Cult Movie: Dublin-shot The Face of Fu Manchu boasts a 'pacy, sub-James Bond vibe'

Christopher Lee slathered on the make-up and donned Oriental robes to play Fu Manchu
Ralph McLean

Fu Manchu

IT'S hard to imagine a vintage literary figure who's less likely to make a cinematic come back than Fu Manchu. Today, Sax Rohmer's pulpy adventures of the Chinese warlord and all round evil genius who's hell bent on world domination is simply all kinds of wrong.

Inherently anti-Oriental and boasting the kind of casual racism that comes built into many a colonial era adventure story, they simply couldn't show their face in 2019. 'Unacceptable' barely covers it, really.

Rohmer's novels were hugely popular though, from when he first published in 1913 until his final scribbling in 1959, and in that time they crossed over onto the big screen on numerous occasions.

Back then, the cinema-going public seemed happy enough to hand over their spare cash to see stuffy old English establishment types talk about "the yellow peril" while a Caucasian actor cellotaped his eyelids into an exaggerated approximation of an Asian pantomime villain. Subtle studies of 'east meets west' these adaptations were not.

The first of these deeply dubious on-screen incarnations came courtesy of Irish actor H Agar Lyons in the 1920s before Warner Oland, Boris Karloff and Henry Brandon took turns at making the role their own.

However, it's usually the short run of garishly coloured Fu Manchu offerings dished out by producer Harry Alan Towers in the mid-to-late 60s that most people think of when the character is discussed today, which admittedly isn't that often.

All five films feature the saturnine presence of the great Christopher Lee slathering on the make-up, donning the Oriental robes and lording it over his team of henchmen and women who will do anything to wipe out the West forever.

While all five have their admirers, I would suggest that only one of them is actually worth spending any time with today: The Face Of Fu Manchu was made in 1965 by director Don Sharp and it boasts a pacy, sub-James Bond vibe that hints at where the series could have gone if ever-decreasing budgets and ever loosening moral concerns hadn't led everything firmly into the cinematic gutter by the time the execrable Castle Of Fu Manchu arrived in 1969.

However, set in 1920s London (and shot to fine effect in Dublin), The Face Of is a handsome production that pits Lee's agent of evil against his old nemesis Nayland Smith, played here with plenty of stiff upper lip aloofness by the excellent Nigel Greene.

The expected tale of diabolical plans for world domination is rolled out in some style with a memorable opening execution in a silent Chinese Prison (actually shot in Kilmainham Gaol along with the film's final sequences) and a whole raft of inventive shoot outs and effectively staged murders carried out by black clad assassins who see off their victims with red prayer scarves.

If you can write off the latent nastiness at play here as a product of the time in which it was made, this is one Fu Manchu it might be worth making time for.

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