The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)

Director: Don Sharp
Starring: Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Nigel Green, Karin Dor, Howard Marion Crawford, Joachim Fuchsberger, James Robertson Justice
Music: Christopher Whelen
Based on a character created by Sax Rohmer

“Cruel, Callous, Brilliant – and the most Evil Man in the World!”

The Face Of Fu Manchu probably isn’t really a spy film, but in style and content, it is in some some ways connected to the spy films of the sixties. But rather than focussing on the square jawed, heroic figure that dominates so many spy films, this film focuses on the villain, Fu Manchu (even though he doesn’t get as much screen time). It does feature espionage, and Fu Manchu certainly resembles the type of villain that the James Bonds, and Matt Helms would do battle with.

This is the first of five films that producer Harry Alan Towers (and his alter ego, screenwriter Peter Welbeck) made featuring Sax Rohmer’s character Fu Manchu. Out of all five, this is the only one that is quite good. Maybe that is on the strength of Nigel Green as Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, Fu Manchu’s archenemy. Green only appeared in this episode. Douglas Wilmer portrayed Nayland Smith in the next two films, and for the final installments, Richard Greene took over the mantle. At least the villains were consistent. Christopher Lee played Fu Manchu, and Tsai Chin appeared as Fu Manchu’s malevolent daughter, Lin Tang for all the five films in the series.

The film opens in China. We are in a prison courtyard and an execution is taking place. The man to be executed is Fu Manchu. On hand to witness the execution is Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard. Fu Manchu is marched to a chopping block, and with a lusty blow from a scimitar; his head is cleaved from his body.

Afterwards, Nayland Smith is back in London, and he has landed a cushy desk job, which he is not happy about. He is sure that the ‘Crime Wave’ sweeping Europe is the work of one criminal mastermind. But none of his superiors want to hear about it. The only person who has time for Nayland Smith’s theories is Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford). For the uninitiated, Dr. Petrie is to Nayland Smith, what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

Then we are introduced to Professor Hans Müller (Walter Rilla) and his young assistant. In a pea-soup fog they turn up at an old church in Limehouse. They enter the grounds of the ‘apparently’ deserted church. The assistant is strangled as he wanders through the yard. The Professor was told to come on his own. He is taken inside. And who is behind all this? The still very much alive Fu Manchu.

The next day, the Professor’s assistant’s dead body is found. Around his neck is a red prayer scarf, with a medallion of the Goddess Kali tied into one of the corners. Naturally enough, Nayland Smith has seen all this before. It is the work of Burmese Dacoits. They believe the act of murder is blessed by the Goddess Kali, and every ritual killing is a passport to heaven. But the Dacoits must have someone controlling them, and even though he knows it is impossible, after all he saw the man executed, Nayland Smith believes that Fu Manchu is the man behind the killing. He plans to visit Professor Müller an ask him some questions.

At Professor Müller’s home, his daughter, Maria (Karin Dor) waits for his return. As she waits a Dacoit pays her a visit. She Screams. At that moment Karl Janssen (Joachim Fuchsberger), Professor Müller’s research partner, arrives and rushes to her aid. By this time the Dacoit has dissapeared but has left behind a message:

“If you value your Father’s life – say nothing of his disappearance.”

Suddenly there’s a noise in the laboratory down stairs. Janssen rushes down to investigate and gets into a noisy fist-fight with Nigel Green’s stunt double (who’s silhouette looks nothing like Green’s). Before they kill each other, Maria rushes down and turns on the light, and the men stop.

But why is Fu Manchu interested in Professor Müller? Professor Müller had previously studied in Tibet. His research brought him in contact with a flower called the Black Hill Poppy. The flower is incredibly rare, and the Professor needs it for his research. The Professor had received a letter two days previously, saying that if he went to the old church in Limehouse he would be given some special supplies. Naturally the Professor went, and he was captured by Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu knows that a powerful poison can be manufactured from the Black Hill Poppy. A poison so strong, that one-pint would kill everyone in London. A sure enough, that is exactly what evil mastermind Fu Manchu would like to get his hands on.

Of course, I couldn’t talk about a Fu Manchu film without mentioning Christopher Lee as the evil Doctor. And although next to Dracula, Fu Manchu is the character Lee is most associated with (I don’t count Saruman or Count Dooku), it isn’t a particularly good portrayal. He gets to spout some ridiculous dialogue in a clipped, quasi-Chinese accent, and wear some fake eyepieces to make him look Asian. His main menacing attribute is his height. On the other hand, Tsai Chin as Lin Tang is deliciously evil. For Bond fans, Tsai Chin appeared in You Only Live Twice and has a nice cameo in the 2006 Casino Royale.

Nigel Green is one of the great character actors, adding weight and class to a myriad of productions. Notable performances in espionage movies include The IPCRESS File, Deadlier Than The Male, and The Wrecking Crew. He also did quite a bit of television work, appearing in shows such as Danger Man, The Avengers and The Persuaders. His portrayal of Nayland Smith is the best in the Fu Manchu series, and it is a shame that he only appeared in this film.

The Face Of Fu Manchu is quite a good film. It’s reputation is somewhat tarnished by the lesser films in the series, but as a stand-alone movie, this works extremely well as a period thriller.

The Fu Manchu films is this series:

• The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)
• The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966)
• The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (1967)
• The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968)
• The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969)

This review is based on the Universal Pictures (Australasia) Pty Ltd DVD

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