If The Face of Fu Manchu did not star Christopher Lee, I would never have paid it any attention. There are plenty of good reasons to avoid it. It is so obviously racist it practically aches to be called on it. The story’s antique attitudes and mechanics creak like a steam engine in need of lubrication. Even in the film’s exploitative terms, Fu Manchu’s power over others seems more a matter of style than elaborate, suitably inscrutable action.
Which, questions of race aside, makes him perfect for Lee. (And would the content be any less racist if Fu were played by an Asian?) No matter how absurd the material, like his friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing, Lee never delivered anything less than his best. While too much of Face is spent with the stalwart “heroes,” when Fu is around, Lee’s minimal gestures, minute facial tics and commanding bass are reason enough to watch.
In Face Fu Manchu of course has twisted, exotic plans to wreak havoc and only his arch antagonist, Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) can stop him. (One of the more interesting, refreshing aspects of their conflict is that Smith is no James Bond, just a good cop doing his duty.) Along the way we get villainous headquarters hidden under the Thames, simmering sadomasochism, mass murder from an airplane (the best sequence in the film) and much fruitless motion as the good guys struggle to keep up. Interwoven with all of it is considerable mumbo-jumbo about Tibetan mysticism that is somewhat confusingly responsible for Fu Manchu’s designs.
Obscure as it may be, that link eventually pays off because after a climactic fight in Fu Manchu’s London lair that feels like the end of the story, the movie leaps to a “Tibetan” monastery for an over-the-top conclusion. Out of nowhere (literally, because we have no idea how he got there) Smith enlists a troupe of locals to rescue kidnapped scientist Dr. Muller (Walter Rilla, apparently on loan from another mastermind series, the Mabuse films) spirited away from London by Fu at the last minute. After planting a time bomb, Smith and company scamper down a mountain to escape Fu’s clutches and the pending explosion.
They get away with the help of those Asian assistants, conveniently left behind to guard the rear. When the monastery goes up in flames, the assistants presumably must be sacrificed on the altar of plot necessity along with Fu, his brood and the innocent “monks.” The ridiculous, conscienceless mayhem is so unrestrained it has an incendiary ebullience that makes it difficult to take any of the action or its consequences seriously.
That pleasure in excess cannot negate the film’s callous racial attitudes, but The Face of Fu Manchu is one of those works that suggest blatancy can function as a kind of unintentional self-criticism. When things are this openly ludicrous, it is hard to get worked up over them. The film is sillier than it is toxic.