characters being depicted by whites are treated with the proper respect, I have no problem with it. And when you have actors as skilled as Peter Lorre, Warner Oland and Christopher Lee, then the part is in safe hands. Just as Moto and Chan are clearly shown to be the smartest, coolest cats in the room, so too Fu Manchu, though evil, is accorded a large degree of regal power and canny intelligence that keeps him at all times a force to be reckoned with, never slighted.
If one can get past such casting decisions, they'll find The Face of Fu Manchu a fast-paced, lively pulp melodrama, done with style and nice 1920s period atmosphere. Just remember to approach any of the sequels with caution.
Source Note: (1), (2) and (3) excerpted from Tall, Dark and Gruesome by Christopher Lee, published by Midnight Marquee Press, Inc., 1999.
DVD Note: I viewed this film on a Japanese DVD released by Pioneer/Majestic Films. The transfer looks OK, though colors are a bit muted, and no subtitle options are available, other than Japanese. The movie is also available on a PAL disc in the U.K. from Millennium Pictures, and in Region 1 is offered as a Manufactured On Demand title from the Warner Archive Collection - neither of which I've seen, but one would hope they look better than the Japanese disc.
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