The Vengeance of Fu Manchu Review
The third of Harry Alan Tower’s 1960s series of films based on the Sax Rohmer character, The Vengeance of Fu Manchu sees a change of director for the franchise. The previous two films, The Face of Fu Manchu and The Brides of Fu Manchu had both been helmed by Don Sharp, a workmanlike craftsman who always provided his works with a serious edge, no matter how ridiculous they may have seemed – which made Psychomania and Hennessy so watchable – and a keen visual sense. The lack of the latter is immediate in this case, Vengeance… adopting a 1.85:1 aspect ratio rather than the Scope used up to this point, as Sharp’s replacement Jeremy Summers takes over the reins. Lacking the talent of his predecessor, Summers had previously been responsible for Ferry Across The Mersey, a film once memorable described by Kenneth Tynan as “a little glimpse into hell”.
Christopher Lee’s return appearance as Fu Manchu is somewhat compromised by the bizarre decision to reduce him to a supporting role in his own franchise. The busy plot involves mind control, martial arts and plastic surgery as Fu Manchu teams up with like-minded associates (i.e. those bent on world domination) to wipe out those in their way, notably arch-enemy Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer, playing the role for a second time having replaced Nigel Green). In response, not only Scotland Yard but also Interpol and even the FBI are put onto the case, resulting in a whole crowd of characters which somewhat push Fu out of the way. Certainly, the character has always been overshadowed to an extent by his daughter Lin Tang (series regular Tsai Chin) and her sadistic urges, ever since Myrna Loy memorably essayed the part back in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu. But the effect here is too much. Indeed, Lee seems to respond by not even attempting the accent, even though the make-up has somewhat improved since 1965.
This is disappointing, not only for Lee fans but also enthusiasts of the series. Part of the pleasure of the films was their reversal of the James Bond model. Rather than the hero, it is the villain whose perspective we get on world domination – although some of the Bond villains did allow the villain to control the title; Dr No, Goldfinger. This was especially well demonstrated in The Face of Fu Manchu, with its pitting of Christopher Lee against Nigel Green prefiguring the Bond-Scaramanga duality in The Man With The Golden Gun, an even-handed battle being far more even than one which is heavily weighed in favour of one side. Green is long gone, sadly, and Wilmer certainly lacks the gravitas required of Nayland Smith, but even so the script does not allow him to develop a relationship with Lee.
Elsewhere, writer Peter Welbeck does deliver the goods, employing a ‘throw it all in’ ethos which does at least keep things interesting. The fight scenes are numerous (filming partly conducted at the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong) and the globetrotting easily matches that of Bond, yet the opportunity to make either fully satisfying is fumbled by Summers’ directorial inadequacies. His best work had come five years earlier with the Tony Hancock vehicle The Punch and Judy Man. Dialogue heavy and light on action, that film merely required Summers to focus on his lead in order to make things work and, as such, it worked very well. Martial arts sequences, however, find him out of his depth, as does any attempt at building tension. The plot is centred on a race against time to save Smith’s life and therefore requires some kind of suspense. Summers, sadly, proves no more than simply proficient. At least the next two entries in the series - The Castle of Fu Manchu and The Blood of Fu Manchu - saw him replaced by Jess Franco, a director who for all his faults at least has some character.
The film is presented on disc much as it would have been seen in the cinema. The sound is monaural and the ratio is anamorphic 1.85:1. The former is fine and presents no difficulties. The latter is surprisingly much better than expected. For a film which is of only minor interest and almost 40 years old, there is a surprising sharpness to the image. Certainly, there are differences from scene to scene but the worst to be seen is an understandable grain and an occasional softness. Indeed, this looks perfectly fine when compared to the scratchy theatrical trailer also included, but this is mere padding.