Christopher Lee played some of the most iconic villains / monsters in film history. I mean, come on…the guy was Dracula AND the mummy AND Frankenstein’s monster! Beat that! Now, he never played a comic book “supervillain” like a Lex Luthor, but he did play another character who was considered a supervillain before that term became well-known. In a series of five films he would play the evil Fu Manchu, beginning with 1965’s The Face of Fu Manchu.
The film actually begins with the death of Fu Manchu (Lee). He’s separated from his head, as witnessed by Scotland Yard’s Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), who has long pursued the criminal mastermind. However, several years later, strange things begin to happen, beginning with the kidnapping of biochemist Professor Muller (Walter Rilla). The professor’s daughter Maria (Karin Dor) reports this to Smith, igniting his suspicions that Fu Manchu lives.
The reason Fu Manchu is after the professor is because he is the key to creating a lethal gas from the seeds of the Tibetan poppy. Of course, the professor wants nothing to do with this, but Fu Manchu knows how to convince him. He kidnaps Maria and threatens to kill her if the professor doesn’t cooperate. Once Fu Manchu’s men have nabbed him the formula for the gas, the plan is set in motion. Soon, the villain is broadcasting his message of world domination across the airwaves, and just to prove he’s serious he unleashes a small amount of gas on the village of Fleetwick…killing everyone in the town. Now Nayland Smith must find and stop the villain before more villages suffer Fleetwick’s fate.
Many actors besides Christopher Lee have played Fu Manchu…Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Henry Brandon, and even Peter Sellers. None of them were asian. This can be a touchy subject…and this practice continues today. I understand the concerns over this issue, at the same time part of an actor’s job is to portray something they are not. British actors play Americans, American actors play Brits. Straight actors are cast a gay characters, and vice versa. Heck, back in 1982 Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing an asian man…she is neither asian nor a man. Where things get more problematic, I think, is when negative stereotypes enter into things. I don’t think that’s what we have here. Christopher Lee does not alter his voice or speak in broken English. In fact, I found that I wasn’t focusing on the ethnicity of Fu Manchu at all, I just got caught up in the fact that he’s a wonderfully evil villain…and who better to embody that than Christopher Lee?
Lee is really what makes the film engaging. Fu Manchu is such a cool and calculating baddie, and he’s evil just for the sake of being evil. Lee completely owns the screen, which works both to the benefit and detriment of the film. Whenever Lee isn’t around, the movie really kind of drags. It’s not helped by the fact that we have a very uncharismatic hero in the form of Nigel Green as Nayland Smith. He is the epitome of the stuffy Brit. He in no way feels like a worthy opponent to Lee’s title character. In fact, I’d say that Green’s character would probably spontaneously combust with as little as a stare from Lee’s Fu Manchu because he is so outmatched.
The film does have some nice atmosphere, especially in Fu Manchu’s lair, hidden in a tunnel beneath the Thames. Though not a Hammer production, there does seem to be a touch of the Hammer style present in this one. Ultimately, though, it is the Hammer veteran, Lee, that makes The Face of Fu Manchu an interesting watch. His hypnotic powers must’ve worked on audiences since he returned to the role four more times over the course of the next five years. Though this first episode has some ups and down, it’s a relatively solid first entry in the series.