‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ or — Sharp’s Eye?
Like walking across a snake-filled pit I was extremely trepidatious about watching ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ (1965) and for two very good reasons — would it be racist and would it be boring and awful? The bad news is the answer to the first question is “yes” (although with a few mitigations), but the good news is the answer to the second is an emphatic “no”. In fact, of all the ways you could describe ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ boring or dull would never be one of them.
The film starts with Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) executed in China for being a meanie. His beheading is witnessed by his arch rival, Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, who returns to England with Fu’s death mask which he hangs on his wall as a souvenir of finally bringing his nemesis to justice.
However, on returning to London Smith discovers that Professor Muller, an expert on the Tibetan Blackhill poppy, has been kidnapped and a body found strangled to death with a mysterious red silk scarf. This can mean only one thing — Fu Manchu has returned from beyond the grave!
What’s remarkable about all this is that it all takes place within the first five minutes, setting up the characters as though we know already and wasting no time in cutting to the chase. From here on it’s a frantic dash to stop Fu Manchu using the deadly toxins from the Blackhill poppy to kill thousands in London. This vaporous poison is fatal in small quantities but loses toxicity above freezing point, something which buys Smith and his team time to find Fu Manchu and stop his dastardly plan. But can they stop him in time? Watch ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ and find out!
Let’s deal with the big problem first, namely the racist element to it all. The character of Fu Manchu himself is inherently offensive, being a Chinese super villain played by an English man with rubber prosthetics. He’s a problematic creation yet you can also sense ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ doing quite a bit to pull away from demonising the Chinese. It’s China who executes Fu Manchu at the start, I guess the filmmakers wanting to show Fu Manchu does not represent China and distancing the country from this evil man, and there are a few comments scattered throughout the movie that suggest a tolerant nature to proceedings (“It takes all sorts to make a world” muttered by a museum guard being one of them). So Fu Manchu is a racist creation but you can feel the film throwing on some fig leaves to cover his indecency and the result is a movie that’s less uncomfortable to sit through than, say, Hammer’s ‘The Terror of The Tongs’ (1961) or even a few of the Bond movies in terms of race.
‘The Face of Fu Manchu’s big saving graces though are its fun-factor, pacing and directing all of which function at a ludicrously high level. Good grief, this film absolutely blasts along! The script and plot focus solely on action and incident meaning there’s no time for character examination or brooding atmosphere, it’s just straight on to the next piece of excitement.
And considering the excitement consists of everything from toxic plants, underground lairs, car chases (I was NOT expecting such an effective, 1920’s period set car chase in this movie), torture devices, explosions, robberies, fist fights, elaborate laboratories, stranglings, kidnappings, mind control, interrupted radio broadcasts and the murder of thousands of innocent civilians then there’s enough excitement here to fill several movies.
Director Don Sharp handles all this brilliantly, never letting the pacing drop for a second and bringing a really satisfying physicality and muscularity to the action and fight scenes. The film never flags, nor even comes close once to doing so, barreling along breathlessly but never with the slightest sign of developing cramp. Sharp also knows how and when to move the camera, exploiting all sorts of tricks to keep the momentum going as well as slipping in some nifty style, too.
This is most effective during the “remember Fleetwick” sequence when Fu Manchu gives the world a taste of what is in store if he is not obeyed. I won’t spoil what happens but it is truly unnerving, quite terrifying and unsettling as hell. The soldiers walking through the aftermath evokes a real sense of the scale of the destruction whilst utilising some seriously uncanny imagery that other films would kill to achieve. The fact it then hard cuts to Fu Manchu in his base listening to jazz also turns it in a macabre joke.
I enjoyed ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ WAY more than I was expecting. It’s a blatant mash-up of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes but as much fun as that sounds. Sure, it is problematic but is compensated by some obvious smarts, a good-natured approach and just enough self-awareness. But it’s that furious, almost delirious, pacing that grips and is the primary thrill here. Indeed, it might sound like sacrilege but ‘The Face of Fu Manchu’ might be better (it’s certainly faster) paced than a few Bond films I could mention.
The other impressive draw is Sharp’s directing which is assured, exciting and designed for maximum velocity. I’ve been a fan of his biker/horror flick ‘Psychomania’ (1973) for years so it was a blast to see that the same control he had on story and action is just as evident in ‘Fu Manchu’, if not more so.
I was dreading ‘The Face of fu Manchu’ would be an uncomfortable, shoddily made, boring slog and whilst the obvious issues are undeniable what isn’t deniable is just how exciting and well made it is. If you’re a fan of detective stories with outlandish plots combined with world domination then you’ll find a huge amount to enjoy here. If you’re a fan of ‘Psychomania’ and curious about checking out more of Don Sharp’s work and getting a better handle on his style then this is required viewing.