The Vengeance of Fu Manchu
Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer
(USDVD release date: 31 Dec 1969; USDVD release date: 26 Oct 2012)
British writer Sax Rohmer created Fu Manchu and his daughter in a series of novels from just before WWI through the 1950s. They are culturally interesting inventions who, like other pop culture icons, have escaped their creators’ hegemony and who were always ambiguous anyway. They might be seen as racist symbols of a “yellow peril,” a Western fear of Chinese domination motivated by grudging acknowledgement of the alleged Other’s qualities. However, the very brilliance of this enemy allows him to articulate the sort of anti-Western imperialist critiques and defense of Asian pride that the Occidental heroes wouldn’t utter, much less the stereotypical comic-relief cooks and launderers found in other Western products of the era. The fact that his fierce offspring is a woman throws in a feminist angle, as together they embody the rage of multifarious oppressees.
As pulp characters, they recall the French criminal mastermind Fantomas, whose adventures were filmed by Louis Feuillade and others, and also Fritz Lang’s films of evil genius Dr. Mabuse, or Germany’s endless cycle of Edgar Wallace films in the 60s. The Face of Fu Manchu successfully evokes those fast, reckless, uncanny efforts, a continual shell game of mysterious invasions, kidnappings, escapes, secret passages, apparent killings and unkillings. Seemingly no development can’t be reversed five minutes later. With such an agenda, the plot can’t make too much sense and simply represents the eternal struggle of might opposites Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) and Sir Dennis Nayland Smith (Nigel Geen), equal in giant stature and grim determination. Fu Manchu’s atrocity of wiping out an English village (the fiend!) is answered by the counter-atrocity of Nayland Smith blowing up a Tibetan monastery!
Alas, what a falling-off is there by The Vengeance of Fu Manchu. Not only is the script slow and dull, marked by endlessly expository scenes in which every point is explained many times, but the setting up and editing of shots is clumsy and pointless. This is clear in the first scene, where Fu and his daughter (Tsai Chin, now clearly an accessory) execute some uppity lackeys. This ought to be a setpiece of grotesque thrills, but every death is mediocre in concept and clumsy in execution (as it were). Virtually every instance of action is botched by a tendency to cut away whenever something might be happening. This is partly a convention of censorship but mostly a shortcut around production value, and it becomes a pathological tic.
This time, Fu Manchu does little but manage a plot to replace Nayland Smith (now played by the more boring Douglas Wilmer) with a zombified double who’s hardly less exciting; this execute-a-double schtick is a tedious retread of an off-handed idea from Face. As a dubious plus, Maria Rohm’s gratuitous character sings a couple of brassy cabaret songs.
These English-German co-productions are the first and third films in a series of five produced by Harry Alan Towers from 1965 to 1969. Face is shot mostly in Ireland, while Vengeance shoots some scenes at Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio, so both look reasonably handsome. They’re now available on demand from Warner Archives, but we fancy Face will face greater demand than Vengeance, and let that be the Vengeance of Face, or perhaps the Face of Vengeance.