Monday, April 09, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966)

With the second film in producer Harry Alan Towers' series, the key participants appear to have studied their previous effort closely, taken note of all the minor mistakes therein and corrected them, though the new work makes a few missteps of its own. Nevertheless, THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU is an appreciably more assured film and perhaps the series' high point. 

Rather than filming in Dublin as before, the production occupied Bray Studios, where all of Hammer's best-loved films had been made. As Fu's subterranean headquarters is secreted this time far below an Egyptian temple, the set flats and decorations are right out of a Mummy series rummage sale and feel familiar in the best way. Again, the budget didn't allow for a Hammer-level composer, but Towers was able to recruit Bruce Montgomery (a veteran of the Doctor in the House and Carry On series), who is described by the IMDb as "a hopeless alcoholic" and whose work here was likely far more than simply buoyed by its credited conductor, Philip Martell - Hammer's musical supervisor since 1962). It was Montgomery's last credited score (though he did not die until 1978 at age 56) and it has the authority of a genuine, if minor, Hammer score. Also significantly, returning director Don Sharp had done another Hammer film with Christopher Lee in the interim, presiding over one of his more celebrated performances in RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1965), and he makes immediately clear that he has learned how to use this instrument onscreen to its fullest. Lee's Fu Manchu is a more expressive characterization here, swathed in emerald silks and taking charge of people's minds by wrapping their heads in his large hands. The opening sequence, which drops us immediately into the middle of the action (not to be confused with the needless memory-refreshing excerpts from FACE that open the American version) - reintroducing Fu and his daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) as well as their latest abductees, Michele Merlin (Carole Gray) and her scientist father Jules (Rupert Davies) - may be the most bravura filmmaking in the entire series. Acting, direction, camera blocking, wardrobe, set design, and score - it feels like a foretaste of classic Hammer.

Howard Marion-Crawford and Douglas Wilmer, our heroes.
Then come the aftertastes, which unfortunately include the less satisfactory heroics of Douglas Wilmer as the new Nayland Smith; he hasn't much of the dramatic gravity that Nigel Green brought to the role. Howard Marion-Crawford is back as his stuffy associate Dr. Petrie, with somewhat less to do, and this time the guest German actor slot is handed over to the reliable Heinz Drache (THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN), who gets several opportunities to demonstrate his flair for fisticuffs - which look good but sound like someone off-camera was asked to clap his hands together every time a punch was thrown, the better that we can hear them connect. The primary heroine is surprisingly not Carole Gray (who's a bit far down the cast list for one of her screen time and credentials), but rather a French ingenue, Marie Versini - who isn't remotely equal to Gray but had the advantage to the film's German investors of having been a cast member in several of Rialto Film's Karl May adventures. The Peter Welbeck (Towers) script is a basically a more needlessly complicated retread of the previous story, built to accommodate a fifth-wheel supporting role for another of Rialto's krimi men, Harald Leipnitz.

Carole Gray and Tsai Chin, center stage.

One of the surprising highlights of the film is an abduction staged in a crowded theater during an opera performance - which must have been scripted in expectation of a more opulent budget and had to be pared down to barest essentials as the day of shooting finally came. Technically, it's a tour de force of getting away with murder: we see an audience not particularly dressed for a night at the opera, at least a few rows of faces, all looking at the stage as if they have been asked to imagine it while smelling something awful; we never see a glimpse of performance - we don't even see the stage! - and yet the scene, remarkably, works.

The wonderful character actor Bert Kwouk, best-remembered as Cato in the Pink Panther films, is a marvelous added resource to the Fu Manchu team as their star engineer Feng, but his addition is also problematical. First of all, Kwouk is simply too good an actor; we can see Christopher Lee upping his game when they share scenes together, which has the unwelcome effect of making them interact as equals - something the imperious Fu would never permit. Not only do the two men banter and bicker (!) over important details, but Feng actually questions and ultimately refuses orders. But the primary error of the Welbeck script, also present in the first, is that the reasons for Fu's dreams of world conquest are never explained - as are his intentions for what to do when and if he attains such power. With his goal left so nebulous, the film limits itself to a lower level of entertainment than it might have achieved. Also, when the stakes are raised to their highest in the final reel, Fu blithely ignores numerous danger signs arising between himself and absolute success, which causes him to look crudely sociopathic, insane rather than a villain with a vision. Sharp also does no favors to Fu's dignity when he allows us to see father and daughter scurrying like ordinary mortals on the lam, accessing their executive escape hatch as all Hell breaks loose around them.

In preparing this film, Towers plucked a feather from the cap of American director William Castle, who had recently chosen the cast of his 1965 thriller 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS from among the discoveries of an international beauty contest for teens. Having a knack for making other people's ideas a little spicier, Towers announced this film by holding a similar pageant for continental starlets above the age of consent! Whether or not the competition was a real contest or just ballyhoo, he got some quick ink in European magazines by having the "brides" pose while tearing off each others' clothes on set, though there is no erotic content in the film whatsoever.

My review is based on a viewing of Momentum's UK disc, dated 2001, though the film has since (2008) also become available domestically as half of an MGM Midnite Movies double feature with 1967's CHAMBER OF HORRORS. I have heard this version (which includes the aforementioned US prologue) also has an anomaly of presentation that causes  a slight vertical stretching of the image, which is reportedly soft to begin with; I have seen grabs online that confirm this. No such anomalies are present on the Momentum disc, which looks infinitely better than the copy of FACE OF FU MANCHU included in the same FU MANCHU TRILOGY box set. There are no extras on the disc. As with the other films in the series, BRIDES is included in its shorter, alternate German cut with music by Gert Wilden in the German box set THE DR. FU-MAN-CHU COLLECTION.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved. 

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