Face of Fu Manchu, The Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Momentum R2 release of The Face Of Fu Manchu. A splendidly enjoyable adventure movie has received a very disappointing transfer.

There have been countless films recounting the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, some good but most pretty mediocre. Indeed, so low has been the general quality that there is a strong case for claiming that Don Sharp’s 1965 film The Face of Fu Manchu is a good deal more Holmesian than most films which are actually based on Conan-Doyle’s characters. All the ingredients are there; a fiendish plot; a brilliant detective; an equally intelligent villain; and a richly furbished, fog-laden atmosphere. But Sharp’s film has a pace and wit which have only rarely been granted to the adventures of the more respectable Holmes. Indeed, in the shape of Nigel Green’s marvellous Nayland Smith, it has a detective worthy of battling the ‘Yellow Peril’, the awesomely powerful criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, played with relish by Christopher Lee.

Sax Rohmer’s creation first appeared in a 1913 novel called “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu” which was immediately followed by “The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu”. The name ‘Sax Rohmer’ was a suitably exotic pseudonym for a respected writer of non-fiction, Arthur Sarsfield Ward who was an expert on Music Hall and the Occult. Ward also published horror stories, praised by H.P.Lovecraft, and various mystery stories. But it was Fu Manchu who caught the imagination of both the public and critics who were willing to overlook the somewhat florid prose style and look at the energy which Rohmer brought to the deliciously convoluted stories. He died in 1959 but his work remains popular with fans of pulp fiction and much of it is still in print. Fu Manchu himself – the “yellow peril incarnated in one man” – was inspired by vague stories of a “Mr King” who was reputed to be a significant criminal figure in the Chinese underworld. A more obvious influence is obviously Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, the description of whom in “The Final Problem” is very similar to Rohmer’s descriptions of his Asiatic master-criminal. Rohmer’s creation received a boost in popularity from the general interest in the ‘mysterious East’ and the post-World War One boom in conspiracy stories about international criminal organisations – the most famous example being Agatha Christie’s ridiculously xenophobic “The Big Four”.

Hollywood, unsurprisingly, showed an interest in Rohmer’s work and, in 1932, MGM released The Mask Of Fu Manchu directed by Charles Brabin and Charles Vidor and starring Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu. A breathtakingly perverse adventure romp, it still looks pretty good today and set a high standard for Don Sharp’s film to match. The Face Of Fu Manchu doesn’t have the lush production values of the MGM film but it makes up for shortcomings in that department with enthusiasm, pace and action. The plot isn’t based on a particular Rohmer story but rather attempts a general recapturing of the Rohmer style. A German professor goes missing in London and his relatives are warned not to tell the authorities of his disappearance. But news of the disappearance reaches Nayland Smith, diplomat and brilliant detective who senses the involvement of his old enemy Fu Manchu. In China, Smith had battled Manchu and seen him apparently executed for his crimes. But it becomes increasingly obvious that whoever was executed, it certainly wasn’t the criminal genius. Smith soon uncovers a horrifying plot to hold the world to ransom.

The story is a load of old tosh but its done with such style that it’s very hard not to fall under the spell. Don Sharp realises, quite rightly, that the only way to play this kind of thing is dead straight and he brings immense conviction to the hoary old plot. The film moves along quickly and each new development is treated as if it were completely original. It’s as if Fu Manchu really were the first villain to trap a girl in a chamber and watch her slowly drown in river water. Sharp has shown elsewhere – in films such as Kiss Of The Vampire and The Thirty Nine Steps – that he has a knack for this kind of pulp and he doesn’t condescend to either the material or the audience. He’s helped in this film by Peter Welbeck’s script. Welbeck, a pseudonym for producer Harry Allan Towers and perpetrator of some truly awful writing in his time, seems to have been stirred into unusual efforts by this film and the dialogue has a nice sense of the absurd which is very reminiscent of Rohmer.

Christopher Lee, himself something of a pulp fiction buff, is marvellously chilling as Fu Manchu. Needless to say, it’s bracingly non-PC and there’s little likelihood that this performance would even be considered acceptable today, but regardless of this it’s notable how seriously Lee takes the part. There’s no grinning or winking at the audience and Lee’s intense calm is oddly unnerving. He is well matched by the great Nigel Green, who is simply perfect as the ultra-cool Nayland Smith. Green, who did some memorable work which was underappreciated at the time, has a marvellously relaxed authority and he makes Smith a totally unflappable hero who is a mixture of Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Jason King. No other actor has quite got the character right – certainly not Richard Greene in the Jess Franco films or Peter Sellers in the dismal comedy The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu – and it’s largely down to Green that this first film is the best of the series. The supporting cast is efficient if a little unmemorable with the exception of Tsai Chin as Manchu’s sadistic henchwoman.

I think it’s worth making a few comments about the racism which may be found in this film and the others in the series. While it’s undoubtedly the case that the portrayal of Chinese and Asiatic characters in this film is generally fairly derogatory, it’s clearly operating within a pulp literary tradition and is being faithful to that tradition. I think that it’s possible to disapprove of the stereotyping while accepting that it was once a part of popular culture which has now moved on. I’d make similar comments about the portrayal of ‘Red Indians’ in Stagecoach, for one example from many, or the use of black performers in films of the 1930s and early 1940s. Given that our own culture considers it taboo to make fun of certain ethnic minorities but finds it entirely acceptable to stereotype Germans, Muslims and homosexuals, I don’t think we should be too smug about our own tolerance compared to that of our forebears.

The film is undoubtedly flawed. The sense of period is distinctly shaky for one thing with a bizarre mixture of styles and periods on display. The low budget also shows in the occasionally makeshift sets and rather uninspiring headquarters for the world’s criminal genius. More damagingly, the pace of the film dips when we’re left with the incredibly dull Joachim Fuchsberger and an unusually subdued Karin Dor as the Professor’s concerned relatives – the price paid for valuable co-production funding from West Germany. But these are small points when placed alongside the general quality of Don Sharp’s film. Along with a fine collection of fights and chases, we get some oddly poetic images and occasional moments of genuine eerieness such as the scenes of a small English village overcome by a poison gas. The Face Of Fu Manchu is an intelligent, entertaining film which is overdue for a reappraisal as one of the most impressive British films of the 1960s.

The Disc

Momentum have released the first three 1960s Fu Manchu films on DVD. While it’s a pleasure to see the first film in its original Scope aspect ratio, it’s a great pity that the picture quality is so mediocre.

The Face of Fu Manchu is presented in 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. That’s the good news. It’s also a pleasure to see the beautifully rich colours which the transfer exhibits. The level of detail is reasonably good although some scenes are rather on the soft side. But there’s a lot of grain visible throughout along with some artifacting in all the darker scenes. Worst of all, the image is packed with various kinds of damage. Scratches appear throughout along with distracting white speckling and there are frequent problems with edge-enhancement. The master used for the transfer was clearly in poor condition but it’s a shame that so little care has been taken for what should be a significant release.

Nor is there a good soundtrack. The track is English Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and it presents the dialogue reasonably well but there is an alarming amount of crackling to be heard and some distortion is present at times.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. This is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 and, frustratingly, is in better condition than the film itself.

There are 10 chapter stops. No subtitles are provided which is an inexcusable omission.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Face of Fu Manchu and it’s remarkable how well it has stood the test of time. Highly recommended for anyone who likes a good period adventure. Sadly, this DVD does not present the film in a form which is likely to impress even the most casual viewer and must be regarded as a wasted opportunity.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Oct 21, 2003

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