Designed strictly for lovers of pulp serials and potboilers, The Face of Fu Manchu is a dated Don Sharp joint making an appearance on DVD thanks to Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection. The 1965 picture is the first in a series of five films featuring the Sax Rohmer-created character. The heavy made appearances in early films like 1935’s Mask of Fu Manchu, in which he was played by Boris Karloff.
The malevolent rise of foreign cultures has almost always proven as effective grounds for super-villains and Rohmer’s character was no different. His descriptions of purported “Yellow Peril” sound absolutely foul by today’s standards – and thank goodness. But to reject their appeal at the time would be ignorant; the fact of the matter is that this junk worked.
By the 1960s, things had changed but not so much as to render the events of The Face of Fu Manchu any more sensible. Opening with a seeming execution of the criminal mastermind, the film quickly makes it apparent that Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) is in fact not dead but operating in London under the River Thames.
Scotland Yard commissioner Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) is a suitable protagonist. He becomes curious after a series of crimes involve the markers of Fu Manchu, a villain he knows well. Suspecting his nemesis is still alive, Smith works to stop a villainous plot that includes the abduction of Professor Muller (Walter Rilla) with designs on extracting a deadly potion from a Tibetan poppy.
The Face of Fu Manchu pits decent British men like Nayland and his sidekick Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion-Crawford) against nefarious savages like Fu Manchu and his daughter (Tsai Chin). The dichotomy is clear enough and only the very naïve will deny the connotations, from the description of a group of foreign students as seeming “innocent enough” to the use of Tibetan prayer scarves as murder weapons.
If The Face of Fu Manchu was made today, Islam would form the foundation of fear. There are many parallels to current socio-political situations that prove how little things change. Ritual murder is seen as a “passport to heaven,” for instance, while Fu Manchu’s execution of a betrayer puts her on the “way to paradise.” The fact that a double is used to such infamous means is the icing on the dictatorial cake.
Of course, overthinking this drivel is probably beside the point. The Face of Fu Manchu is, like today’s blockbusters, meant to be taken with a rather large bowl of popcorn and a big gawky soda. In that regard, the flourishing stupidity may be kind of intoxicating. There’s a cool meat-and-potatoes car chase that finds Smith using the line “This is vital” without an ounce of artificiality, for instance, but things never go quite far enough to justify the absurdity.
Lee is aloof as Fu Manchu and that presents a problem. For all the preposterousness build surrounding the “most evil man the world has ever known,” very little of that evil is felt. There is no incentive for his criminal activity beyond the sheer desire to commit crimes and very little background is offered as to how Fu Manchu became such a legend. He is simply introduced as a mastermind and that is that.
Sharp, who’d delivered the goods for Hammer Films with stuff like Kiss of the Vampire, is competent enough in the director’s chair. Things are rendered in typical pulp fashion and the tone is relatively conventional, save for an eerie and gloomy sequence in the town of Fleetwick that sees the military marching in to burn the bodies.
Fans of pulp movies and Saturday matinees may still find something entertaining in The Face of Fu Manchu, but the film is mostly a passé and stuffy exercise in wasted chances and underwhelming characters.
The DVD release from Warner Brothers’ Archive Collection has no special features to speak of, not even a cool trailer or chapter listings.