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The prolific producer Harry Alan Towers landed a wartime stint with the British Armed Forces Radio and never looked back -- in 1946 his company Towers of London was syndicating radio programs worldwide. He attracted the attention of New Yorker magazine, for a brief column impressed with his energy and enterprising nature. Before age forty he had produced or executive produced episodes of seven TV series. Early in the '60s Towers entered the risky arena of independent international filmmaking and never looked back. He would eventually make pictures in England, Ireland, Spain, South Africa and the Far East, in partnership with American International, Seven Arts, and Cannon Films.
Writing under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck, Towers knocked out mostly lower-case genre fare and exploitation pictures. One of his best pictures is The Face of Fu Manchu, the first of a series of thrillers about Sax Rohmer's pulp fiction "Yellow Peril" villain, a Chinese Moriarty to the Sherlock Holmes-like hero, Scotland Yard's intrepid Nayland Smith. Considered good enough for a release through Warner Bros., the film can boast the presence of Christopher Lee, returning to the heavy Asian makeup for the first time since he played the Hong Kong gangster Chung King in 1960's The Terror of the Tongs. The director is the competent Don Sharp, who made the standout Hammer attraction Kiss of the Vampire. The Face of Fu Manchu did well enough for Towers, Lee and Sharp to return for a quick sequel.
Inspector Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) witnesses the beheading execution of Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee), but becomes convinced that the dreaded arch-criminal has somehow survived. Probing the disappearance of the noted biochemist Dr. Muller (Walter Rilla), Smith and his sidekick-associate Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford) contact Muller's daughter Maria (Karin Dor) and her friend Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger). It soon transpires that Fu Manchu is alive and scheming in a headquarters in tunnels below the Thames. The evil Fu has kidnapped Muller to get his hands on a terrible biological agent derived from the Tibetan Black Hill Poppy. Fu's daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin), importer Hanumon (Peter Mossbacher) and an army of hypnotized Kali-worshipping Dacoit fanatics kidnap Maria and try to murder Jannsen, who has joined with Smith. Fights, chases, and a foiled Museum robbery ensue, until Muller gives Fu what he wants. As the bio agent only works at temperatures below freezing, Fu waits until a freeze in a town and wipes out Fleetwick, a small town in Essex. He cuts into the BBC broadcast to demand that the whole world do his bidding: Dr. Muller will soon deliver a version of the bio agent that works in any temperature.
English reviews of The Face of Fu Manchu responded to the old-fashioned fun in "Peter Welbeck's" script, which reproduces the episodic action and jeopardy of vintage serials. As Dr. Petrie is something of an old coot, Carl Jannsen steps in as a veritable action hero, punching it out with Fu's largely incompetent minions and joining Nayland Smith in athletic escapes and break-ins. Some of the fights are a bit drawn-out, especially the donnybrook that ensues when Smith breaks into the Muller house to "investigate". Neither hero realizes who he's fighting, making them both look silly. A secondary source of interest is Fu Manchu's evil daughter Lin Tang, who derives sadistic pleasure from her wicked work. She sits at Fu's side like a loyal lapdog, reporting bad and good news as it comes in.
Fu's various nefarious intrigues are just as naïve. To force another professor to divulge more secrets about the Black Poppy formula, Fu Manchu hypnotizes him, by waving his silver pinkie extension in his face. If it's all that easy, why doesn't Fu simply hypnotize everybody that falls under his control? At various times Muller, Maria, Jannsen and Smith are all his prisoners. As the film wears on, the "inscrutable" Fu Manchu seems less and less of a criminal genius. His Dacoit minions all carry frightening-looking knives yet never succeed in even scratching anyone. The thugee-like stranglings all occur off-screen.
Director Don Sharp does well with the pre-title execution ceremony, in which Fu Manchu lays his head down on the chopping block face up. Also okay is a scene in which Fu restrains Lin Tang from whipping a disloyal female assistant, because he doesn't want the body to show the scars of torture. Lin Tang is visibly disappointed. Fu instead has the woman placed in a glass chamber that fills with water from the Thames, above. Sharp stages an effective nerve gas attack aftermath scene, when Nayland and the Army enter a small town littered with corpses. In this first Towers Fu Manchu thriller, the emphasis is not yet on exploitative elements. Production resources are all adequate, although the film could use one or two larger-scale scenes or a more impressive Fu Manchu throne room. Christopher Lee's intimidating presence compensates to some degree, but the actor must have felt that he was carrying his genre films single-handed.
Nowadays the entire concept of Fu Manchu is outside the range of PC acceptability, as the villain is wholly constructed of racist attitudes. Once that problem is acknowledged The Face of Fu Manchu is far too simplistic to be offensive. The show takes itself seriously, not even adding the humorous 007-style quips that would soon become the fad in spy spoofs.
Harry Allan Towers moved his operations around the world to take advantage of countries that encouraged film production with cash incentives. The Face of Fu Manchu was shot in Dublin, which fills in quite well for 1920s London. Several antique automobiles add to the period flavor. German distributor money must have played a big role, as evidenced by the presence of popular actor Joachim Fuchsberger and the well-known Karin Dor. Ms. Dor was the spouse of the German director Harald Reinl, and is best known in the U.S. an early Bond bad girl in You Only Live Twice.
The second film in the series, The Brides of Fu Manchu, is almost as good as Face. Its new Nayland Smith Douglas Wilmer isn't as good as Nigel Greene, however. Towers eventually gave the series over to the Spanish director Jésus Franco, who rapidly reduced it to unwatchable dreck: The Blood of Fu Manchu, The Castle of Fu Manchu. The Face of Fu Manchu remains a bright spot in the Harry Alan Towers filmography.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Face of Fu Manchu is a very good enhanced transfer of this Techniscope production. Original Technicolor prints were dark and rich, a quality which has been retained in the slightly grainy image seen here -- Techniscope exposed a half-frame original negative, offering less wiggle room for exposure and focus. Christopher Whelen's music score hits some nice fanfares for Fu Manchu various entrances. The disc has no extras.
I worked for Cannon Films at a time when Harry Alan Towers was producing in South Africa: sleazy slaves 'n' sex epics in the Mandingo mold and a few incredibly cheap horror snorers with Edgar Allan Poe's name slapped on. His The House of Usher may be Donald Pleasance's worst picture -- in its signature scene the actor drools while boring holes with a power drill in a screaming woman's skull. Yes, that was my favorite part of Poe's famous story, too. I encountered Mr. Towers several times in the Cannon elevator, with a woman who may have been Maria Rohm. He was a small, round man in a neat white suit, and he had the looks of a contented entrepreneur. We heard about filmmakers and producers that had not been treated well by Cannon, but it is a sure bet that Towers was qualified to best "Mo and Yo" (Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus) at their own game.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Face of Fu Manchu rates:
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