TOP TEN TUESDAY: Christopher Lee – His Ten Best Movie Roles
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, Sam Moffitt, and Tom Stockman
The film career of legendary English actor Sir Christopher Lee began in 1948 and continues to the present day. Lee is best known for his roles in horror films, especially the string of seven Dracula movies he starred in for Hammer Studios between 1958 and 1974, but be may be best known to younger audiences for his roles in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Almost all of the roles that Lee has played have been villains and here, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best.
It’s only fitting that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the film that truly began England’s Hammer Studios’ theatrical run of full color gothic horror epics, should team (well, they’re both in the 1948 HAMLET, but have no scenes together) their greatest stars, Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as his monster (or, as he’s referred to in the credits,”the Creature”). This was the first big screen incarnation of the monster after Universal’s 30’s and 40’s classics with Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Glenn Strange, and, of course, Boris Karloff. Because the Jack Pierce make-up is owned by that studio, Hammer’s make-up man Phil Leakey had to create an original look for Mr. Lee. When the camera zoomed in for the big unveiling (or unwrapping, as he was covered with bandages from head to toe) audiences gasped in terror at his gruesome visage. He truly looked like something from the grave with stringy mop-like black hair (Hmm, maybe it inspired those Liverpool lads), glazed-over white right eye, and flayed, scarred flesh (it’s mentioned that birds had gotten to the body before it went to the lab). Victor has given him the brain of a brilliant medical mentor, but later damage to it had left the creature a murderous near mute. After he’s outfitted with a jet black coat and pants, the monster is left chained in a locked room next to the lab, all alone until Victor needs the creature to eliminate a problem: the Baron’s chambermaid mistress (played by Valerie Gaunt, who would be cast as Lee’s vampire bride in HORROR OF DRACULA a year later). This version of the doctor’s experiment is truly pathetic and nearly elicits the same sympathy as Karloff until we see its brutality in an attack on a blind man in the forest (no soup and cigars this time!). This viciousness is rewarded with a bullet to the eye (a shocking bit of gore for the time), then it’s back to the slab where he’s made to look more revolting and wretched! When Hammer continued the series they decided to concentrate on Victor (perhaps the true monster), but none of the succeeding patchwork people had the impact of the marvelous Mr. Lee.
RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966) is one strange film and has one of the best villains Lee ever got to play, in a resume teeming with evil and scurrilous bastards. The movie exists because Hammer films had access to footage shot for ANASTASIA, a 1956 film about the phony daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Czar of Russia. The footage was in Cinemascope which resulted in Hammer shooting Rasputin in that process which was already outmoded and replaced by Panavision. We meet Rasputin in a monastery, follow him all over Russia as he eats, drinks and fornicates way too much, causing carnage and havoc everywhere he goes. Eventually, if you know your history, he ends up way too close to the Czar and his family. Claiming to be a healer Rasputin almost gains control of Russia. Interestingly this movie actually shows him healing people “with these two hands” as Lee ominously proclaims. In Lee’s talents Rasputin becomes an elemental force of nature, he roars through the movie, frightening women and children and causing all manner of scandals and bullying anybody who gets in his way. It is one of the best performances Lee gave at Hammer which was not in any way supernatural. Even that could be argued, Rasputin seems to have hypnotic as well as healing powers. In one of the most prolonged murder scenes committed to film, (historically accurate by the way) Rasputin is poisoned, shot, stabbed, strangled, stabbed again, beaten senseless, thrown out a window and drowned in an icy river! And the movie hints that he might still be alive! Unlike Dracula there was no sequel to Rasputin. And this is one son of a bitch that we are glad to see the last of, Rasputin is the embodiment of pure evil, no redeeming qualities what so ever.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) are easily the best version of Dumas’ classic adventure novel. An ensemble film, where every one of the actors, and the director, are at the very top of their form and obviously having a blast. Any film that would include Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston and many others as well as Spike Milligan and Raquel Welch has some kind of record for great casting! In what has to be an in joke Spike Milligan and Raquel Welch are a married couple! Michael York’s D’artagnan changes that. In a great cast and a wonderful story Lee brings a great deal to the main villain, Rochefort, described as Cardinal Richelieu’s living sword blade. Lee looks absolutely killer with his eye patch,(“You Sir! Without the eye!” yells young D’artaganan at one point) long hair and scarlet uniform, worn by all the Cardinal’s guards, the main group out to thwart the Musketeer’s who are sworn to protect the King, a complete idiot (not far from the truth, most crowned heads of Europe in those days were, but that is another story.) It is Lee and M’Lady DeWinter (Faye Dunaway) who cause all the action to proceed, at the instigation of Cardinal Richelieu, involving missing diamonds belonging to the Queen. In any adventure story it is the villain who makes things happen and Rochefort, in Lee’s capable hands is quite a piece of work. Lee has fenced his whole life and in an interview with Filmfax said that all the swords and knives in the film were absolutely real and sharp. Lee and all the other actors were wounded at some point. In an effort to make the sword fighting look real they made every effort to do some damage and very often did! The sword fighting in these films is some of the best ever captured on camera. Without a word of dialog indicating Rochefort’s feelings Lee lets us know, with facial expressions and body language that Rochefort is one world weary and bone tired son of a bitch. In one key scene with Heston Lee lets us know that Rochefort is sick and tired of the Cardinal’s nefarious machinations. Damn I like that phrase! I’ll write it again, Rochefort is sick and tired of the Cardinal’s nefarious machinations! But he has pledged his talents to supporting the Cardinal and not the King and has to play out his hand to the bitter end. It’s his job after all! You get the notion, especially in the second film, that poor old Rochefort might like to put the swords away and have a drink with the Musketeers, join them in some wenching and hell raising, give a little fatherly advice to D’Artaganan, and relax a little. In the climactic showdown we are seriously sorry to see Rochefort get his payback. In the Three and Four Musketeers Lee gives us something more interesting and complex than a tragic hero, a tragic villain.
7. KHARIS THE MUMMY
In 1959, Hammer Films completed remaking the Universal monster “big three” of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and this last, the Mummy. Amazingly, Christopher Lee played the monster in all three—the first (and possibly only) person to perform this feat. Made at the height of the studio’s popularity, THE MUMMY is one of the best films Hammer ever produced. Co-starring Peter Cushing and the beautiful Yvonne Furneaux as the Ananka lookalike Isobel, and directed by Hammer’s ace Terence Fisher, THE MUMMY is dominated by Lee’s towering performance of vengeance unleashed. Wearing heavy bandages, driving his large body forward with choppy but powerful steps, Lee uses his physical presence to convey the menace of the monster. With only his eyes visible through the makeup, Lee also expresses an intensity that other movie mummys have lacked. And notice how his eyes change to a softer appearance when he sees Furneaux’s Isobel/ Ananka character. And if this wasn’t enough to cement this classic portrayal, we are treated to a long flashback sequence of Lee as the Egyptian priest Kharis conducting the burial ritual of Ananka in his most hypnotic tones. Lee himself had mixed feelings about THE MUMMY; on one hand, he admired the handsome production values and regarded it as one of his favorite Hammer films. However, the shoot proved to be a grueling physical challenge for the actor, and he suffered several injuries during production. For example, Lee had to not only maneuver through a muddy bog in full makeup, but do it carrying Furneaux. He later claimed that he pulled every muscle in his back during this scene. But, like all exceptional actors, Lee made the pain work for him through his performance, and the result is a memorable portrait that rivals the best films in the canon of the Egyptian undead myth.
6. COUNT DOOKU
No one really likes the three Star Wars prequels. They were sort of popular when new and it was okay to like them then, but they’ve aged so horribly that geekdom is investing their hopes in Disney to get it right next time. Light sabers are cool. Yoda is cool. Chewbacca is cool. But everyone can agree that the coolest thing about STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), and STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) was the casting of Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, a Jedi Master who fell to the dark side of the Force and became a Dark Lord of the Sith, known as Darth Tyranus. It has been said that George Lucas is not a great director of actors, yet that couldn’t slow down Lee, the only actor in the series to exude real menace. Whenever he was on screen, those movies came alive. He made audiences cheer when he and Yoda squared off for their big battle and when he gleefully escaped from the Jedi Master on an intergalactic jet ski. As for the overblown trilogy as a whole, it was all too clearly a product of George Lucas’s production giant Industrial Light and Magic. No magic, little light, but an awful lot of industry.
5. LORD SUMMERISLE
“Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man”. Christopher Lee, who agreed to appear in THE WICKER MAN (1973) for free has claimed it was the greatest film he was ever part of. For good reasons, as this is one of the most unusual and original cinematic masterpieces ever brought to screen and an absolute must-see for everybody interested in movies. The unique greatness of THE WICKER MAN combines elements from a variety of genres; Horror, Thriller, Mystery, Fantasy, Drama, and even Musical, but it cannot really be limited to one particular genre. Scottish police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is called by an anonymous letter to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on the remote Scottish island Summerisle. Upon his arrival, nobody seems to have ever heard of the girl. The deeply religious Sergeant Howie, however, is shocked to find out that the residents of the island, above all the sophisticated but mysterious Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), are practicing pagan customs and free sexuality as they await their next human sacrifice…… The final moments of THE WICKER MAN must rank amongst the finest ever committed to film. As Christopher Lee leads the crazed inhabitants of Summerisle in a chorus of ‘Summer Is A Comin’ In,’ Edward Woodward’s cries of anguish and frantic prayers are intermingled with the death throes of the sacrificed animals. The moment when Woodward first casts eyes on the giant Wicker Man of the title never fails to send a chill down the spine.
4. FU MANCHU
The character of Fu Manchu was first created by British author Sax Rohmer in 1912. Boris Karloff played the Chinese villain in 1932’s MASK OF FU MANCHU but after the 1940 serial Drums of Fu Manchu, film adaptations ceased. In 1965 movie producer Harry Alan Towers saw the novels as well- known enough to provide name recognition and signed Christopher Lee to the title role with a six-film deal. Despite being a 6’5” Brit, the actor seemed somehow perfectly suited to the role of the evil Chinaman (Karloff was English as well, though 6 inches shorter than Lee) and the make-up man simply taped up his eyelids for that slanty Asian look. The first film, FACE OF FU MANCHU (1965) directed by Hammer vet Don Sharp was a lively mix of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond concerning the kidnapping of a German scientist who Fu Manchu forces to develop a super weapon. FACE underperformed financially so the next two installments, BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966) and VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967) were filmed with considerably lower budgets, though Towers did take the crew to Hong Kong for some location flavor. In 1968 Towers met Spanish cult director Jess Franco and hired him to film the fourth entry BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) in Brazil, which marked the beginning of the series’ decline. By the next year, Franco and Towers were working on elaborate erotica and sleazy women-in-prison films, and the Fu Manchu series was a dead weight. The final film in the series, CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969), was a dismal affair, bringing the series to a premature halt.
When casting was announced for the first LORD OF THE RINGS film, Christopher Lee fans were both excited and a little apprehensive. The character of Saruman, like many a character in Tolkien’s books, is referred to often, but has very few “active” storylines. RINGS director Peter Jackson recognized that one of the weakest parts of the RINGS saga was its lack of a strong visual villain. Sure, Sauron is the Big Bad that pervades every page of the books and every scene of the films, but audiences also need something or someone to focus on as the personification of that evil. Fortunately for both readers and cinephiles alike, Jackson knew how to make use of Lee’s commanding screen persona. With his steely gaze and resonant voice, Lee imbues Saruman with all the self-righteous ego and persuasive yet treacherous charm that is only hinted at in the books. With a more expanded and enhanced role, Lee also has at least one pivotal sequence in each of the three RINGS films. In FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the wizard’s duel between Saruman and Gandalf is a key reveal as to who is the embodiment of the evil Sauron. The sequence also emphasizes the sheer physical presence Lee has, which is sometimes overlooked when compared to his magnificent vocal delivery. In TWO TOWERS, Saruman’s storyline adheres fairly closely to the book, as Lee organizes and directs the war machine he has helped create as Sauron’s advocate. And in RETURN OF THE KING, although some fans disliked the new resolution for Saruman that Jackson’s team came up with–which differs quite a bit from the book– Jackson probably made the correct decision, as the book’s ending does seem to drag on unnecessarily. Unfortunately, Saruman’s ending was cut from the initial release print of RETURN OF THE KING, but is available on the Extended Edition DVD/Blu-Ray release. It is difficult to understand Jackson’s reasons for leaving out this sequence, because it is quite spectacular—even by RINGS standards—and gives closure to Lee’s perfect depiction of corrupted power.
In 1974, the James Bond movie series was a dozen years old. For Roger Moore’s second outing as 007, the producers wanted to find a foe that could be his very equal. While recent tiles were comic riffs on well-known adages (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, LIVE AND LET DIE, etc.) the new film’s title, like two of the early classics (DR. NO and GOLDFINGER) refers to the villain, the master assassin Francisco Scaramanga, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. While Bond kills for Queen and country, Scaramanga’s does it for the cash (“a million a shot” as the opening song says). Sure he’s got a load of henchmen on his gorgeous island hideaway, but no need for any muscled leg-breakers like Oddjob and Jaws. Mr. S is deadly enough (although his manservant Nick Nack played Herve Villachaize, yep it’s TV’s Tatoo, helps and sometimes taunts his boss). As the 1970’s began Lee was expanding beyond the horror genre and appearing in bigger budgeted studio fare such as JULIUS CAESAR, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. This film was a wonderful showcase for his talents and introduced him to an even larger audience (hey, we monster fans already knew he was wonderful!). For the film’s pre-title sequence we see his physical side as he turns the tables on a ruthless American gangster (the great Marc Lawrence). Later the romantic Mr. Lee appears as he beds (but no biting!) the alluring Maud Adams (back to that song, “Love is required, whenever he’s hired…”). In the final showdown Moore faces his greatest (up to that point) screen battle as the two engage in a deadly duel to the death. It’s was a wonder that producers Saltzman and Broccoli waited so long to cast him (Lee is the step-cousin of Bond creator Ian Fleming!), but Christopher Lee elevates this, the ninth 007 epic, with his cultured deep baritone and imposing presence, and makes this high-priced hired gun one of the most memorable adversaries in the fifty-plus years of the greatest film franchise ever.
Christopher Lee, with is deep, commanding voice and six-foot, five-inch frame was the perfect choice for the role of Dracula. His Count is an imposing presence, stately and cool, with the gentlemanly manner that belies a lurking, evil presence. He is able to imbue his character with both erotic charm and animalistic fury at the same time and was much more terrifying than Bela Lugosi’s romantic seducer. After the international box-office success of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer Studios decided to reunite its two key actors from that film, Peter Cushing and Lee. Hammer turned to another Universal Studios staple, Dracula which by then Universal Studios had little use for, last using him for a role in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. While only fitfully faithful to Stoker’s novel, Hammer Studios first version of Dracula, known in the U.S. as HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), remains the epitome of the English gothic horror film, complete with lavishly dressed sets, a vivid use of color, art and production design that effectively used Technicolor’s oversaturated color scheme, fluid, but never obtrusive camerawork, and compelling characters. Ironically enough, Lee is only on the screen a total of seven minutes in HORROR OF DRACULA yet his frightening presence is felt through the film. It would be seven more years before Lee would reprise the role for DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, but his screen time in the series for Hammer never got any longer. Playing the role of Count Dracula for the second time, Christopher Lee was superbly menacing even though he does not utter a single word. The resurrection sequence in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, in which Dracula’s creepy manservant slashes one of the guests at Dracula’s castle and uses his blood to revive the long-dead Count still retains its shock value. DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) saw Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis taking over the directorial reins from Terence Fisher and put an unusually strong emphasis on religion. Christopher Lee delivered another memorable performance as the man in the red-lined black cape. In TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970), the Count is revived by a Devil worshiper and three middle-aged men making a thrill-seeking pact. Chris Lee’s screen time is again brief, and he’s not given much to do except be the orchestrator for revenge as he makes the children of the businessmen kill their parents for him. SCARS OF DRACULA (1970) focused more on the actions of Dracula himself and affords Christopher Lee more screen time than in any other Hammer Dracula film. It was filmed on a lower budget, and while this shows, it does not prevent this from being one of the most memorable and unfairly derided of the long-running vampire series. DRACULA, A.D. 1972 (1972) found the Count in (then) modern day. Hippy kids “out for kicks” dabble in the Black Mass summon the great Count back to swinging London. The swinging ‘70s scene was dated when the film was released but its aged well and marked the return of Peter Cushing to the series. SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA (1973), the final installment of the Hammer Dracula saga, is different because it uses Lee’s scant appearances to its advantage, keeping Dracula aloof and mysterious, concerning itself with the disease of vampirism, which is compared to a plague. Because of its science fiction overtones, SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA felt more like an installment of The Avengers than a typical Hammer film. Lee played Dracula several times outside of Hammer studios. In COUNT DRACULA (1970) Lee looked just like the description of the Count in Bram Stoker’s novel and even he considered it his most accurate performance as the Count. He’s given more of a human side that is missing in the Hammer films, and delivers a good deal of dialog. COUNT DRACULA benefited from superior atmosphere and direction by Spanish cult figure Jess Franco and a deranged Klaus Kinski as the insane Renfield! Lee cameoed as the Count in the Peter Sellers comedy THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969) and the Jerry Lewis directed ONE MORE TIME (1970) starring Sammy Davis Jr. Lee played Dracula for the last time in DRACULA AND SON (1976) a comedic take on the legend shot in France and Yugoslavia in French which ended up having Lee’s distinctive voice dubbed by another actor for the English-language dub. Christopher Lee has played many roles in his career but it will Dracula for which he will always be best remembered.