Saturday, 11 July 2015

Christopher Lee in Memoriam

On June 7th, the world lost one of the greatest living screen legends and a personal favorite actor of mine, Sir Christopher Lee. Much as everyone would´ve expected him to turn 100, he left this realm at the ripe age of 93. He certainly had a long and amazing life, and no one could deny his love for the craft, since he was working until the end. And a good thing too, because his recognizable baritone could liven up the most dire of blockbusters. He´s one of my all-time favorite actors precisely because there´s no thrash film so rotten that he wouldn´t improve it just by with his immense charisma and serious speech patterns.

I am a bit late with this post, but I couldn´t have a better reason to get this blog running once again than to start out by reminiscing some of Sir Christopher´s work. This isn´t necessarily a listing of his greatest roles (might I direct you to this post about The Wicker Man for that), but these are some of his most iconic performances, with some curiosities thrown in for good measure.

Horror of Dracula (1958) 
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Of course, the role that made him famous, and a cornerstone in his career was the defining portrayal of Count Dracula in numerous Hammer Studios´ films, starting with this one. As it is, it´s surprising to see just how little we see of the old count in Horror of Dracula, and even in the following film, Dracula: Prince of Darkness. But Lee is such a perfect embodiment for otherworldly evil, as well as a sexy outsider, that he leaves an immediate impact.

As Hammer films tend to have, this one also has top-notch sets, music and a foggy athmosphere you could cut with a knife. The cast is very good, but the acting is still very theatrical. Later on, Hammer directors eased out on acting-direction, but sadly this coincided with the scripts getting worse and worse. At this point they were still eager to try their claws with classic horror stories and giving them an unmistakably English twist.

In The Horror of Dracula, the most notable problem is the same one as in Stoker´s book (from which the film otherwise takes notable liberties). While the opening scenes of Jonathan Harker traveling to castle Dracula and realizing that the man he thought to do real-estate business is in fact an undead monster, are exciting, feverish and threatening. But once the action settles on patriarchal Victorians trying to solve the case of women enjoying sex, the film jars to a halt. Never mind that the obsessive, cold and violent Van Helsing as portrayed by Peter Cushing is one of the best portrayals of that character.

Lee hated the role of Dracula so much, that he refused to say any of his lines in the first sequel, PoD. That film was made to keep the struggling hammer Films afloat, so Lee had to grudgingly accept. The resulting pantomime performance emphasizes the character´s otherwordliness, and the surrealism feels much more like the live-action reprisal of Nosferatu than Werner Herzog´s actual remake could ever manage.

Dracula: ★★★ 1/2
Prince of Darkness: ★★★ 1/2

The Hound of Baskervilles (1959)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Lee played in many different versions of Arthur Conan Doyle´s Sherlock Holmes stories, managing to play Holmes twice and his brother Mycroft once (in Billy Wilder´s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I have a lot of fondness for that role). Curiously, he was never cast as Professor Moriarty, but perhaps that would´ve been way too obvious. This Hammer Films version of perhaps the most famous Holmes story deserves merit because it takes the opposite direction, casting Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, with his best friend Peter Cushing as The Great Detective.

Lee´s Sir Henry is something of a buffoon, a very self-important aristocrat that is introduced complaining about his missing shoes and mistaking Holmes as a servant. Lee´s no-nonsense charisma and a sort of anger seethe through a man who´s deadly afraid, but can´t manage but to try to keep up appearances. A scene with a killer tarantula for instance reveals the cracks in his facade, making him totally freeze up in fright.

It´s always a pleasure to see Cushing and Lee play off each other (which makes it such a shame they have so little interaction in Dracula films or, for instance Curse of Frankenstein). They are a pair for the ages, usually having one of them be the straight man, voice of reason, and the other the passionate character, fringing on the edges of madness. It´s evident that the pair got on off-screen as well.


The Bloody Judge (1970)
Dir. Jesús Franco

If Lee´s career in the 1950´s and early 60´s was emphasized by the films he made with Terence Fisher and Hammer Films, in the late 1960´s and early 70´s his most frequent working partner was the Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco. In many ways, Franco had a way of continuing on with some of the work Hammer started, such as taking on their Fu Manchu films with a couple of movies of the Diabolical Doctor of his own. It seems Lee had a fondness for Franco, since he could even convince him to play The Lord of the Vampires once more for 1970´s Count Dracula. Lee has gone on record to praise that film, probably because it gave him dialogue straight from Bram Stoker´s novel, a feat which none of the Hammer movies could manage to do.

Another of Franco´s films that pleased Lee was this historical thriller about the 17th century Lord Chief of Justice Jeffries, who was known for public executions. One must say that Franco was riding on the wave of the wave of British horror of the day, releasing this film between such films with similar subject matter as The Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan´s Claw. Cynical looks at the bloody and unfair history of England were all the rage then.

However, like Franco´s films tend to be, this one is thin on story and oddly uneven. Scenes of torture and nude women were inserted to the finished film in order to gain notoriety. Thus also Lee´s performance disappears from the film from time to time. As Jeffries, he does tremendous work, with his burning gaze and reasoning that he is serving the kingdom by killing people he sees as threats. Lee could make Franco´s films a lot better than they had any right to be, and this one is certainly watchable, if nothing to really write home about.


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Dir. Guy Hamilton

Of course, the work Lee did in the 70´s weren´t all zero-budget horror films. He was a particularly apt choice for a Bond villain, playing the assassin Scaramanga. He happened to be a distant cousin of 007 creator Ian Fleming, and actually was his first choice to play the agent way back when. While Lee could´ve pulled off both Bond´s ruthless side as well as the more gentlemanny traits with ease, in the films we´ve got, he wouldn´t really have worked.

This particular film is from the most silly period of Roger Moore´s agent, featuring things like Nick-Nack the killer midget, comic relief Southern Sherriff J.W. Pepper and a Funhouse assissation arena. Bond films play for the tastes of that day with some kung fu action thrown in the mix. Yet Lee´s Scaramanga still feels like a genuine threat, never mind that you couldn´t really kill anyone with golden bullets (I´m not sure about the gun, though. It would be very heavy and soft, though).

The character of Scaramanga would prove to be one of the first of Bond´s "dark reflections" (of course Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love being the first). As such, it´s a pity they couldn´t mine some more substance out of that dynamic, resorting to quips about superfluous nipples and bikini girls instead. But this has been a well from which the Bond producers have returned to with every iteration of the character since.


Mask of Murder (1988)
Dir. Arne Mattson

Now, a lot of Finnish media tended to tell about how much Christopher Lee loved Finland. he came here to fight as a volunteer in the Winter War, after all. Also, as he loved J.R.R. Tolkien´s works, he also appreciated the Finnish language. But he never did act in a Finnish movie. This is something the Swedes got and we didn´t. For Lee had a sizable role in the Swedish thriller maestro Arne Mattson´s English-language film mask of murder, which saw the actor in a Swedish setting.

As far as plots go, this is not really something to write home about, and certainly not one of Mattson´s finest. The Swedish town of Uppsala is here representing a desolate Canadian village. Murders of women start to occur, and it´s at first up to Lee´s Chief Supt. Jonathan Richto solve them, but then he´s suddenly wiped off the game and the case left to his assistant Supt. Bob McLaine, played by Rod Taylor. They have their own skeletons in the closet, and the film has a very cynical outlook in the small town police force as a whole.

I´m going to admit it´s a pleasure mostly because of the setting of an obviously Swedish town, as well as it´s nice to see the nicely mustached Lee and Taylor thinking. The violence is surprisingly stark, owing to the slasher films of the day. Horror fans despise the film, perhaps because it delivers very little in the way of actual horror and that the end twist is easily guessable. But there´s surprisingly lot of Lee in the film, and he gives a fine, subdued performance so I´d say it´s worth checking out.


The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Dir. Peter Jackson

I have to mention this last, since it was the last time I saw Christopher Lee on the screen. On Jackson´s bloated prequel trilogy, there are very few things on screen that feel tangible, realistic or even emotionally resonant. Lee´s Saruman the White fighting Ringwraiths is of course horrendous as an idea for a Tolkien fan, but it´s also the only offering of fan service in the films that I actually enjoyed. That´s kick-ass, even if it is a stunt double most of the time, and a better fight scene than Lee got in either of the Star Wars prequels he appeared in.

Many people complained that Saruman´s trechery was telegraphed too plainly in the first Hobbit movie. I thought that Lee portrayed him as Tolkien suggested, arrogant and pompous, with a love for his own voice. Again, while the material he had may not have been up to standards, Lee made it his own, and with his extensive knowledge of literary sources, made it even more accurate. As such, he is the best part in that movie, too.


So in conclusion, rest in piece, sir Christopher. I know you´ll be coming back, because that´s the way you work, but try to come back as a benevolent spirit, guiding us to reach to be as awesome as you were in life.



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