Nigel GreenChristopher LeeTsai ChinHoward Marion-Crawford
The Face of Fu Manchu
Medium: film
Year: 1965
Director: Don Sharp
Writer: Sax Rohmer, Harry Alan Towers
Actor: Christopher Lee, Nigel Green, Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, James Robertson Justice, Howard Marion-Crawford, Tsai Chin, Walter Rilla, Harry Brogan, Poulet Tu, Archie O'Sullivan, Edwin Richfield, Joe Lynch, Peter Mosbacher, Eric Young, Deborah DeLacey, Jim Norton
Country: UK, Germany
Format: 89 minutes
Series: << Fu Manchu >>
Website category: British
Review date: 15 February 2011
It's the first of Christopher Lee's five Fu Manchu movies, which as Jim said yesterday aren't Hammer although they look like it. They're actually a British-German co-production. One came out every year from 1965-1969 and I've seen it claimed that they kept getting worse. Personally I'm hoping that's not true, since I remember watching them happily enough as a child and yet this one's pretty dull. Mind you, the last two were directed by Jess Franco. Yikes.
It's not horrible, mind you. It's avoiding all the insane stuff from the 1932 Karloff film, for instance. It's just that it's also a bit boring. A big part of the problem is the Hammer style, to be honest... it makes for staid movie-making and it's ill-suited to breathless pulp adventure. Middle-aged Englishmen, some in bad make-up, talk to each other a lot and occasionally have badly shot fight scenes. That's what this film looks like. However that said, there's nothing fundamentally broken in the movie. The plot makes sense. The evil scheme is reasonable and looks likely to work. Christopher Lee sounds like a good fit as Fu Manchu, if you absolutely must have a Caucasian. The filmmakers had all the ingredients here for a perfectly decent potboiler and it must at least have been financially successful, judging by how many sequels they'd go on to make.
Nothing's particularly good, though. Christopher Lee I found a bit disappointing, for instance. Mind you, I'm not his biggest fan. I don't tend to feel he's bringing much personality to the screen. Here though he's making Fu Manchu look an actor-nullifying role, basically standing there dispassionately throughout the movie and occasionally giving evil commands that don't seem to excite him very much. It would seem that he'd decided that Fu Manchu is always in control of himself, which is a reasonable angle, but that still doesn't mean Lee couldn't have been doing additional layers underneath. Does he radiate intelligence? Not really. Does he show emotion? Once, a little bit, but otherwise the main thing he's bringing to the role is his height. Great Scott, he's tall. However that said he's still cool just by virtue of being Christopher Lee, while as with Karloff, I also appreciated the fact that he's not doing a Chinese accent.
I'm also not wild about Nigel Green, who's playing their Nayland Smith. He's technically good, mind you. He's strong, he's doing things and he's always clear about his character. It's just that he's finding no flavour in the role, for instance seeing nothing in "no, I thought you wouldn't." He's vaguely cold-blooded, as was Lewis Stone in 1932 now I come to think about it, and watching him is much like observing an efficient machine in a factory.
The most interesting character is Fu Manchu's daughter. This time we've got Tsai Chin in the Myrna Loy role and furthermore she'd stick with the series through all five films. I've no problems with that. She's a poisonous little creature, albeit without Myrna Loy's explicit sexuality. Chin's still acting today, incidentally, and was for instance in Daniel Craig's Casino Royale, although she took a 20-year break between 1972-1993.
In other words, the actors are okay. Efficient and professional in what they're doing, but not lovable. Harry Brogan's a bit pointless and annoying as Professor Gaskell, but that's probably more the film's fault than the actor's. I'm also not going to waste time on the variable German accents. Moving on to the story, I think its biggest problem on a pulp adventure level is the rubbishness of Fu Manchu's henchmen. Seriously, they're useless. They'd have trouble taking out a boy scout troupe. These supposedly professional killers get knocked about every time not just by Nigel Green but also by some random civilian he picks up along the way, while if you don't count that guy who gets strangled early offscreen then I think they have a negative on-screen body count. One of them manages to impale himself on his knife. D'oh. One-nil to the away team. It's not saying much about Fu Manchu himself when we see that he's entrusting his evil plans to people who clearly aren't up to getting the job done.
Then there's the ethnic angle. The film's full of Caucasians pretending not to be and none of the other four in the series stoop so low as to do this (except in that Christopher Lee's in all of them). Tsai Chin was born in Shanghai, thank goodness, but it's tiresome to see her fellow actors being called Chinese in dialogue when they're so British-looking that you wouldn't even have believed they were French. Peter Mosbacher I actually found offensive, since he's so unconvincingly Oriental that I couldn't decide whether that was even what he was aiming for. I was scanning the credits at the end. If his character's name was spelled "Hannerman", I'd have shrugged and admitted he was a westerner. No, it's "Hanumon". Bugger off. However one good side of all this is that the film doesn't come across for a moment as saying racist things about the Chinese, partly because we're self-evidently looking at white men and partly because the film opens with an attempted execution of Fu Manchu by the authorities in China. They think he's a criminal too! Incidentally that scene contains actual Chinese faces and goes a long way towards dragging this film back towards respectability.
There are even goofs. Some kind of vapour or droplets gets dispersed suspiciously quickly from a plane. Both Nigel Green and the movie forget that Tsai Chin's in earshot when he mentions that he's planted some nitro-glycerine. No, I'm not buying his whispering as an excuse.
There's nothing I particularly like in this film and a whole bunch of stuff that's either okay at best or else dragging it down. Christopher Lee is worth watching, but only because he's Christopher Lee rather than because of his performance. The heroes aren't engaging my sympathies, but unfortunately I couldn't change sides and cheer for the villains because they're so incompetent. Let's just say that this Fu Manchu wouldn't last five minutes against Daredevil's Kingpin. However the film's basically got all the bases covered in a low-level sort of way and I can see that there's plenty of good here too. Nigel Green is giving a good performance. I just didn't like it very much. Maybe that's this film all over?