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!

Monday, October 5, 2020

A ‘dirty story’ told by Deceased Artiste Michael Lonsdale

With Michael Lonsdale’s death, it’s like three performers have died — the Lonsdale that appeared in mainstream, commercial films (usually international coproductions), the one that always made time to act in experimental films where the directors trusted him to develop his character (and sometimes improvise or alter his dialogue), and the Lonsdale that forged a stunning list of appearances on the French stage (performing in works by Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Stoppard, Albee, Anouilh, Handke, and his good friend Marguerite Duras).

The second of those three identities interests non-French auteurists the most, and so, since I’ve already written about the films of Marcel Hanoun that starred Lonsdale and Out 1, the mega-masterwork of improvisation by Rivette, I want to focus here on just one film, Jean Eustache’s very unusual and incredibly significant Une Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977).

The film is one of the most important pictures of the Seventies for several reasons. Among them the fact that the notion of documentary offers the “truth” of a situation, that the film offers a sleazy but entirely valid metaphor for moviegoing (or theatergoing, for that matter), and that it explores sexism in its purest state — men who view women solely as a set of genitals.

The later, hairier
I’ve discussed the film with people who were entranced by it and others who were disturbed by it, although it should be noted that nothing graphic is ever seen. It’s simply a film about a man telling a story.

In fact, the film shows two men telling the same story. Une Sale Histoire is comprised of two shorts Eustache made from the same material. The first features the great Lonsdale — as suave as he could be — telling a group of people at a party in an apartment a story about a weird “ritual” he took part in.

A group of men in a Paris cafe are aware that there is a hole in the ladies’ room door in that cafe’s basement. If one kneels on the floor in front of the door (curiously like the Muslim prayer ritual), one can see the women using the toilet — not the woman herself, just her vagina. Lonsdale’s character tells the story with an odd sort of reverence and a philosophical bent, describing how this ritualistic act of voyeurism became a habit for him that took the place of having sex.

Once he finishes his story, we see the second short film, a 16mm documentary chronicle of another man (Jean-Noël Picq) telling the same story. He is sleazier-looking than Lonsdale (with a front row of quite awful teeth), and one quickly realizes that this is the man who ultimately went through this experience.

Picq’s telling of the story goes quicker. The 16mm film is six minutes shorter because it is told more quickly (although both Picq and Lonsdale say the exact same words), contains no introduction, and the questions asked of the storyteller at the end are fired at Picq, while the actresses quizzing Lonsdale ask their queries in a slower way.

The ideal way to read this piece would be to now watch the film if you haven’t seen it already. It is currently available on YouTube, with English subtitles in the Closed Captions.

The Lonsdale version:

The Picq original:

Going back to the three themes mentioned above, it can now be revealed that Eustache’s decision to contrast “fiction” (an actor telling a story) against documentary (a real-life individual, with the bad teeth to prove it) is a brilliant one, but is not as clear-cut as it seems.

The signs of the two modes of filmmaking are there: the Lonsdale film was shot in 35mm, is most clearly an acted piece, and is more elegantly made. The Picq version is on 16mm, it has the spontaneity of a documentary (esp. in the brisk way it moves), and is more raggedly shot (one of the women listening to Picq is left out of camera range, even when she’s asking him a question).

So, Eustache’s purpose in making the Lonsdale film appears to have been to contrast the “real” telling of a story with a staged “fiction” version containing the exact same dialogue (including the same questions and answers at the end). It’s a brilliant conceit and one of the reasons Histoire is indeed a landmark of Seventies cinema.

There’s just one problem with the above description of the film — namely, that Picq’s story never happened. But before we get into that matter, let us find out what Lonsdale himself thought of the film. In the invaluable interview book Michael Lonsdale: Entretiens avec Jean Cléder (François Bourin Éditeur, Paris, 2012), he offered these thoughts. [This and the quote below are loosely translated from the French by yrs truly.]

“First, the distance came from the fact that [Eustache] invented half of things. It’s physically impossible for a man to put his head on the ground in the hall outside the toilets, especially in La Motte Piquet, where it’s very busy. In reality, it wouldn’t be very clean if one knelt on the floor to look through a hole at the genitals of women who are urinating! One would have to be pretty crazy… People asked me, ‘How could you have done that?’ And I responded, ‘Listen, this stuff exists, there are people like that! They have the right to be heard.’

“As I had never worked with Jean Eustache, who was for me one of the great filmmakers, I accepted the role. Before that, with no budget, he had already filmed with his friend the ‘dirty story,’ where Jean-Noel Picq had the lead role. But he wanted to make a “cleaner” version (if I can put it that way) in 25 minutes, with a good camera and good film.

“As for the characterization, he let me do what I wanted. He filmed three reels, in three shots, so we didn’t need to stop to load the film. I thus recounted my story calmly, without interruptions or direction.  When he asked me, ‘Do you want to see what Jean-Noel Picq did?’ I answered ‘No, certainly not!’ I noticed later that we had the same inflection on certain words, curiously….

“Because showing it meant projecting the two films, it was a novelty: the program was made up of the old version with Jean-Noel Picq, then the new version with me. For distribution, it was interesting, because each film was too short for a normal screening at a movie theater.” [pp. 48-49]

The oddly assembled but also invaluable book le dictionnaire Eustache, edited by Antoine de Baecque, (Editions Leo Scheer, 2011), includes a statement from Picq written to journalist Jean-Luc Douin.  Picq wrote to Douin in 1993 that the original short was “autobiographical because it was fictitious.” To double-down on his wonderfully Gallic wordplay he also claimed the short was “an imaginary autobiography, like all true autobiographies.” He added:

“This autobiographical fiction is perhaps about voyeurism, but it is also about the insurmountable differences between the sexes, which don’t allow … either gender to have a discourse about sex that transcends differences and reaches an agreement. Except to stammer something that is not readily understandable, as it goes down to the gutter and lowers the debate.” [pp. 298-299]

The juxtaposition between fiction and reality bleeds into the second theme of the film  the notion that Picq’s story is a metaphor for the act of moviegoing. The “ritual” described has a religious aspect to it (with the reference to praying in the Muslim style), but there is clearly also a peep-show, fetishistic element, as the voyeur sees only one body part. And the act of storytelling itself, which always encompasses embroidering a tale, is akin to seeing a performance onstage or screen. The storyteller in both versions in fact mentions his desired audience — he notes that he prefers to tell his story to women to get their reactions, since men will “understand” what he’s saying from the first.

The odd prologue to
American Boy.
The Picq short in fact prefigured Scorsese’s American Boy (made one year later, in 1978), in which Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince tells a series of stories that are immaculate — but seem too honed to be entirely true. Scorsese takes much more time to set the stage than Eustache does (one gets the impression that Prince’s storytelling session was augmented by, um…. a certain powder). But the two filmmakers allow their seedy friends to take center stage, and they and other friends assume the role of onscreen audience and interlocutors. Eustache let himself be seen as a listener in the Picq version of the material, but he is only seen briefly on camera and never asks Picq a question. Scorsese, on the other hand, is an active participant in American Boy. (The presence of both filmmakers on-camera serves to make their friends’ stories seem more “real.”)

Picq’s tale also contains unknowing “performers” (the women being “peeped,” who are being victimized without even knowing it  until the storyteller lets the last woman in on the “act”) and an "audience" (the sleazy men at the cafe). Thus, we as viewers watch an onscreen audience hearing a story from a man who declares that he ended up preferring seeing unknown women’s genitals (read: being a spectator) rather than having sex with a partner (being an active participant in a performance).

… Which leads us to the third and most overpowering theme: sexism. Une Sale Histoire would never have been made in the U.S., even during the “maverick” period of the Seventies (when a film like John Byrum’s Inserts could indeed be made but had to be shot in England). The current state of American film finds sex completely missing from mainstream films of any kind, as dealing with it bring up topics that are (that most abrasive and prevalent of phrases) “problematic.”

Jean Eustache (in a Rocky shirt!)
and Lonsdale.

Here Eustache tackles the male libido at its most base and crude. The storytellers in both short films are quite matter-of-fact about the story they tell, while the women who hear it are very receptive, to the point of asking a bunch of questions. These questions are fired off in the Picq version, which makes them seem like real subjects of curiosity. The slightly slower pace of the Lonsdale version makes the questions seem more like a part of a certain storytelling ritual.

The most important element of this exploration of sexism is indeed the fact that the storyteller states he got to the point where he preferred “peeping” to sex. (Thus foreshadowing Internet cam-culture?) He says, quite pointedly, “… the desire wasn’t to fuck her afterwards, not at all. It was only in the pleasure of seeing. Just seeing. That’s all.”

From the Picq version.

Picq’s story includes the fact that the forbidden thrill he got from the act of voyeurism was that it gave him “direct access” to the woman’s private parts — he didn’t have to go on dates, go to the movies or dinner, find common points of interest, or otherwise relate to the woman in question. He could just cut to his desired chase and see what he wanted to see.

He laments that women will now (in the late Seventies) discuss their orgasms and that the vaginas of the woman he’s involved with on a romantic or sexual level are “domesticated.” This part of the story synchs up quite nicely with Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece, The Mother and the Whore, where the male protagonist (Jean-Pierre Leaud) talks and talks until the moment where the quieter female lead (Françoise Lebrun, who conspicuously appears in the Picq film as a listener/questioner) finally delivers a monologue, which changes the whole focus of the piece and makes it more of a film about relationships (and the need to listen rather than talk), whereas up to that point it is an account of the adventures of a cool young man who never stops talking.

Picq and Eustache.

Our storyteller pines for the Victorian era at one point, saying the sexuality of the Seventies is “disillusioned.” This goes back to the theme of worship in Picq’s dirty story. He knows that what he is doing is unhealthy (and quite ugly, as he is essentially bent over, kneeling on a piss-laden floor). But he is able to justify what he did because of that same aspect of sleazy idolatry.

The film’s best dialogue in fact comes when he discusses how the world changed for him when he got addicted to his peeping ritual. He began, he says, to believe “the hole came first!” and that a defect in a door (which he acknowledges must’ve been created on purpose when the door was designed) became the center of his universe. The door, the cafe, the streets, the city — all of it existed because of that sacred hole.

And the grace note of this look inside the mind of a voyeur is when he declares that his peeping was a kind of “work” that consumed him for a period of time. The last line, delivered differently but emphatically by both Lonsdale and Picq, is “I had my dignity while doing this!”