... aka: Fu Manchu 1
... aka: Fu Manciù A.S.3: Operazione Tigre (Fu Manchu A.S.3.: Operation Tiger)
... aka: Ich, Dr. Fu Man Chu (I, Dr. Fu Manchu)
... aka: Mask of Fu Manchu, The
... aka: Sax Rohmer's The Face of Fu Manchu
Chinese super villain and criminal mastermind Fu Manchu was the centerpiece of a series of early 20th century novels (starting with 1913's The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu) by British author Sax Rohmer. Film-wise, the character first saw life in 1923 as a British serial starring Irish actor Harry Agar Lyons. Since the books were very popular, Hollywood soon took an interest and Paramount cast Swedish-born Warner Oland (who'd soon go on to play Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan in a long series of films) in the role. On the back of the success of their first release, 1929's The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, Oland was able to reprise the role several more times over the next few years. In 1932, Boris Karloff famously took over the part for MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), which proved to be rather controversial in its day due to dialogue like “Conquer and breed! Kill the white man and take his women!” and what many perceived as a racist portrayal of Asians as untrustworthy criminals bent on world domination. Because of that and an increasing bout of what many historians would later call “Yellow Peril” (an irrational fear of Asians) due to the tumultuous world climate at the time, the character was retired a number of years, only being dredged back up in the 1940 serial Drums of Fu Manchu starring German émigré Henry Brandon and the 13 episode TV series The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu (1956) starring New York native Glen Gordon.
Notably, none of the early cinematic or television Fu Manchu's had been played by an actual Chinese actor but instead Caucasian ones often having to wear special make-up to give them an "Oriental" appearance. This 1965 incarnation carries on in that tradition by casting internationally-known horror superstar Christopher Lee, whose recent passing really does sting, in the part. Lee, who'd made his name through Hammer but never let that keep him from venturing far away from Bray Studios to take on other projects in other countries, plays the part in a humorless, stone-faced manner, (thankfully) doesn't even bother with an accent and reportedly spent many hours in the make-up chair every day to get the appropriate look for the role. Producer Harry Alan Towers (who also scripted under the pseudonym “Peter Welbeck”) arranged for a memorable publicity campaign, which found Lee traveling around Europe and helping to select winners of various beauty contests who would appear in small, non-speaking roles in the follow-up film. None of that helped to turn this well-produced film into a box office hit, but apparently Towers had enough faith in the character to keep the series going for several more years.
Used as a gag promotional tool, the flyer circulated around New York City during
election time, prompting some voters to cast write-in votes for Fu Manchu!
election time, prompting some voters to cast write-in votes for Fu Manchu!
Things open in Imperial China as a suspiciously calm Fu prepares to lose his head after already being found guilty of attempting to create an underworld empire bent on world domination and committing various other crimes “almost without number.” After the axe swings and the head rolls (er, well, lands in a basket), Scotland Yard Commissioner Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), whose tireless efforts led to the capture of Fu in the first place, breaths a sigh of relief. Not too long after, things still haven't improved in the least across Europe. In fact, they've gotten worse. Drug trafficking, murder and various gang activities are still on the rise. When a murder victim who's been strangled with a silken prayer scarf from Tibet, where Fu had lived and studied for a spell, turns up, Nayland suspects the “most evil and dangerous man in the world” may somehow still be alive. And he turns out to be correct. The executed "Fu" was actually just a look-a-like, who's been hypnotized to take his place.
Upon the disappearance of famous biochemist Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), Nayland, with help from his trusty, Watson-like assistant Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) begins to piece the elaborate puzzle together. He first meets up with the professor's personal assistant Carl Janssen (Joachim Fuchsberger, who took some time off from a long stream of German krimi to appear here) and Muller's daughter, Maria (Karin Dor). From them, he learns that the professor had been experimenting with an extremely rare and extremely potent flower called the Black Hill Poppy. A poison from the precious flower, which is found only in Tibet and called “The Seed of Life” by local monks, is so potent a few drops can kill thousands of people. The professor and Carl had been acquiring it through a black market drug operation, which is how Fu and his men were able to learn all about them and what they were up to.
Nayland and Carl pay a visit to the drug warehouse the professor was getting his supplies from and inadvertently tip off Fu and his men in the process. Fu, whose secret headquarters (which extend far under the Thames River) are located inside the warehouse through a secret passageway hidden behind a bookcase, then puts out hits on both Nayland and Carl. Because the kidnapped professor refuses to cooperate in Fu's evil schemes, Manchu instructs his daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) to arrange for Maria to be kidnapped to prod the professor along. After the formula is complete, Fu lets everyone know he means business by contaminating the village of Fleetwick; instantly killing all three-thousand people living there. He announces over the radio that if his demands are not met within a few days, he'll launch a follow-up attack and claim 10 thousand more victims.
Based on the lukewarm reception of these movies, this was more enjoyable than I expected it to be. While the first half tends to drag, the film improves significantly as it goes along. Good use is made of the Irish shooting locations and the production values are good enough to create a believable 1920s period setting via the art direction, costumes, props, cars, etc. The numerous fight sequences are choreographed efficiently for the time and there's also a pretty good car chase through the streets and country, which ends in one of Fu's henchmen trying to drop bombs on our heroes from an airplane circling above! Fu also has a neat little drowning chamber in his lair that expels victims right into the river where they'll no doubt be written off as suicides. Also included in one of the very first scenes is a cheeky direct reference to Yellow Peril; almost a built-in escape route to protect the filmmakers of any possible criticism!
As far as the cast is concerned, there may not be any particular standouts, but the combination of experienced British and German character actors ensures no weak links either. Pretty much everyone does their job very well. My only major gripe is with the finale, which should have been more exciting and suspenseful than what it is.
Fu's final words in the film are “The world shall hear from me again.” Audiences did indeed hear from him again and they didn't have to wait long with the release of THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) the following year. It was also directed by Sharp, written and produced by Towers and featured Lee, Chin and Marion-Crawford reprising their roles (other major parts were re-cast). Three other sequels; the Jeremy Summers-directed The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) and a pair of Jess Franco efforts; The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), rounded out the series. All of these made their way onto DVD eventually.