Thursday, December 31, 2020

Farewell, ‘Annus Horribilis’

San Francisco, 1918:
A cop warns a citizen to
wear a mask
We thought it would never end. Wildly hailed as a year that was so shitty its effects were unheard of since the last world war, 2020 and its attendant virus has decimated all in its path. We will happily all say goodbye to it, still knowing that future nightmares lay in store (’cause that’s the way tragedies come, in clusters).

From the start of the spread it was noted that the countries that were handling the pandemic best were those who activated their authoritarian side (as with the country where it all began) and locked everyone down for good, legally demanding they all stay in their houses. But the *real* boon to people around the world were the “first world” governments that recognized how people going about their regular work would excite the spread even more, so they provided financial support to their citizenry. Not the U.S., not by a longshot.

So, the notion of “herding cats” in terms of getting Americans to follow rules was spoken about. Then there was the administration in place, run by a game show host who never wanted to be president, just hold rallies and campaign against whomever was the pres. He did a stunningly awful job with the pandemic  but, true to America’s two-parties/one-mind set-up, the solution for the Dem party was to put up as an “alternative” in the 2020 election their most right-wing candidate (save billionaire-for-hire Bloomberg), who was the counter to Trump in term of Tweeting and loudness but is uncommonly like him in terms of hard-line, helps-no-common-citizen policy (and of course is still  they are our only salvation, sayeth the pundits [unless they are socialist]  an Old White Man).

So, the next four years will be a continuation of the policies held by the last 40 years of presidents from both parties. In the meantime, the pandemic continues unabated, and there will most surely be other health crises, for which the government response will again be “Pick yerself up by your own bootstraps, suckers!”

The year-end rallying of two of 100  senators — one Republican, one Independent (Bernie as a senator is an Independent; his alliance with the DNC has been his biggest mistake all along)  to get even a second, one-time-only $600 stimulus check to average people tells you all you need to know about America in a single sentence.

Insert among the future disorder occasional outbursts of civil unrest (because the cops can’t be hemmed in by things such as actual laws  they can do what they want, when they want), which will in turn create curfews in major cities. That part of 2020 was the most amazingly oppressive  a world in which governments would rather let riots take place (the big-box companies all have insurance...  and police riots are "legal") than listen to peaceful protesters. The solution for riots (and pandemics): Stay in your house.

The height of
pandemic fashion.
And so far the effects of the pandemic have been reflected in both infection numbers and a death toll, plus a DEEP level of depression among people all around the world that, again, resembles events in the first half of the last century for any kind of comparison.

The toll of things “missing” included missing people, missing experiences, missing pleasures, missing addictions, and the key to all, missing communication and in-person encounters with physical interaction, even if it is only looking the other person in the eyes. (The Zoom call is not a phone call; a phone call is not a meeting. Text messages and direct-messages in social media are similar to writing email or print letters, but they are merely “bites” of communication that preserve the distance while supposedly bridging the gap.)

Thus, we can only say farewell to this year with hope for the future  and the realization that more health emergencies, psychological disasters, financial collapses (personal and institutional), and failures of the U.S. government to help the populace in any important way are set to come. The only solution: let’s dance!

And since X were being lyrically polite in their heave-ho to this annus horribilis, let us jump over to the goodbye wishes offered by the very funny folks in Little Big, a Russian dance/pop/rock/demented music group.

2021. Just imagine what comes next!

Friday, November 20, 2020

More Than Just Bond: Deceased Artiste Sean Connery in the films of Sidney Lumet

Though he became famous in the Sixties and worked all over the world, Sean Connery was an old-fashioned Hollywood movie star. He was certainly Scottish to the core (one of his two tattoos testified to that), but his charisma, bearing, and style on camera meant that he was always “Sean Connery,” no matter what role he was playing.

He was also ambitious as hell, and once he had achieved superstardom as James Bond (in a quintet of films that have certainly been equaled but not bettered) he burned to leave the role forever and start doing some real acting. (He had done a lot of theater before starring in films.)

He made a handful of incredibly excellent films in the Sixties and Seventies, but once the Eighties came around and he was over 50 and had even won an Oscar, he settled into a run of commercial properties that didn’t exercise his acting skills at all. (The exceptions can be counted on one hand.) But when he had extended himself in the Sixties and Seventies, he did terrific work in unforgettable (although not super-popular — or popular at all) films.

Before I discuss his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, with whom he made some excellent films, just a note or two about Connery the movie star. Firstly, he was one of the first male sex symbols to appear in his natural bald state onscreen. Think of the older bald stars who wore wigs for years (John Wayne, Bogart, Sinatra) and the stars who came later than Connery but still wore absurdly phony wigs (Burt Reynolds being a prime example — and, of course, William Shatner). Connery was comfortable in his baldness and was so preternaturally confident onscreen that he still was voted “sexiest man alive” often, as not only a bald man but a senior bald man.

The other aspect that instantly identified Connery was his Scottish burr. A regional accent was nothing new to movie stars — think of the always-British-even-when-he-played-average-American-Joes, Mr. Cary Grant, and European stars who gave terrific performances with their native accents. For Connery, the burr was a point of pride, since it marked him as a Scot in the British film industry (to many Americans his burr was just “another British accent”).

Before the movies,
as an artist's model.
The Scots and the Irish joined with the Cockneys in being defiantly regional in the class-conscious world of British entertainment. Of course, Connery’s friend and fellow “King,” Michael Caine, proudly flaunted his regional accent as well.

Connery’s retention of his burr wasn’t a problem in some of his best films, but it was completely ridiculous when he played Arabs or other “foreign” races. Even when playing characters who had never stepped foot in Scotland, Connery always had the burr. The sibilance emphasized in recent impressions of Sean arrived in his later work — perhaps a tic gained in old age or a way to deal with dentures or other dental probs.

Much was made online of two quotes from interviews he did that reflected his “old world” view of the relationships between men and women. Again, outrage over everything (and the search to find something to be outraged over) is a prime occupation in these times.

Whenever one is confronted with information about the “underside” of a much beloved show-biz figure (which incidentally was seemingly never a problem for anyone Connery dated or married — there has been no ex-partner who complained about sexist behavior from him), one is best served to remember John Waters’ quote about Fassbinder (which I’m paraphrasing here). When talking  about the great RWF (whose work he loved), Waters said, “I hear that he was a monster, but I never had to live with him.” Words to live by.

The most familiar look.
In private, Sean certainly knocked back a few. One of the few times he was a bit “disorderly” in public was viewed by my father, who was a major Connery fan. It seems Sean appeared on a local television show hosted by the writer-raconteur Malachy McCourt along with Richard Harris (who costarred with Connery in The Molly McGuires in 1970, most likely the date of the appearance). Connery clearly had a few before the program, to the extent that he used a UK expression that should not be used on the air (even on U.S. TV) — the channel the program aired on (Ch. 5 in NYC) showed McCourt’s show live, in the fashion of David Susskind’s “Open End.” Hellraiser Harris had to move in for “damage control” and take command of the interview.

From "The Bowler and the Bunnet."

In any case, Connery’s pride produced one item I found while researching this piece, a U.K. TV rarity that was posted online and pulled down in the weeks since Sean’s death.

In 1967, Connery directed a documentary, “The Bowler and the Bunnet,” for Scottish television about an initiative in a Scottish shipbuilding firm to share the company with the bosses and management. The doc is only 36 minutes long and is very much of its time, with flashy camerawork and editing and a “social conscience” mixed with the (correct) assumption that the best way to keep the viewer interested was to have Connery walk through the locations quite a lot.

The topic is very serious, so Sean himself provides the comic relief playing “footy” with the younger workers, showing off the parts of the ships, and hovering above, behind, and nearby when work or a meeting is transpiring (and one Glasgow cinema used for one of the latter is playing a double bill of Dr. No and From Russia With Love).

It’s lighter fare than the politically engaged films about factory work made by auteurs like Chris Marker, and also has Connery in “professional” mode (for that year), hiding his baldness under a cap (the titular “bunnet”). And yes, he’s already got a mustache — his one-two punch, along with his very prominent eyebrows, to move attention away from his dome and back to his face.


Setting aside Marnie (1964), which is either a later masterwork by Hitchcock (as argued in Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films) or a slapped-together compromise (as argued in Donald Spoto’s books), the first significant dramatic starring role that Connery had was given to him by a director whom I’ve written about before, the great Sidney Lumet. Lumet was often referred to as a “great New York director,” and that constrictive label can be completely dispelled by three of the films he made with Connery.

The first one, The Hill (1965), had a terrific starring part for Sean, as a very proud British soldier who lands in a WWII British prison camp run by two sadists. Thus, the macho side of Connery is present, but his character isn’t anything like Bond — he’s a devoted military man who is in the camp because he struck an officer. Thus, he is both more of a straight-arrow than Bond and more of an inherently “political” character.

"Shorn" indeed.
Connery wanted very much to not look like Bond in his other films, and so he has the mustache in the film that he wore in private life, as well as a cropped haircut that worked well with his balding pate. He wanted to be regarded as a working actor and not a “personality,” and so he is an antihero in the picture but is also a martinet who lives by a code of ethics that constantly brings him into conflict with his superiors.

The plot finds a cellmate of Connery dying from rough treatment at the hands of one of the sadistic officers. Connery’s character stands firm in wanting to report the incident as a murder to the camp’s commander. The theatrical origins of the film are apparent throughout — although the scenes shot on the titular hill (a form of torture for the camp inmates) are memorably grim, the plot and theme are best conveyed through tense and often insulting dialogue. Connery discussed (starting at 26:59 in the clip below) with Irish critic Mark Cousins how the film’s best scene wasn’t in the play, and was written to flesh out the theme of the piece.


Lumet was certainly a director whose best work showed a growth over the years, but he began to infuse his work with modernist visual techniques in the mid-Sixties, most prominently in the finale of Fail-Safe and the memory montages in The Pawnbroker (both 1964). Here we encounter images and editing that showed Lumet’s awareness of European cinema and the manner in which the new auteurs were conveying emotions visually.

Lumet was also a superb director of actors, and even his meagerest films usually had terrific casting for the supporting roles. In The Hill, he employs a number of top-notch British actors and one great American — Ossie Davis, playing a West Indian soldier imprisoned for stealing liquor. Davis’ character is the only person who stands with Connery against the camp officers, and he has several standout sequences, including one where he reports the murder of their cellmate to the camp commander wearing only his underwear and jumping around like a gorilla (but reinforcing quite seriously that an inmate was tortured to death).

The Hill was lauded by critics (and won Best Screenplay at Cannes) and it did establish once and for all that Connery could do more than lift an eyebrow while aiming a Walther PPK. It also did show that Lumet could direct any kind of material with style and intensity. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The next film Lumet made starring Connery is a *very* New York piece, The Anderson Tapes (1971). A caper film shot in some great NYC locations, it has an intriguing premise that never quite amounts to anything, other than letting the film look and sound very flashy.

Connery and Lumet shoot The Anderson Tapes.

That premise, simply put, is that a band of thieves planning to rob the inhabitants of an affluent Fifth Avenue apartment building are under constant surveillance for various reasons (none of which concern them directly). The idea itself is a brilliant one, which surely could’ve spawned a terrific crime picture that also said something about the surveillance state (and this back in ’71!). Unfortunately, though, the surveillance aspect just becomes an intermittent gimmick that provides amusement and answers the eternal question raised in caper movies (namely, how will our antiheroes get caught?).

Connery is ex-con Anderson, who leads the criminal crew; among his cohorts is an impossibly young Christopher Walken (in his major-studio feature debut). The supporting cast contains familiar faces from the movies and TV, including Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King, Val Avery, Dick Anthony Williams, Garrett Morris, Stan Gottlieb, Anthony Holland, Richard B. Shull, Conrad Bain, and Margaret Hamilton!

Aging Connery, young Walken.

The comic scenes, of which there are many, are well-played but distract from the storyline proper. And Quincy Jones’ musical score is electronic enough to reinforce the surveillance theme, but can’t make it mean anything in the long run. Lumet’s Achilles’ heel was his not being a scripter — Anderson was one of several of his pictures that could’ve been great but needed rewrites, if not by the director then basically anyone else. That said, the film was a box-office hit. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


United Artists was so intent on getting Connery back into the Bond franchise in the early Seventies that they would agree to anything. The result was his starring in Diamonds Are Forever, and a two-picture deal that produced only one film, The Offence (1973), which was a box office flop but contains arguably Connery’s best-ever dramatic performance on film.

Lumet directs
Connery and Bannen.
Connery produced the film and chose Lumet to direct. The material being adapted was another play, which showed its roots even more clearly than The Hill, being primarily a sequence of bravura two-character scenes. The plot revolves around plainclothes police sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery), who is having a mental breakdown and becomes emotionally caught up in the apprehension of a child murderer, Baxter (Ian Bannen). During his interrogation of Baxter, whom he is certain is the killer, he beats him to death. Johnson has a terse discussion with his wife (Vivien Merchant) before he submits to his own interrogation by a police superintendent (Trevor Howard).

The third act of the film is the full interrogation with Baxter, leading up to Johnson beating him. (Previous glimpses of the interrogation were brief.) Baxter’s taunting of Johnson makes Johnson understand that he has similar instincts. (Lumet intercuts images of Connery being gentle and doting to the last, intended victim, as if he too was a pedophile.)

While Anderson missed the boat entirely, The Offence is both a great drama and it makes two great points: about police work blunting the emotions of the officers, and that the best method of detective work is an identification with the criminal that the policeman can’t pull away from. (A similar theme was presented in Richard Tuggle’s 1984 Eastwood vehicle Tightrope.)

These themes are reflected in two unforgettable scenes. The first is Johnson recounting the horrors he’s seen as a policeman to his wife, whose looks he openly insults — the film is a grim, dark portrait that meticulously chronicles the mindset of a cop “on the edge.” At this point, the police procedural aspect of the film goes away and we’re in a superb (if unforgivingly dark) character study.

The second scene that can’t be forgotten is the full interrogation. The scene begins with Johnson in a rare upbeat moment, joking with the suspect. Shortly in, though, Baxter begins to taunt him so effectively that we realize that Johnson will turn violent to shut him up.

It’s a beautifully played sequence that leads one to believe Baxter wants to be punished by the “hard man” Johnson and is taunting him to receive his comeuppance. (Baxter’s smiles at Johnson contain a great degree of masochism.) “Nothing I have done,” says the child-rapist murderer to Johnson, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.” When Johnson condemns him verbally, he responds, “It’s there in everyone, you know that. There’s nothing I can say you haven’t imagined….”

Lumet was famous for giving actors their “Oscar performance,” and The Offence certainly contains Connery’s best dramatic moments onscreen. Contrarian and cranky-man that he was, Sean dismissed the film in the Mark Cousins interview. Cousins hazards when they reach the early Seventies in the Connery chronology, “The Offence, of course, was a great picture.” To which Connery replies, “Yeah, yeah, all my family went to see it.” By this point (1997), Connery was strictly interested in making movies that did good box-office and no longer challenged himself.

For his part, Lumet carefully weaves in modernist techniques, the most important being our view of the world inside Johnson’s head — with an interrogation lamp blurring out various moments where he loses his temper. The Offence was released the same year as Serpico, and thus is an excellent (if totally non-NYC) precursor to Lumet’s well-known New York cop pictures (Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A). (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The fourth time Connery worked with Lumet he had a supporting part in a star-studded ensemble in one of the greatest of all movie whodunits, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Again, we are far from NYC in this film (with Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, and Lauren Bacall providing the only American presences in the film — and Balsam does a terrific Italian accent).

Murder is indeed one of the best-ever adaptations of Agatha Christie, with one of her perfect solutions to a murder mystery. The cast is sublime, with Albert Finney doing a beautifully cartoonlike (yet still dead serious, when he needs to be) interpretation of Hercule Poirot, and every guest star but two being a very likely suspect.

Connery plays an older, much more rigid version of the type of character he played in The Hill — a military man devoted to the concept of honor who actually helps Poirot assemble the solution to the mystery with his comments about the efficacy of the jury system. (“12 good men and true. It’s a sound system.”)

The balance that Lumet and scripter Paul Dehn found between a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material and a strict adherence to the codes of the genre is nothing short of miraculous. It is both a perfect Hollywood movie of the Seventies (in its wry approach to adapting a classic mystery novel) and a perfect Thirties movie (offering both a tight script and a bevy of unassailable performances).

The film only gets better with age and, of course, didn’t need to be remade but was, several times — in 2001 with Alfred Molina starring as Poirot, in 2010 with David Suchet as the Belgian super-sleuth, in 2017 as an audio play with Tom Conti exercising his “little grey cells,” and again in 2017 with Kenneth Branagh both directing and starring as Poirot in another one of his misguided moves as a filmmaker. And that’s not counting a Japanese remake…. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The last Connery-Lumet collaboration, Family Business (1989) is a perfect example of Eighties “bloat” in major studio moviemaking. Two big stars — Connery and Dustin Hoffman — are spotlighted, the plot is an excuse for a series of rather tepid comedic and dramatic scenes, and every aspect (right down to Cy Coleman’s bombastic, Broadway-sounding score for a non-musical crime picture/family drama) is the product of a “big” approach that fails.

Connery and Lumet, later on.
From the first, the film makes no sense, as Connery plays the father of Hoffman, who in turn plays a Scottish-Sicilian-American former mobster (!) who doesn’t want his son (the always non-magnetic and un-absorbing Matthew Broderick) to get involved in the world of crime. The missed opportunities in The Anderson Tapes are nothing compared to the mistakes made here — the most obvious being the father-son pairing of the leads. (Connery’s character lives in a completely Irish-American milieu, but it is emphasized that he emigrated from Scotland several decades ago.)

Unlikely relatives.
The film is poorly paced, with the first section devoted entirely to humor and the second attempting to make us feel for several patently unrealistic and unrelatable characters. It was a dud at the box office and was dismissed by critics. Its one memorable moment finds Connery yelling at his unlikely son, “Up yours, guinea midget!”

(Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


A final bonus: The 1990 BAFTA tribute to Connery. You can see him win many awards on YouTube, but this is one of the best ceremonies, as it avoids the Hollywood touch (as at the AFI tribute, where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is seen to be his pre-eminent role outside of Bond) and instead gives us a group of people he had worked with and who admired him, including Herbert Lom, Gina Lollobrigida, Honor Blackman, Richard Attenborough, Billy Connolly, Ursula Andress, Roger Moore, fellow King and good friend Michael Caine, and even Sidney Lumet.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Insidious Doctor: Fu Manchu in the media (part two of 2)

Now onto the feature films and other media depictions of the Insidious One. Comic books will be left out (although you can read the Wally Wood-drawn “Mask of Fu Manchu” comic here), as well as live productions, and obscure variations and pastiches on the characters. The key to these films, simply put, is the amount of “Fu content” they contain.

As with Golden Age Hollywood movies featuring great comedians and — the most obvious — gangster and monster movies, these items rise and fall based on how much time that Fu is center stage. The longer he is offscreen, the more insufferable the film or show is.

The first films made from the Fu Manchu novels were two series of silent cliffhangers made in England. These films (as with the later U.S. radio series) were note-for-note adaptations of the books, which initially were compilations of stories Rohmer wrote for magazines. It should be noted that the Fu Manchu films basically reprise incidents and situations found in the first six or so novels; the U.S. radio series was one of the few instances where three more of the novels were adapted. While the Republic serial was named for one of the later novels, it reached back to situations found in earlier books.

The second serial, The Further Mysteries of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1924), is not readily found on the Internet, but The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1923) is present in its entirety. Directed by A.E. Coleby, the serial moves much slower than the gold standard of silent serials, which are surely those directed by Louis Feuillade and German items like The Spiders by Fritz Lang.

Mystery established the pattern that one will encounter in all the subsequent Fu films, where one desperately wants to fast-forward through the scenes that don’t feature Fu or his colleagues in crime. Nayland Smith, Petrie, and the other good guys do chase after Fu, but they also spend an inordinate amount of time talking in rooms. These scenes are lethal, whether they’re in a 1920s serial or a 1960s adventure pic.

This series also starts the pattern that would continue through all the Fu movies and appearances in other media, in which a white actor plays the Insidious Doctor. Here it’s an Irishman named H. Agar Lyons, who curiously isn’t made up as an Asian. He is a thin, menacing-looking fellow with a hawk nose who occasionally is seen lounging around in a silk “Oriental” outfit but is most often seen in a suit with a cape, a hat, and spats. (He most definitely was the only spat-wearing Fu.)

Coleby also gave up on trying to make his Arabic and Eurasian female characters look Asian — they are simply white actresses dressed in flamboyant outfits with frizzy hair. (Did one assume a frizzy-haired woman looked “foreign” in 1920s England?)

The one redeeming aspect in Mystery is the recreation of the tortures described in the books, from whipping to “the Six Gates of Joyful Wisdom” (in which the victim is put in a wire cage with partitions, through which rats come and gnaw on different body parts). The most memorable scene for this viewer was a dream sequence in which Petrie dreams of being Fu’s slave. He and three other scientists mix strange potions in chains under the watchful eyes of Fu, while another slave-scientist is being flogged by a henchman.

Like the later TV series, Mystery has no cliffhangers — it is composed of 15 short, self-contained films that have conclusive finales. This robs the serial of a lot of its power and makes it best seen in doses of 2–3 episodes at a time and no more. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)

Fu was next played by Warner Oland, the Swede who excelled in “yellow face” roles (including his signature character, Charlie Chan), in a trio of pre-code features. The first two of the films, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930), are flat-out dull, as the scripters crafted a prim and proper script, consisting of too much talking in rooms (making the pictures seems like poorly crafted stage plays); one of the incessant talkers is the later TV  “Commissioner Gordon,” Neil Hamilton. The torture aspect of Fu’s activities is downplayed, since it wouldn't involve talking.

And far, far worse was the fact that the scripters decided Fu needed a reason to be a world-conqueror. In this and the subsequent two films starring Oland, Fu carries out his dastardly plots because his wife and son had been killed in the Boxer Rebellion!


The only truly watchable entry in the Paramount pre-code trilogy is Daughter of the Dragon (1931). The film is quite unique, in that Fu Manchu dies onscreen (only to return for select moments as a specter) and then the leading criminal is his daughter, Ling Moy, played by Anna May Wong. She is a hesitant crime lord, who is very much in love with one of the tedious British characters. The script is as leaden as in the two preceding films, but the notion of a woman supervillain is enough to relieve some of the tedium. (And it was made three years before the Dragon Lady debuted in “Terry and the Pirates.”)

Wong later regretting taking the role, saying in 1933, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”

The most interesting scenes find Ling Moy talking to a Chinese police detective, played by Sessue Hayakawa. Wong adopts a more formal way of speaking here, so her American accent sounds vaguely like the British accents heard in the other scenes. This clashes with Hayakawa’s thick Japanese accent, giving a particularly weird tone to the usual leaden dialogue found in these films.


While this piece was being assembled (read: yrs truly was in the midst of a Fu binge) it was announced that a box set of the five Fu films starring Christopher Lee was being released around Halloween. Those films are reviewed below — but suffice it to say that one would have to be a massive fan of Christopher Lee to see four of those films more than once. Not so with the next two entries, which are without question the best of all the FM features.

The first of those two is inarguably the best and most outlandish of the Fu movies, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), starring a post-Frankenstein (1931) Boris Karloff. Mask was made by the very classy MGM with an A-budget and eye-catching images by director Charles Brabin and cinematographer Tony Gaudio (The Adventures of Robin Hood).

The film captures the thrilling, pulpy, and deviant aspects of Rohmer’s work. And yes, it puts forth both the inherent racism in the Yellow Peril scenario and the fact that any viewer worth his/her salt will enjoy Fu’s violence and destruction and find the British colonialist intolerably smug and worthy of their eventual destruction. Cue the line restored to the film in recent decades: “Kill the white man and take his woman!”

Karloff’s reputation has meant that the film was categorized as horror — and it shares with the great Universal monster movies of the early ’30s a mad scientist motif, as here Fu has the same kind of sizzling, spark-flinging machinery as Dr. Frankenstein. (And created by the same man, Kenneth Strickfadden.)

A cut scene of a "snake man."

The basic parameters of the storyline qualify it as pulp action-adventure, but there is also the standard parlor-mystery level and a pre-noir look at an underworld. And as for Asian “exotica,” the director who set the standard was von Sternberg, and Mask is the closest approximation to a thriller directed by him.

Karloff was, hands down, the best actor to play Fu, and thus his performance here is exceptional. His FM isn't any old supervillain, he is the most malevolent and fearsome villain to ever be set loose on colonialist dullards. He emphasizes the sadistic nature of the character and exhibits glee when torturing the Brits. It’s hard to pick a favorite of these scenes, but one in which British Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is placed beneath a bell in order to be rendered both deaf and insane is a sure favorite.

The 1994 book Hollywood Cauldron by Gregory William Mank contains a chapter about Mask with intriguing quotes from Karloff, none of which are sourced. Mank apparently did a very sizeable amount of research for this tome, but several of the quotes in the book are unsourced; as he thinks Freaks and Mask are both rather wretched, laughable films, he’s therefore to be put in the “Caveat lector” category. Nevertheless, his unsourced quotes from Boris include the fact that there was no finished script when shooting began on the film.

Karloff also complained about the “bad makeup” and the fact that he would be given full script pages the day of shooting that contained long speeches written in “impeccable English,” then told that other speeches in pidgin English had been substituted: “They had five writers on it, and this was happening all through the film. Some scenes were written in beautiful Oxford English, others were written in —  God knows what!”

The other standout performance is Myrna Loy as Fu’s daughter Fah Lo See. As in every depiction of the characters, she suffers lovesickness over one of the British heroes, but the most surprising scene —  which makes the film a true pre-code work (and leagues livelier than the Warner Oland trilogy) — is the moment where she exhibits a kinky intensity as hero Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett) is being whipped in front of her.

Enter the Hollywood Cauldron book again. Here, Loy is quoted from her memoir Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming (1987) as saying that she disliked the script and told producer Hunt Stromberg that the character was “a sadistic sex maniac.” She declared that her complaints resulted in the “character’s worst excesses being toned down.”  She also stated that “Boris and I brought some feeling and humor to those comic book characters. Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material.”

Mask was the only time the proper balance was struck between the utterly crazy and staid aspects of Rohmer’s writing in a movie. This is reflected in the torture scenes, which are paced wonderfully and shot like incidents in a cliffhanging serial.

One wishes there had been other Karloff Fu films (he made five Mr. Wong films, after all!), but the U.S. State Department stepped in and asked MGM not to revive the character, as American-Chinese relations would be damaged. 
(Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The next incarnation of the Insidious One was the U.S. radio show The Shadows of Fu Manchu (1939). The show featured recreations of scenes from the first nine novels and was quite an odd item, since each episode is only 15 minutes long, and the opening and closing were to be announced live on whatever station aired the show. So, the copies that we have are “clean” versions that have long intro and outro bumpers of music.

The best-known performer was later Lucille Ball cohort Gale Gordon as Dr. Petrie. He and the other cast members recited bushels of dialogue that came straight from the novels, with expository dialogue added in. At least — unlike the silent serial and later, horrible TV series — the Shadow radio series (which clearly wanted to be mixed up title-wise with the actual Shadow program) had every episode end with a cliffhanger. [Note: Two earlier Fu radio shows — one American, one British — are lost to the ages.]


The year after the radio show, the serial Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) was released. Drums is right below Mask as one of the most entertaining Fu movies — it’s a great example of the top-notch serials made at Republic, and although scripted in the classic serial mode (in which every single action seems pointed toward that week’s cliffhanger), it’s one of the few consistently exciting recreations of Rohmer’s “race against time” writing.

Henry Brandon was no Karloff, but his portrayal of Fu is diabolical and threatening-yet-clever; thus he is the most interesting character in the serial. Although Rohmer made a point about noting that Fu’s fluent English was “both sibilant and guttural,” Brandon adopts the “sneering villain” voice that was often used on radio shows and was later immortalized by Richard O’Brien in his nasal performance as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Physically, Riff may look like a mad scientist’s assistant, but he speaks like a consummate supervillain.)

Brandon is quoted from a 1986 interview with author Gregory William Mank in Hollywood Cauldron about the film: “… I’d go to a theater nearby here in Hollywood, where they showed it, and sit among the kids (they never recognized me) — and I loved their reactions. Within two or three episodes, they were on my side! It was because I was brighter than the others, and the kids went for intelligence, whether it was bad or good.”

“But the PTAs — they didn’t like it at all, because the kids would wet their beds after seeing it. And the Chinese government raised plenty of hell! And that’s childish, because I consider Fu Manchu a fairy tale character — it’s not to be taken seriously for God’s sake!” [Mank, p. 83]

Those viewers rooting against Nayland Smith will be happy to see him nearly turned into a lobotomized dacoit by Fu. “Dacoit” being the most-used phrase in Fu movies and novels — it refers to Indian and Burmese criminals, but in this usage simply means Fu’s henchmen. And the titular drums are a terrific gimmick — at the end of every chapter, the drumbeats come on the soundtrack, signaling doom for the heroes.

As happened with Mask, sequels to the serial were planned, but the U.S. government requested that no further Fu adventures be filmed, as the Chinese were our ally at this time in the fight against Japan.


The 1956 TV show The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu (1956) was made by Republic’s TV arm (Hollywood Television Service), but it’s the complete opposite of Drums — a dull, thrill-less “action” series. The show is dreary and — insult of insults — it’s the most easily found of the Fu movies, since it fell into the public domain. (An earlier TV pilot starring John Carradine as Fu (!) has survived but is under lock and key.)

Most inexcusable is Glen Gordon’s weirdly lazy turn as Fu. Speaking… slowly… to… approximate… an “honorable Chinese” accent, Gordon’s portrayal is the most racist (if such a thing is possible) of all portrayals of FM. His mustache looks pasted on, his intensity is nil, and the accent is just beyond shameful.

Two episodes rise above the rest — one where Fu allies with a gangster (the great character actor Ted de Corsia) and another that is a clear foreshadowing of They Saved Hitler’s Brain, in which Fu kidnaps a plastic surgeon to get an unnamed “dead” dictator a new identity. And then from an HQ on a remote island, Hitler (yes, it’s him) tries to take over the world, for good this time. But he’s defeated within the 26-minute running time (the closing credits for the whole series find Fu losing a metaphorical chess game with Nayland Smith), and a bizarre and amusing alliance is just tossed away in an episode of an otherwise forgettable TV series.


The star of the five 1960s Fu Manchu films produced by Harry Alan Towers, the great Christopher Lee, once said that only the first of his Fu features was worth making — he was quite right. Because if you thought the Lee/Dracula films got weaker and weaker as time went on, those pictures seem like cinematic landmarks compared to the second through fifth Lee/Fu movies.

The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) provides the best vision of Fu’s manic desire to conquer the world; it is the first time we see many dead bodies on display. In one scene, Fu poisons an entire town and the British lawmen see the results — streets with bodies strewn about. So this time out Fu really does seem like a violent threat, not just a transient madman who kills a few select victims.

Lee is indeed at his best here, since he took all his roles (no matter how thin or awful they could be) very seriously and he plays Fu with true conviction. The other cast member who impresses is Tsai Chin, who plays Fu’s daughter Lin Tang. She occupies a significant position in these films, because she was the first and only Asian woman to play that role and the only Asian besides Anna May Wong to play a starring role in a Fu film. She was also one of only two regulars in the Lee/Fu movies. (The other was Howard Marion-Crawford as Dr. Petrie.)

One of the odder developments, though, was that even as it became commonplace to see more sex and violence in British exploitation, there was still a limit in the Fu films. This is clear where when Lin Tang wants to whip a man (taking direct action, as opposed to Myrna Loy’s character, who just liked to watch) and is prevented by her spoilsport father.

Face is without question a very good Fu feature. All that followed was dross, and embarrassingly bad dross at that. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) show the James Bond influence. It’s a “slave chick” movie (paging Doctor Tongue and Hugo, from “SCTV”) and has some enjoyably lurid moments, but even with a large group of Fu’s female slaves on prominent display, it’s still a pale imitation of Face. Although the wonderful Burt Kwouk does show up as a henchman. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967) should work for a few reasons, including the fact that it was partially shot in Hong Kong and has a fairly decent (if familiar) plot twist, in which a Fu henchman is given plastic surgery to look like Nayland Smith (which none of his friends notices, naturally enough, although his skin is gray and his eyes are dead).

By this, the third Lee/Fu outing, there was no disguising that nearly everyone involved was going through the motions.  This would reach epic proportions in the last two Lee/Fu disasters. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


Shot in Spain and Brazil, The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) is a cut-and-paste creation by that most beloved yet least talented of cult favorite filmmakers, Jess Franco. Franco accomplished in film after film the trick of making utterly unsexy exploitation. (How do you fuck up a women’s prison picture? Watch Jess’s entries for the answer.) Here he made a film about Brazilian bandits that he seemingly was going to make anyway and just stuck Fu Manchu into it when he got the gig.

The plot revolves around the aforementioned bandits and a “kiss of death” that Fu’s slave women are ordered to give select victims. The film contains variations on scenes from Face and Brides, and, again, is a remarkably unsexy and un-thrilling specimen.

By this point, Lee was clearly doing his scenes in a very short span of time. (Perhaps a few days, if not a few hours.) Franco’s pacing will seem mercilessly slow to any viewer not in Franco’s cult (where an occasional psychedelic color scheme is greeted as a “style” of filmmaking). (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)

The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) was the last serious Fu movie, and it is perhaps the worst ever, plain and simple. This time out Franco created a film about Turkish intrigue that barely has Fu Manchu in it at all. And when Lee (whose shooting schedule seems to have been a scant few hours, if not a few minutes) is onscreen, he looks as bored as the viewer.

Moving at a glacial pace, Castle is a classic cut-and-paste Franco effort. (And, natch, “effort” is the perfect noun to go with Franco’s name.) Much fun has been poked at the fact that Franco needed footage of a ship sinking, so he simply used scenes from A Night to Remember (1958), but that is somewhat amusing. There are other scenes in Castle that are sheer torture – not in the violent FM sense, but as an example of a filmmaker who had no real idea of what would come next, nor did he care.

This is the film that did what Asian-Americans had wanted to do for decades — it killed off Fu Manchu. (A later 1986 film by Jess Franco called Esclavas del Crimen is an unauthorized adventure of the daughter of Fu Manchu, but when dealing with Jess Franco, enough is more than enough.) (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


A tangential oddity that (sorta) takes place in the ’70s but was made in 1990: Spanish horror star Paul Naschy starred as Fu in “La hija de Fu Manchú ’72,” a short film coproduced by Spanish television. The short was seemingly intended as both a spoof and a tribute to the Fu Manchu mythos, with Naschy appearing as Fu himself, wearing a patently phony mustache.

Nayland Smith and Fu’s daughter are center stage here as well, and a woman who is abducted by Fu’s daughter and whipped onscreen by a henchman. The visuals are tongue-in-cheek and evoke comic book panels and what appear to be much-beloved memories of Mask and the Lee/Fu movies (as well as Bruce Lee movies). The title sequence is a no-budget send-up of James Bond title sequences.


The very last Fu Manchu feature, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), was also Peter Sellers’ last film, and it seemed like an atrocity when it was released after Sellers’ death (and his superbly quiet turn in Being There). Viewed through a 2020 lens, it’s just a misconceived and badly paced comedy.

Looking very feeble and unhealthy, Sellers plays both Fu and Nayland Smith. He is surrounded by a very talented cast, including Sid Caesar (who gets nothing to do), Helen Mirren (in her sexpot guise), and the aforementioned Burt Kwouk (who does a cameo with Sellers asking if he’s seen him somewhere before).

There are quite a few Seventies and Eighties comedies that had the terrible pacing of Fiendish Plot (that type of misconceived, patently bad vehicle picture became the specialty of SNL alums). But one can see where Sellers tried his hand at adding to the proceedings, with odd surreal gags that his Goon partner and friend, the genius madman Spike Milligan, could have scripted to a fine turn (including a very Goon-like flying house).

As it stands, the picture was an odd and sad end to Sellers’ career and an equally odd finale to the Fu saga on film. (Further novels were written after Rohmer’s death in 1959, but never sold as well as his initial books in the series had.) (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


A suggestion in closing, for those who are new to the character: watch Mask of Fu Manchu first and if you enjoy it, see Drums or Face. After that, you’re on your own, and probably best off reading the books.

And since I’d rather be washed ashore on a desert island with only Jess Franco movies to watch than close out this piece with Nicolas Cage playing Fu in a fake trailer that was part of the “Grindhouse” project, I will leave you with an odder and most definitely funnier vision of Fu, which spawned Sellers’ revelation in Fiendish Plot that Fu’s first name was Fred: the opening of the Goon Show episode that introduced the character “Fred Fu Manchu,” the best bamboo saxophonist in the world.

This is an unusual version of the episode that was part of the Telegoons TV show (1963-64), where old episodes were performed with puppets on television. The three principals returned to redo the episodes without a studio audience.



The Page of Fu Manchu. Editors: Dr. Lawrence Knapp and Dr. R. E. Briney. 1997–2009.

Master of Villainy: A Biography of Sax Rohmer, Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer, 1972, Bowling Green University Popular Press. 

— Hollywood Cauldron, Gregory William Mank, McFarland and Company, 1994. 

— “The Word of Fu Manchu,” William Patrick Maynard, Blood ’n’ Thunder, Nos. 36-37, winter-spring 2013, pp. 102–113. 

“Fu Manchu and China: Was the 'yellow peril incarnate' really appallingly racist?” Phil Baker, The Independent, Oct. 20, 2015.

“Fantastic Elements in the Works of Sax Rohmer.” Colombo & Company website, Nov. 2010–Sep. 2012

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Insidious Doctor: Fu Manchu in the Media (part 1 of two)

The first novel
(paperback reprint,
 U.S., 1961).
(or, Can a White Man Dig the Fus?) He is the world’s most evil man. A scientist-doctor-scholar who uses his brilliance to criminal ends. He plots to overthrow governments and take over the world, but still finds the time to whip his subordinates when they screw up, and slowly and elaborately tortures the good guys when they dim-wittedly fall into his clutches.

He was a literary (well, hardback original)/mass-market paperback staple (much copied in the pulps and comics) and the subject of several feature films, and a landmark villain in 20th-century fiction. He is Dr. Fu Manchu.

The evil doctor is also a racial stereotype who was one of the stranger, more elaborate colonialist nightmares. An Anglo vision of a non-existent “Yellow Peril” that is very much out of step with the current century. And yes, his adventures — the better ones (and many of the movies are quite dreadful) — are still engrossing because he was conceived of as a master villain and, as every fan of genre fiction, genre movies, and comic books knows, a complex villain is always more interesting than a virtuous hero.

In this piece I will explore the different big-screen incarnations of Dr. Fu as well as his appearances in other media. This binge wasn’t occasioned by anything specific, except for the need to move beyond Bond villains and Marvel bad guys, and return to the real McCoy, the supervillain who provided the template that was later dutifully copied by Ian Fleming and the Bond screenwriters, and Stan Lee and his bullpen of scribes (and artist-cocreators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko).

The most-used photo of
Fu's creator.
As for the writing of Fu's creator, "Sax Rohmer" (born Arthur Henry Ward), Sir Christopher Frayling, speaking in a BBC documentary, put it best: "In a way, [Rohmer] is an heir to the Victorian tradition of the penny dreadful — that all his books, or virtually all his books, started as serials. They have a very dramatic opening, they have a rather exotic middle section, and finish with a bang... so it's a real page-turner. They have that kind of serial quality that fitted them very well for the radio and the movie serials.

"It's a blood and thunder aspect. He's not very good at characterization, and tends to make up for that with lots of incident and color and strange ways of speaking. He overwrites like mad. They're not detective stories
there's no puzzle element, because I don't think Sax Rohmer was subtle enough for that, but he really lays on the formula.

"And the formula is usually: eminent person is kidnapped in the first chapter, usually an archeologist... 'the man who knew too much." Dr. Petrie and Smith go on the hunt, it leads them to an opium den, they bump into Fu-Manchu or one of his agents. There's an elaborate machine of torture, which is seldom used but is described in a great deal of detail...

"...Like the penny dreadful concept of 'with one bound he was free' there's no explanation, Fu comes back [from the dead with each new adventure]. So, they're fairly formulaic. But it's exoticism, the color, and this wonderful quality of prosaic, everyday London settings with this mad, exotic Oriental stuff going on just behind the scenes. I think that's the key quality to Sax Rohmer.

"I wouldn't make any claims for it as literature. But it's almost dreamlike. It's certainly magnified and has a kind of music hall, pantomime quality, particularly the early books."

The third novel
(aka" The Hand of
The most important thing about Rohmer is the position he holds as a very definite “bridge” between Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming. The Fu Manchu novels are pur
e pulp with a vaguely upper-class air, but more importantly they contain odd, detailed crimes, colorful sidekicks, alluring femme fatales, and cliffhangers galore.

The connection Rohmer’s universe had to that of Sherlock Holmes’ creator is ridiculously apparent, especially when one reads the novels. The first few books in the series in the series of 13 novels (written over a half-century, from 1913 to 1959) are narrated by Dr. Petrie, who recounts his adventures with Sir Denis Nayland Smith, a very smart police detective who is able to deduce things from very little evidence and is perpetually ready to run to a certain location to foil the plans of the evil Dr. Fu-Manchu (who lost the hyphen in his name by the third novel, The Hand of Fu Manchu). Holmes and Watson they aren’t — Nayland Smith isn’t *that* brilliant, and Petrie is so madly in love (and lust) with Fu’s Arabic slave girl Kâramanèh that he can barely keep his mind clear to aid his friend.

And the criminal mastermind Fu, although having been clearly constructed from elements cobbled from Asian villains that came before him (an excellent essay on that can be found here) is clearly a new-model Moriarty, constructed with a Yellow Peril agenda. Rohmer’s most significant realization, though, was clearly that there were millions of readers who would follow a supervillain from book to book as easily as a super-detective.

Rohmer’s influence on Ian Fleming’s work is even more clear cut. And for those who’d like to hear it from the horse’s mouth, here is a quote from an interview that Fleming conducted with the inimitable (and clearly very drunk) Raymond Chandler, in which Fleming says he grew up reading the FM novels. This follows a question from Chandler about why he included torture scenes in all of his books:

“Really? I suppose I was brought up on Dr Fu Manchu and thrillers of that kind and somehow always, even in Bull-dog Drummond and so on, the hero at the end gets in the grips of the villain and he suffers, either he’s drugged or something happens to him . .  .”

Fleming’s most explicit tribute to Rohmer is, of course, Doctor No, the Bond novel in which the secret service agent fights an Asian supercrook. But Fu is present in all of Fleming’s supervillains — he is in Le Chiffre, Goldfinger, Largo, Blofeld, Hugo Drax (played by Michael Lonsdale), and Scaramanga (incarnated by Christopher Lee, who later played Fu Manchu).

Bond’s creator clearly enjoyed Rohmer but felt that (post-Spillane) the sex and violence quotient had to be amped up. And so Bond is a dirty fighter constantly sleeping with different women, and perennially pursuing another eccentric supervillain (who quite often will abduct and torture him in some unusual way).

As with Fleming, Rohmer’s books have always been shelved in the Mystery section of bookstores and libraries, but their work has a lot more in common with action fiction from the pulps than the staid and quite intelligently plotted works of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or even (the creator of an equally popular Asian stereotype, Charlie Chan) Earl Derr Biggers.

The reason to revisit the world of Fu Manchu is not to wallow in the racism of the books, but to behold the supervillain that started off the craze that continues to this day. Nayland Smith describes him this way in a quote from the first book, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913; retitled The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu in the U.S.), that is used in most every article ever written about the character:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government — which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

The first edition of the
first novel, 1913. (U.K.) 

Despite the racist stereotyping, Rohmer’s books remain eminently readable because of the pulpy quality of his work and for the sheer audacity of the melodrama:

“Of all the pictures which remain in my memory, some of them dark enough, I can find none more horrible than that which now confronted me in the dim candle-light. Burke lay crosswise on the bed, his head thrown back and sagging; one rigid hand he held in the air, and with the other grasped the hairy forearm which I had severed with the ax; for, in a death-grip, the dead fingers were still fastened, vise-like, at his throat.

“His face was nearly black, and his eyes projected from their sockets horribly. Mastering my repugnance, I seized the hideous piece of bleeding anatomy and strove to release it. It defied all my efforts; in death it was as implacable as in life. I took a knife from my pocket, and, tendon by tendon, cut away that uncanny grip from Burke's throat . . .

“But my labor was in vain. Burke was dead!” (The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, aka “The Devil Doctor,” by Sax Rohmer, 1916)

The second novel, U.S. first edition. (1916)

The way the racism is manifested specifically in the books is in the frequent hyperbolic mentions of the “yellow”-ness of the Asian characters’ skin and their sheer animal violence. Nayland Smith and Petrie are model British gentlemen, and so they often go straight for the throat by describing the “yellow” peoples as inhuman. (Although it should also be noted that Arabic races are very much a part of Fu’s squadron of evil sidekicks.)

The other side of this racism in both the books and movies is the overwrought obsession with Eurasian and Arabic women that the Anglo lead characters have. They are not simply attracted to these women — they are wholly and completely obsessed with them. In this regard Rohmer reflected the old world view that mixed-race exotic women were the biggest turn-on — and so Dr. Petrie never stops talking about Karamaneh, Fu Manchu’s slave girl, whom Petrie eventually marries.

One thing should be noted about Rohmer’s Brits — they are racist toward other groups as well. In Hand, two Jewish art appraisers come to look at a rare brass box Nayland Smith has obtained, and Petrie notes, “Lewison, whose flaxen hair and light blue eyes almost served to mask his Semitic origin, shrugged his shoulders in a fashion incongruous in one of his complexion, though characteristic in one of his name.” Also in the book another character is casually described as a “dago.” Thus, while Rohmer’s work and the better Fu films still function very well as purely thrilling entertainment, they do contain implicitly racist stereotypes (as does, it must be mentioned, much mainstream entertainment from the earlier part of the 20th century).

The third novel, Sixties and Seventies
U.S. paperbacks.

And there is another, inverse factor in play here that most likely wasn’t intended by Rohmer (or was it?) — namely, that it’s fun to watch the Chinese supervillain toying with and torturing the hell out of the colonialist heroes. For, as much as the “codes” of action-adventure stories dictate that the audience is supposed to be sympathetic with the virtuous, it’s common that most viewers enjoy seeing the villain make mincemeat out of the hero.

The FM books and movies play with this notion — although Fu is “killed” at the end of some of the adventures, we know he will be back in the next installment, and Nayland Smith and his colleagues will be just as powerless to defeat him then. But in the meantime, we’ve seen the Good Doctor concoct some mighty impressive hoops for them to leap through….

The fifth novel,
Sixties U.S
Reflecting the conflicted feelings a colonial has for his “lesser charges” (whom he suspects are actually smarter than he), it is emphasized in the books and the more faithful movie adaptations that Fu is an extremely moral and honorable villain, as odd as that sounds. Although he clearly wants to rule the world, when he makes a pledge to someone, he keeps it, even if it will interfere with his world domination.

At various points he allows Petrie to escape because he would prefer to capture him and have him as a confederate (or a slave-employee); at other points he strikes a quid-pro-quo bargain with Nayland Smith or Petrie (again, usually freeing them), and keeps his word admirably. Thus Fu Manchu registers as a thoroughly British, oddly colonialist creation — a villain who wants to conquer the world but who will never break his word and thus is a highly ethical sadist and criminal mastermind.

It is also stressed by Nayland Smith that Fu possesses the single most developed mind that he has ever encountered. This is another reason why it is particularly fun to see the British leads one-upped by a member of a race they consider beneath them. Fu himself acknowledges his evil genius quite often and looks forward to his inevitable triumph over the Brits — but he doesn’t want to win too easy a victory. (This was transformed by Fleming into the oft-commented-upon torturing of Bond, rather than strictly killing him to begin with.)

Part 2 to come!