The first half promises the best Fu Manchu film yet. Harry Alan Towers still hasn't worked out how to end a movie, but even so there's a lot to like here.
Firstly, they did shooting in China! It's a co-production with the Shaw Brothers, so the Chinese extras really are Chinese and they've got a magnificent temple for Fu Manchu's new headquarters. I assumed they'd filmed in Ireland as usual and just hired a thousand set builders, but no. This gives us a cool opening as Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin come home to an honour guard of soldiers, a parade of fireworks and four prisoners to be punished in a manner of their choosing. Fu Manchu leaves that to his daughter. Best scene ever for Tsai Chin, despite the bloodless decapitation.
The only downside is that I wanted more. Shanghai, for instance, is just a soundstage. It looks rubbish. They could have filmed it anywhere. Would it have killed them to go outside the studio and do a bit of location shooting on the streets? This doesn't feel like a movie that was filmed in China, but instead in Britain with one stunning set.
Next, the plot is different. The first two in this series were basically the same story. Fu Manchu kidnaps daughters of famous scientists and forces them to make a high-tech superweapon with which he'll blackmail the world. Not this time, though. As the title suggests, Fu Manchu's focused on vengeance. He wants to destroy Nayland Smith so completely that even his friends will despise him and it'll be the British establishment itself that delivers the final blow. This would be a neat trick, but Fu Manchu basically pulls it off, with the help of a hypnotised slave and a reluctant plastic surgeon. As a result Nayland's not the protagonist of this movie, despite appearances, but instead its victim. It's a caper movie, basically, with Fu Manchu and his allies as the evil heroes who are doomed to fail at the eleventh hour.
I seem to have started talking about the plot. Harry Alan Towers had a great idea for a movie here. What's more, for quite a while, that's enough. However eventually it becomes clear that as well as perpetrating some ugly sub-Churchillian dialogue, the script is flailing around in search of narrative momentum. It has conventional heroes, but they're redundant. We don't care about them. They run around China and we sit stoically through their scenes, waiting for them to go away so that we can get back to the fun stuff. There's also a subplot about an American gangster who wants to offer Fu Manchu the leadership of all the world's criminal organisations, which is kind of weird and pointless but at least adds a bit more character. Eventually it all ends in a random fist fight, just when Fu Manchu deserved to have won, and Nayland Smith throws a burning torch into a nearby cart that conveniently happens to explode with enough force to take out the entire castle. (Sorry, temple.) The Gunpowder Fairy blessed this movie. The end.
However that doesn't matter. This may be a badly made movie with a rubbish ending, but at least the farrago I've described is less boring than the finales of its two predecessors. If you're in the mood for something lowbrow, this film has:
(a) more evil. That opening scene is brutal in a way we simply haven't seen before, while Tsai Chin rules. The last film had me thinking that maybe Fu Manchu should have won, since at least it would get the world ruled by a genius with a talent for brilliant technical innovations. This film, no. The guy's a monster who needs killing ten times over, then again to be sure.
(b) a martial arts fight! In the last two films I'd been laughing about Fu Manchu's useless henchmen, but here we have kung fu. Almost as good is the bar room brawl.
(c) another hot Chinese servant for Nayland Smith. I believe Poulet Tu played Lotus in three films in this series, but here instead we have Mona Chong as Jasmin. Mmmm, Mona.
(d) a funny line from Lee. "That was my intention."
Christopher Lee's worked out what he's doing, I think. He's got a nice line in suppressed sadism in this one, although his line delivery is capable of being wooden. He fails at the following lines, although they'd have defeated a lot of other actors too. "Now my work can begin. A work of infinite pleasure. A work of vengeance. Vengeance against one man."
Douglas Wilmer's playing it very differently this time, though. He's got a double role, you see. This is the warmest, most human Nayland Smith I've seen yet. He's even charming. This is intelligent, since it both differentiates him from the doppelganger and ensures that we care about the character even when he doesn't have the advantage of propelling the plot.
There are goofs and sloppy bits of production, of course.
1. After spending half the film swearing up and down that Fu Manchu has to be dead, Howard Marion-Crawford hears the words "world domination" and without turning a hair says "that means Fu Manchu!" Goodness, that was quick.
2. The doppelganger Wilmer's hands and face are coloured differently in one scene, which I thought was a clever make-up touch until from the next scene onwards they're back to normal.
3. One earthquake can supposedly cut off an entire province, or at least native Chinese people are seen to think so. The People's Republic of China is currently divided into only 22 provinces, of which almost all cover an area of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres.
4. Maria Rohm's musical numbers are risible. A completely unrelated fact is that she was married to Harry Alan Towers.
5. The finale has the sunniest day-for-night shooting I've ever seen. It's not that the colours are pale, but instead that the shadows are so strong that you'd guess they shot near the Mediterranean.
We also get a look at the British legal system and hangings. Those scenes were dull because we know exactly what's going to happen and there's no dramatic tension, but it's also kind of disturbing. This film may be fictional, but the practicalities and procedures were real. Those leather straps, for instance. I also liked the way the judge passed sentence.
This one I quite liked. It's rubbish on various levels and it starts falling to pieces even earlier than its predecessors, but it's more trashy fun than either of them. It's also not racist! I wouldn't have believed it, but somehow this has turned into a 1960s Fu Manchu movie series that's watchable even if you're politically correct. This time they went to Hong Kong and worked with the Shaw Brothers, for goodness sake. Overall I'd never call this a good film, but for me I suspect it might be the most entertaining of the series. After this, we're into Jess Franco.