A penny dreadful come-to-life. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the fabulous Archive Collection, which provides hard-to-find library and cult titles to hungry movie and TV lovers, has released The Face of Fu Manchu, the 1965 Seven Arts release starring Christopher Lee, Nigel Green, Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, Howard Marion Crawford, Tsai Chin, and James Robertson Justice. A good-natured if occasionally goofball adaptation of the famous, much-maligned Sax Rohmer character, The Face of Fu Manchu might work best if you're coming to it brand-new and in the mood for something silly and light...and not if you're coming to it with faded childhood memories of it being on the same level with the early Bonds. No extras for this nice anamorphic transfer.
In a high-walled Chinese palace, "the foreigner," Nayland Smith of the Yard (Nigel Green), witnesses the execution of his arch nemesis, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee), the brilliant mastermind behind a vast international crime syndicate. So...why does Smith, once back in London and promoted to a desk job as Assistant Commissioner, worry to his right-hand man, Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford), that someone very much like Fu is coordinating and directing an ever-increasing wave of drug crimes across Europe? He finds his answer when biochemist Professor Muller (Walter Rilla) is kidnapped and his son, Mathius (Jim Norton) killed: Fu Manchu is alive and plotting somewhere in London. Aided by the Professor's two-fisted personal assistant, Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) and Muller's daughter, Maria (Karin Dor), Smith eventually discovers Fu's fiendish plot: Professor Muller is to extract a syrup from the Tibetan "Black Hill poppy," a syrup from which just one pint could wipe out all the inhabitants of London and the surrounding communities. Prior to his blackmail, Fu makes a point of his cruel will to level England: he kills off the entire population of Fleetwick, Essex―3,000 people―via airborne agent (courtesy of shipping exporter cohort Hanumon, played by Peter Mossbacher). Will Nayland of the Yard smash Fu's insidious plan, before millions more die?
The Fu Manchu movies from producer Harry Alan Towers and actor Christopher Lee (1965's The Face of Fu Manchu, 1966' The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1967's The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, 1968's The Blood of Fu Manchu, and 1969's The Castle of Fu Manchu) were regulars on Saturday late, late movie shows when I was growing up, and I'll bet I haven't seen any of them for thirty years or more. As many movie lovers come to know, childhood memories can be especially tricky when re-watching pulp adventures like The Face of Fu Manchu―what's remembered as "kick-ass" and "menacing" and "scary" to the child can play distressingly flat or routine when it's revisited by the adult. In my memories, I recalled The Face of Fu Manchu as an exciting a thriller as the Connery Bonds. Unfortunately, it didn't play that well for me last night...although I still quite enjoyed it.
Turn-of-the-20th century British author Sax Rohmer's character, Fu Manchu, first appeared in the serialized novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu in 1913. It was an immediate success in England and around the world, with Rohmer eventually spinning 12 more Fu novels right up until Rohmer's death in 1959. There were several big and small screen adaptations of the novels, the most famous being Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's opulent, perverse 1932 epic, The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. But almost right from the start, the character has engendered resentment and cries of racism from literary critics and the Asian community who claim Fu's implacable, inscrutable "yellow peril" evilness is a stereotypical stigma on Asians in general. If one looks hard enough in The Face of Fu Manchu, I suppose you can find a few places in producer Harry Alan Towers' script (written under his "Peter Welbeck" pseudonym) where a tacit acknowledgement of that potential problem is addressed. When Smith first tells Dr. Petrie of his suspicions regarding a miraculously resurrected Fu, Dr. Petrie incredulously laughs and says, "Not that 'yellow peril' again?" a dismissive wave-off that could be taken as an ameliorator for what's to follow. Later, when guards at the "Museum of Oriental Studies" let in a group of young Asians who are off to the reading room, one guard scoffs at them, with the other guard nonchalantly shrugging and egalitarianly offering a rejoinder, "It takes all kinds to make the world." Certainly that didn't pop up by accident here...nor did the unmistakable allusions to nuclear and biological war, when the dead of Fleetwick are shown lying about town like actors in a civil defense film―certainly a fear that plagued England and the West during those Cold War days with China (China had detonated its first atomic bomb just the year before).
But that's not what The Face of Fu Manchu is really about, is it? Politics and racism play not second fiddle but 20th to simplistic plotting and occasional rowdy action here. The Face of Fu Manchu, as scripted by Towers and directed by Don Sharp (a vet with pulp pieces like Rasputin, the Mad Monk and Hennessy), is literally the stuff of old-time comic books and "penny bloods." Forget character development or careful exposition; in The Face of Fu Manchu, set piece breathlessly follows set piece, with little if any time spent on it making logical sense. How does Jannsen wind up tied to a chair in Hanumon's office? Did I miss something? Who's that Asian girl that tries to untie the Professor so he can escape? Why is she a traitor to Fu? No idea. How about a shot of Fu actually escaping Smith's clutches at the penultimate finale? No dice. How, then, does Smith and Jannsen just wind up boom! in Tibet, at Fu's castle, wearing robes that only accentuate Smith's 18 inches on just about all of Fu's henchman? Not a clue. Sure you can blame the small budget, but after awhile, you get the feeling it's deliberate. Like panels in a comic book, the viewer willingly fills in the blanks from scene to scene, just to get to the good parts.
Indeed, you could find a lot "wrong" with The Face of Fu Manchu, if its amiable charm didn't get the best of you. Unfortunately, the movie's biggest drawback is the one element almost every other critic seems to champion: Christopher Lee. If Fu is supposed to be "cruel, callous, brilliant...and the most evil and dangerous man in the world," couldn't we have a little set-up for that? Couldn't we get just a brief montage of his various crimes at the start of the movie, to give us a little anticipatory background on the guy? Despite the opinions of about 99% of the previous reviewers who find Christopher Lee's so-called "sinister" turn here one of his best...I need just a little bit more than his stiff posture, steely gaze, and arrogant, "English public school snot" line readings to make me believe he's a mastermind behind a vast criminal network. Quite frankly, Nigel Green and Joachim Fuchsberger show more dynamism in their admirably straight bullyboy portrayals, than too-careful Lee. Did someone tell him to "tone it down" so as not to offend anyone? Because that's the wrong tact here. We need Fu to be enjoying his malevolence...not grooving along with it like he's stoned out of his gourd. Ham it up a bit, Christopher; this ain't Shakespeare. It's pulp comics. Lee hypnotizing Harry Brogan is a good case in point...Sharp just has Lee stare at Brogan for 10 seconds and that's it. No flicker of movement on Lee's part. No camera embellishment. Not even a sound effect. Nothing. Even Lee grotesquely rolling his eyeballs and licking his chops would have served the material better than the somnambulance almost exclusively on display here.
Luckily, Lee's Fu only pops up here and there in the movie, inbetween the four or five well-choreographed fistfights (excellently staged by Sharp and his stunt coordinator), a spiffy little car chase, and the various other bits of melodramatic twaddle, including a cool underground Bondian lair for Fu, complete with torture drowning chamber with full River Thames access. There's no denying that director Sharp makes the right move by treating this deeply silly material remarkably straight, which helps ground it and keeps it watchable. Had he gone too far with his direction into parody, The Face of Fu Manchu would have collapsed like gossamer (it didn't work for Sellers...). The Dublin, Ireland location shooting (substituting for Edwardian London) looks particularly "right" here...while the Irish castle work for China and Tibet (one lone, high-walled courtyard) is equally unconvincing. Sure, some effects don't come off, like that so-called lightning flash during the opening storm sequence (I thought my monitor was blinking out), or the laughable explosion of Fu's miniature castle (nice job obscuring the fireball with that little puff of smoke in the foreground, guys), but again, in the end, that's part of the movie's shaggy dog charm. When Nigel Green (who's terrific here: solid and hilariously stolid) responds to Howard Marion Crawford's remonstration amid the dead of Fleetwick, with quiet British stiff upper lip bravado―"We still have our jobs to do, Petrie,"―you want to laugh out loud. It's a perfect combination of comic book self-seriousness and dead-pan British humor, moments of which, fortunately, outnumber the miscalculations in The Face of Fu Manchu.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.