Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Recent Viewings: THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967)

Christopher Lee, actually playing Sax Rohmer's Emperor of Crime in Hong Kong.
You've got to hand it to producer Harry Alan Towers: as busy as he was, as productive as he was, he always had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in popular media - not just in English-speaking countries, but around the world. When director Don Sharp moved on to bigger, more mainstream pictures after directing the first two Fu Manchu films, Towers had already groomed Jeremy Summers to take over the pilot seat, having chosen him on the basis of his solid background in British crime programmers (CROOKS IN CLOISTERS, DATELINE DIAMONDS), pop culture (the Gerry and the Pacemakers film FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY), and episodes of DANGER MAN and THE SAINT. Towers would ultimately make four films with Summers, of which this was the second, following FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS (1967), derived from the Sanders novels of Edgar Wallace.

Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford.
Maria Rohm, Horst Frank.
Peter Carsten, Tony Ferrer.
But the actual playing ground of the third Fu Manchu film showed even greater global awareness and ambition. Again working with a German co-production company (actually two, Constantin joining forces this time with Terra-Filmkunst), Towers further extended his partnership to the Shaw Brothers factory in Hong Kong, which availed the film of a scenic splendor that the previous two could only hint at. The principal players - Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Douglas Wilmer, Howard Marion-Crawford - happily returned, seizing paid vacations to the Far East with both hands. They were joined by Horst Frank, Suzanne Rocquet, Peter Carsten and Wolfgang Kieling from Germany, New Zealand actor Noel Trevarthan, and Filipino superstar Tony Ferrer, cannily cast as Nayland Smith's Eastern counterpart, Inspector Ramos. Ferrer, who since 1965 had been starring in crime and action pictures as the Philippines' answer to James Bond, Agent X-44 (a role he would continue to essay until 2007), is the most interesting element of the film. His participation includes actual martial arts choreography, then rarely seen onscreen, and his arrival on the international scene coincides remarkably closely with that of Bruce Lee. True, he's not as dynamic or charismatic a martial artist as Bruce Lee (who is?), but when he cuts loose, he spikes the film with an authenticity it doesn't often summon otherwise. Also making her debut in the series is actress Maria Rohm, Towers' Viennese wife, as Ingrid Swenson, a torch singer in a sailor bar. She pantomimes to two songs sung by Samantha Jones. Nayland Smith's demure Chinese maid, Lotus, is here replaced by a new one, Jasmin - played by Mona Chong, an actress fresh from ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! and DANGER MAN and bound for ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

Douglas Wilmer.

Maria Rohm.
Once again, Sax Rohmer's name appears above the title on a story he never wrote. And it's that same story he never wrote. Fu Manchu abducts the daughter of a leading scientist at work on a potentially devastating formula, and the story builds to the usual klutzy demise for Fu and Company...  However, in this case, the film foregrounds what should have been a more interesting and original storyline involving the abduction of Nayland Smith, who is replaced with one of Fu's murderous minions after some advanced plastic surgery. As things play out, it's an energy-sapping subplot as the replacement is played less as an impersonator than as a zombie, which effectively takes the film's putative hero out of circulation - we see him tediously tried for murder, shots of him looking dead-faced and uncommunicative in the dock with flip-optical cutaways to newspaper headlines (the cinematic equivalent of yawning through a series of "and this happened, then this"). On the plus side, Ferrer and Carsten are actually better equipped for the film's physical heroics, and the subplot gives Marion-Crawford opportunities to emote for a change; he contributes his own finest work in the series. Christopher Lee and Tsai Chin likewise are fully prepared to give their best - Lee has an excellent moment when he receives the news of Nayland Smith's capture - but their characters are surrounded by too much excelsior. At the same time, seemingly important supporting characters are simply present to go through the motions, which now verge on the risible (thanks mostly to Frank's fey, panatela-smoking bad guy with Texas cowboy affectations), or to stand around as the drably predictable happens. Summers' direction capably handles all the onscreen traffic, but never feels involved in it. It should be mentioned that Nayland Smith mentions at one point that he has retired from Scotland Yard and is joining a new organization to be known as Interpol. Interpol was founded in the 1950s, but this may not be an error in the film's period setting, as Wilmer's hair is shown to be fully gray here and there is not much on view to absolutely contradict an early 1950s time period - apart from the fact that our villains have not aged.

Christopher Lee.
Noel Trevarthan, Tony Ferrer and "motley crew" under cover.

Horst Frank and torture chamber props going to waste.
Most observers of this series blame Jesús Franco for bringing about the end of this series with the last two entries, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (aka KISS AND KILL, THE KISS OF FU MANCHU and AGAINST ALL ODDS) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU - and it should be mentioned that Towers himself agreed. But the real problem is fully apparent in the first three: Towers should have allowed someone else to write them - someone with the time to actually read Rohmer, perhaps. The first three films essentially present us with the same story three times, each time served up with a bit more sauce and seasoning. (The spice in this case is some mild profanity; there is almost none of the usual sado-masochism, with the exception of a branding sequence for which a prop of a woman's bare back was obviously built for a close-up that isn't kept in its entirety.)  In a sense, the most significant fault of THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU is that, in its reach for greater (dare I say Bondian?) glamor and spectacle, it loses sight of the character's origins in pulp fiction. The negligence of his alien invasive presence, lurking dangerously on the periphery of a known world, is sacrificed as the series extends beyond mystery into common adventure.

Once again, I have reviewed the film working from the imported Momentum DVD release of THE FU MANCHU TRILOGY of 2001, which includes a trailer. The image grabs used here are from that Kinowelt/Studio Canal-sourced release. The film has since been released domestically as a DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection. I have not seen that version and cannot verify whether or not the American cut differs from this one in any way.

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

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