Friday, December 17, 2010

On the last role of a great man, that of the last plot of an evil man

Peter Sellers' talents as a comedian and an amasser of automobiles are inarguable.  But in many eyes, his last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is a letdown.  IMHO, the people who are disappointed by it don't know a great deal about the character, or Sellers' earlier work.

Very few people have seen a Fu Manchu film that they weren't snickering at; fewer still have read one of the books.  Fu Manchu is the archetypal Asian mastermind, spawning endless imitators; from the comics' Yellow Claw to Buckaroo Banzai's nemesis Hanoi Xan, leader of the World Crime League.  He’s fallen madly out of favor in recent decades, thanks to encroaching political correctness, but if you can track down the original novels, they’re classic pulp entertainment, very much “of their time” but no less entertaining. 

Sellers plays a double role in the film, that of the titular Oriental master of crime and the English detective Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu’s arch-nemesis.  As the film opens, both Fu and Smith are worse for the wear. At the ceremony where the Devil Doctor was to drink his Elixir Vitae, the potion which grants him eternal youth, it's used by a clumsy minion (Burt Kwouk, Kato to Sellers' Clouseau, in a cameo) to put out a fire.  Near death, he is forced to hatch a scheme to obtain the ingredients for a new batch.  Once it's clear the insidious Si Fan is active again, the British police are forced to contact Smith, long since retired.  A series of torture sessions by Dr. Manchu have left him a broken man; he spends his time dazedly puttering around his country cottage in the company of Delight, a manual lawnmower (you heard me) he found and befriended after his escape.  The news that Fu and his hordes were on the march rouses him from his torpor and he agrees to help. 

Fu Manchu needs diamonds for his elixir; not a large number of small diamonds, but a small number of very large diamonds.  The 75-karat Star of Leningrad is stolen shortly after the film begins, and the plot to steal its twin, the King George V diamond is the meat of the story.  Smith realizes that Fu would not allow himself to simply steal the diamond; he predicts the yellow devil will attempt to kidnap the King and Queen, and ransom the gem. 

Still early in her career, Helen Mirren shines as  policewoman Alice Rage, selected (after a stellar audition where she tap dances and plays the saxophone, together and at the same time) to impersonate Her Majesty as a decoy.  She is captured by the evil Doctor, only to fall in love with him when he reveals his softer side. ("Call me 'Fred'!  That's what they called me when I was at Eton!") Her subtle lisp never fails to bring a giggle ("Oh, Fwed...") and her rendition of the music hall standard "Daddy Wouldn't Buy me a Bow-Wow", just a hair off-key is hilarious. 

American TV legend Sid Ceasar plays American FBI agent Giuseppe “Joe” Capone who spends most of the film acting the boorish American, spouting embarrassing racism ("You're one great Limey bastard!") or talking on the phone to a relative in Chicago, barely able to hear him over the sound of machine-gun fire.  David Tomlinson (best known to Americans from Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) plays the British chief of police, his last role before retiring.

Many reviews complain of Sellers’ laconic performances in the film.  I must assume they didn’t make it through the film.  Smith slowly awakens over the course of the film as the chase reinvigorates him. Fu Manchu find love in Constable Rage, and that carries him through much of the film, until his quest to formulate his elixir.  So the soft  line readings many mention work perfectly for the character, and even if he was a bit weak during the filming (he was advised not to take the role due to his heart condition) it didn’t stop him from being funny. 

I have a rule of thumb for a spoof.  Read the script and take out the jokes.  If you still have a good script, you have a good spoof.  Following that rule, this is a fine spoof, as the plot is a solid (if formulaic) Fu Manchu story. 

As for the jokes…a majority of the humor in the film follow the madcap form of Sellers’ earliest success, the Goon Show.  The character “Fred FuManchu”, noted bamboo saxophonist, appeared in his own adventure as well as several cameo appearances over the run of the show.  The odd last names of many characters like “Minge”, not to mention Nayland’s wacky mode of travel at the climax of the film are also reminiscent of the wild mindset of the series.  This is even different from Sellers’ Pink Panther films, where most of the comedy was from slapstick and Sellers’ clever mime-style reactions to things.  Here the comedy is in the plot and the dialogue. There’s a fair amount in stereotypical humor as well, but again, seen in the context of the time, before people got skin the thickness of rice paper, it’s a lot of fun.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is now available from Warner Archive, as is another of Sellers’ films, The Bobo.  No mechanical spiders are necessary for purchase.

No comments:

Post a Comment