October 8, 2012

DVD Review: The Face of Fu Manchu

As the tale opens, drums sound and we see soldiers lining a courtyard. A man reads charges from a scroll and a prisoner is led out. A basket is laid beside a block and the executioner readies his blade. The prisoner lays down, face to the sky, as the blade swings down. Decapitated, the basket is removed and the witnesses file away. The prisoner was the notorious criminal Fu Manchu, executed in his homeland of China. So begins the 1965 film The Face of Fu Manchu.

The setting shifts to a few months later and moves from China to London. We are introduced to Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), an inspector with Scotland Yard and one of the witnesses at Fu Manchu's execution. As we meet him, we learn of a rash of mysterious strangulation murders that seem to indicate that Fu Manchu is alive and well. We also learn of the disappearance of noted biochemist Dr. Muller.

It is true, Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) is alive, despite his execution having many witnesses. He has set up shop in London and is working on a new plan to take over the world. He is extorting Dr. Muller into helping him create a poison to help him in his quest.

The Face of Fu Manchu was the first big screen appearance of the Sax Rohmer created character in 25-years. He had last been seen in a 15-chapter serial in 1940 and in a series of features in the late 1920's and early 1930's. This film was the start of a new five film cycle featuring Christopher Lee in the villainous title role.

The movie plays like a cross between a Sherlock Holmes tale and a James Bond adventure. There is a Holmes-esque battle of wits waged between Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, who has a sidekick named Dr. Petrie filling the Watson role. The movie is also filled with action and fist fights as the villain seeks to enact his world enveloping plan, not unlike a Bond film. Beyond that, there is also a bit a Hammer feel, but that may just be due to Lee's presence.

There is a distinct B-movie quality and director Don Sharp keeps things moving. It is not without it's slow moments, but never long enough to where you start thinking of the logic gaps that can be found throughout. I found it best to just go along with the story and let the lead performances take you where you need to go. There is no need to think about the logistics of faking a witnessed execution, or how our bad guy made it to England, much less set up an extensive base of operations. There is also no need to think about why a Scotland Yard inspector would be discussing strategy in such an open location.

It is an enjoyable film, just don't get caught up in the borderline racism that is rampant throughout. Some of it is a sad product of the era the original novels are from, and it would seem that the inclusion of Chinese culture was done to add an exotic element to the thriller. I do not think it really matters what race our villain is, he would be intelligent and evil regardless

The lead performances are solid. Nigel Green strikes a very Holmes-like presence and does not shy away from a fight. Christopher Lee's performance is cold and methodical. He embodies evil here, calculating and always dangerous.

Audio/Video. The film is presented in a ratio of 2.35:1 and looks good considering it likely has not gone through much of a restoration. The transfer does reveal the films age, with the presence of scratches and spots. The colors are on the washed out side of things, but this appears to be the original intention. Detail is fairly solid, although some of the darker scenes get a little muddy. When there is light. The detail is quite good.

Audio is represented by a mono track. It has good fidelity fee of any hiss or pops. Dialogue is always understandable and music comes through clearly.

Extras. There is no extra material on the disk. It is a Warner Archive release, meaning each disk is made when it is ordered.

Bottomline. This is a solid B-movie entry from the past. It is not a great movie, but it is a fun one. I enjoyed the straightforward mystery and am actually interested in seeing more of the Fu Manchu titles.


Article first published as DVD Review: The Face of Fu Manchu on Blogcritics.

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