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July 2015

The Face Of Fu Manchu

cast: Christopher Lee, Nigel Green, Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, and James Robertson Justice

director: Don Sharp

92 minutes (PG) 1965
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by J.C. Hartley

The Face Of Fu Manchu

The late Christopher Lee, like his good friends and sometime collaborators Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, often appeared in films that were perhaps unworthy of his talents. That the seriousness of his approach and his impeccable performances often outweighed the material he was given is all you need to know to understand his considerable reputation. With high-profile roles in the Star Wars films, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith, and in Peter Jackson's various Lord Of The Rings pictures, by the time of his death, in June 2015, Lee's cultural stature had at last matched his imposing physical stature.

Sax Rohmer (British author Arthur Henry Ward) created Dr Fu Manchu, embodiment of the 'Yellow Peril', in 1913. While dependent upon racial stereotypes and often descending into the lazy racism that dogged H.C. 'Sapper' McNeile's Bulldog Drummond novels, Rohmer's Fu Manchu is better written, and the villain's role as cultural bogeyman is offset by an acknowledgement that he is an innovative genius and a true mastermind, although a criminal one. Fu Manchu's nemesis Denis Nayland Smith, a colonial police commissioner seconded from Burma to Scotland Yard with extraordinary powers of access and arrest, and his friend Dr Petrie, are almost powerless to prevent Fu Manchu's wave of murder and terror throughout London in the first novel The Mystery Of Fu Manchu (1913).

Fu Manchu is thought to be the agent of 'young China' an emergent radical generation seeking to gain influence on the world stage. However, he may be working for an unnamed third agency, perhaps the Marxist and anarchist intellectuals who would go on to form the May Fourth Movement in 1919, or more likely still to be seeking his own apotheosis.

Smith and Petrie would be powerless were it not for the intervention of Fu Manchu's female assistant who facilitates some of his murderous schemes but who falls desperately in love with Petrie within moments of meeting him. Giving her name as 'Karamaneh', which translates as 'slave', she is bound to Fu Manchu who keeps her beloved brother in a state of chemical narcolepsy. Karamaneh urges Petrie to impose his will upon her in order that she could fully switch her allegiance but Petrie is far too much the English gentleman. It is notable that Karamaneh gives Petrie no other name that he might use for her, and despite its servile derivation that continues to be the name by which she is known. Just as Fu Manchu is presented as the stereotypical cruel Chinese bogeyman who is nevertheless a scientific genius polymath, Karamaneh is an emotional, passionate woman, but resourceful, fearless and intelligent. Rohmer's text subverts racial and gender stereotypes in the process of reinforcing them.

Just like Bulldog Drummond, Fu Manchu was rapidly taken up for a creative afterlife by the cinema. The first film The Mystery Of Dr Fu Manchu appeared as a British silent in 1923 and by 1929 the franchise had moved to Hollywood. There was a gap of 25 years before the prolific British radio and film producer and writer Harry Alan Towers made a five-film series featuring the character of Fu Manchu, starring Christopher Lee as the devil doctor, and various actors portraying Nayland Smith. The first two films The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965), and The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966), were directed by Don Sharp who also made Rasputin: The Mad Monk with Lee for Hammer in 1966. The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (1967) was directed by Jeremy Summers, best known for Danger Man and The Saint, and the final two pictures The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968), and The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969), were directed by the legendary Jesus Franco, who regularly collaborated with Harry Alan Towers.

Nigel Green played Nayland Smith in The Face Of Fu Manchu, followed for the next two films by Douglas Wilmer, who memorably played Sherlock Holmes on TV as well as in Gene Wilder's criminally underrated The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother in 1975. Jess Franco's Nayland Smith was Richard Greene, who for a certain generation will always be TV's Robin Hood.

At the start of The Face Of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith is present at the execution of his great enemy. Finally captured and put on trial the Doctor is beheaded as an electrical storm builds up overhead. Back in London, some time later, Nayland Smith is baffled by a series of murders and other crimes; he sees a link to his old adversary. "You're not still on with that Yellow Peril!" exclaims Petrie.

Meanwhile, we see Professor Muller keep an appointment in an apparently abandoned London church. Muller is kidnapped and his assistant slain, strangled with a Tibetan prayer-scarf. Interviewing the Professor's daughter Maria (Karin Dor), and his colleague Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger), Nayland Smith eventually discovers the Professor has been distilling a potent chemical gas from the seeds of the black poppy. When the supply of the seeds dried up the Professor was lured to the church by the promise of fresh supplies.

Fu Manchu, for it is he, is desperate to obtain the deadly gas to once again hold the world to ransom. When Nayland Smith realises the truth of his suspicions, the victim of the earlier execution was a famous Chinese actor and Fu Manchu is alive, he symbolically shatters what he thought was the death-mask of his great enemy.

While Fu Manchu threatens Professor Muller, Nayland Smith and Carl play detective, encountering the Doctor's equally sinister daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) at an import company warehouse. Ultimately, the secret of the chemical process to create the deadly solution is discovered to be in the papers of eccentric Professor Gaskell, and Fu Manchu uses his formidable powers of hypnotism to obtain them. Kidnapping Maria to pressurise Professor Muller, the Doctor obtains a supply of the gas, and slaughters the inhabitants of an entire English town as a show of force. Fortunately, before Fu Manchu can strike again, Nayland Smith realises activity along the Thames indicates the location of his enemy's base. Pursuing the Doctor to Tibet, Nayland Smith secretes explosives in a new supply of the black poppy seeds, but as the timer reaches detonation Fu Manchu realises something is wrong. As the Tibetan monastery explodes Nayland Smith reins in his horse and seems to hear the devil Doctor's voice "The world shall hear from me again!"

Another in a long line of his impressive cinematic villains, Lee's Fu Manchu is almost urbane in his manner, with literally hypnotic eyes and a mask of impassivity he only once lets slip. Roles like this were easy for Lee, and he is better served as an actor by the imperious Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out (1968), the brilliantly arrogant Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and the impishly manipulative Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). That Lee's Fu Manchu remains a brilliant screen villain is entirely down to the actor's great professionalism.

One note of trivia, Tsai Chin and Karin Dor were reunited two years later, although they shared no scenes, in You Only Live Twice. Tsai Chin is the girl at the start of the film who sets up James Bond's fake assassination, and Karin Dor is SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt who Blofeld throws to his piranha pour encourager les autres. Tsai Chin had a cameo as the card-playing Madame Wu in the 2006 Casino Royale.

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