Written by: Sax Rohmer (characters), Harry Alan Towers (screenplay)
Directed by: Don Sharp
Starring: Christopher Lee, Nigel Green and Joachim Fuchsberger
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Obey Fu Manchu Or Every Living Thing Will Die!
Christopher Lee had no qualms about stepping into big, iconic shoes during his career. He most famously donned Draculaís cape and became Frankensteinís monster two decades after Lugosi and Karloff gave definitive performances in each role. However, he also stepped into the role of Fu Manchu about 25 years after Karloff portrayed the nefarious villain, who had already appeared in dozens of serials and a few films by the time MGM got around to him in 1932. Indeed, Fu Manchu was early cinemaís most notorious fiend, but he was in need of a serious revival in 1965, when the Brits brought him back when one of their most famous faces provided The Face of Fu Manchu.
Ironically enough, they seemingly couldnít wait to kill him either; if you thought it was ballsy when Jason Goes to Hell blew Jason up within its opening ten minutes, youíll get a kick out of how this film similarly offs Fu Manchu as soon as he appears. Some context: at the beginning of the film, the title characterís been captured, tried, and is set for execution, much to the delight of Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), the Scotland Yard investigator who finally busted him. When Fu Manchuís head is lopped off by the executioner, the ďworldís most evil manĒ is extinguished; however, Smith refuses to rest easily, as it quickly becomes obvious that Fu Manchu somehow cheated death and is cooking up another scheme involving a deadly poison derived from a rare Tibetan flower.
Iím guessing some people might fuss about this one being classified as a horror movie, and maybe theyíre right; really, The Face of Fu Manchu is more of a crime drama and perhaps owes a bit to Sherlock Holmes. The film largely revolves around Smith and Fu Manchuís attempts to outwit each other, and the two continually trade figurative blows. It's kind of a talky movie whenever the characters need to untangle the plot, which quite frankly isnít that complicated to viewers--for example, it takes forever for Smith and associates to figure out that the River Thames is a crucial part of Fu Manchuís scheme, something thatís known to the audience rather early. Still, Don Sharp (a studio pro by that point), manages a crackling, two-fisted adventure thatís full of pulp elements and action set pieces befitting the old serial tradition. Silly disguises, signature strangulations, and over-the-top methods of dispatch abound in this globe-hopping yarn that rightfully doesnít get too spirited or adventurous.
In fact, thereís an underlying severity that grounds The Face of Fu Manchu just enough to take it seriously. Tonally, itís right in line with British films of the age since it treats pulp with a certain reverence; itís perhaps a little slight but proceeds with a seriousness that makes it worthwhile as a straightforward detective story. Thereís a true menace at the heart of the film, and some moments are horrifying; a sequence where Fu Manchu reveals that he isnít fucking around certainly must have tapped into Atomic Age paranoia as an entire English village is laid to waste by the evil mastermindís chemical agent. The eerie, desolate scene of a ghost town littered with corpses taps into eraís pod movie vibe--itís somewhere between The Earth Dies Screaming and The Village of the Damned. Though itís only one sequence in the film, itís rather remarkable, and the film is full of creepy flourishes like that.
Most of them derive from Fu Manchu himself, of course; Leeís portrayal is indicative of how the film carries itself. Sure, itís a little silly that Chris Lee is playing an Asian (with the assistance of obvious prosthetics), but the actor is well acquitted to the role and brings his trademark coolness to it. Leeís also not just playing Dracula in a different get-up either; whereas his count is often a predatory, almost feral force of nature, driven by sex and bloodlust, his Fu Manchu is knowingly sinister. Heís the type of guy who will hijack radio airwaves just so everyone knows what heís up to, and, again, this guyís idea of a warning shot involves wiping out an entire city. Itís not all that surprising that Lee would go on to be a Bond villain because his Fu Manchu is right out of that mold: megalomaniacal, calculating, and a little too pleased with himself at times. Green makes for a good foil as the square-jawed, unrelenting Smith, and I have to wonder if Sharp wasnít attempting to recreate a bit of a Dracula/Van Helsing dynamic between the two characters. Surrounding them is an adequate cast--a local man (Joachim Fuchsberger) assists Smith after his loverís (Karin Dor) father is kidnapped by Fu Manchu, which is about as grandly old-fashioned as it gets in the serial tradition.
The Face of Fu Manchu hits few false notes, and itís dialed into the right wavelength from the start. After all, itís a film that begins with its main antagonist getting his head lopped off, and the ride only gets more twisty and thrilling from there. I enjoyed how this film managed to reconfigure the high adventure and exoticism of The Mask of Fu Manchu into something a little more grounded; while that one might be much more of a straight horror film (mostly due to the pervasive Pre-Code nastiness and dread atmosphere), The Face of Fu Manchu is colorful but mostly bound in a dramatic milieu that still has room for hypnotism, killer flowers, underground lairs, and torture. Also gone is the unseemly Yellow Peril that dates the Karloff outing (and I rarely throw out ďdatedĒ as a criticism, but consider that Karloff gives an impassioned speech about killing the white man in Mask); in fact, the phrase ďYellow PerilĒ is even uttered and shrugged off early on in Face.
This was the first of five Fu Manchu films for Lee; Sharp would return for Brides of Fu Manchu before bowing out, and the reigns were eventually taken up by none other than Jess Franco. Despite its rather noteworthy place in several canons, The Face of Fu Manchu is the last one to make it to home video. Just as it finally brought The Vengeance of Fu Manchu home last month, Warner Archive has done the same for Face; itís another bare bones effort, but the transfer is rather solid. The film elements appear to be a little beat up in places, but itís otherwise vibrant and artifact free. Ernest Stewardís lovely cinematography is done justice here, and fans who have eagerly awaited this film to finally come to DVD should be satisfied with the presentation. Personally, this release has given me an excuse to finally dig into this series since The Face of Fu Manchu is a rock solid opener and, in true serial form, ends with the hint of more to come. Buy it!
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