THE MASK OF FU MANCHU
American adventure films of the 1930s, particularly the serials, always had an incredible jingoism. The very popularity of the Fu Manchu character and Yellow Peril genre reveals an incredible racism bubbling away not far beneath the surface (similar fears also exist in the original Buck Rogers stories). The dialogue here boils its pot with some truly incredible bigotry Do you suppose for a moment that Fu Manchu doesnt know we have a beautiful white girl with us? Nayland Smith states. Later when Fu Manchu does gets his hands on said white girl she spits out, with the most emotion she has so far demonstrated, You hideous yellow monster. Behind The Mask of Fu Manchu lies the incredible fear that a charismatic leader will rise up to lead the Asian masses to war. Although somewhat subdued in this American-made version (which fails to convince us that its cast are British), the film is underscored with the assumption that ran throughout Sax Rohmers books that the British Empires rightful place is as arbiter of morality of such heathen nations and it has the unquestionable right to take national treasures that are not unreasonably wanted back by the nation they belong to.
This racism is perhaps not unreasonable in light of the sheer malevolence of Boris Karloffs performance and the amazing degree of cruelty that is built up around the character of Fu Manchu. Director Charles Brabin shoots Karloff for maximum malevolent effect he is first introduced through a distorting mirror (which is obviously designed to distort the evil occidental makeup) and between flickering Van Der Graaf poles. Boris Karloff plays to the hilt with a wicked smile that seems to take obscene delights in the tortures he inflicts on his victims, balanced out against a subservient, perfectly mannered Hollywood cliche Chinese accent. It is a marked contrast to the definitive Fu Manchu offered by Christopher Lee over thirty years later Karloffs Fu Manchu is lascivious, Lees coldly aloof. (This films Nayland Smith for some reason minus the Dennis and using Nayland as his Christian name is aging and anonymous, in no way holding a candle to the decisive Sherlock Holmes-ian man of action in the books or Christopher Lee films).
The Mask of Fu Manchu is almost entirely set around its torture sequences. These are a series of truly amazing set-pieces one victim is tied upside-down inside a huge bell and tortured by dangling grapes over his lips and splashing salt water over him; another is placed on a bed precariously suspended over a pit of crocodiles with a sand-timer that slowly causes it to overbalance; another between a giant clamp-like device with two spiked pads being wound towards him; and hero Charles Starrett is tied up and injected with serum extracted from spiders. In the scenes involving Myrna Loy, the torture sequences gain an amazingly festishistic undertow of S&M. She is seen to be voyeuristically looking on and clearly enjoying it as Charles Starrett is taken away, stripped to the waist and beaten, after which she takes him for some comfort in a bed. He is not unhandsome, my father, she tells Boris Karloff. Myrna Loy does not quite have the acting ability to suggest the pleasures taken in this but the scenes nevertheless have a clear fascination with the intent.
Charles Brabins major failing is that he is not an action director. The film is static and talky and Brabin fails to milk the torture and action sequences for any suspense, instead sitting the camera at a safe distance and allowing the action to take place within its purview. The film virtually cries out for a modern action director. As it is, the thrills have a marvellous exoticism. Nayland Smiths search for Fu Manchus hideout, which takes him into an opium den, a cafe with an authentic Chinese opera singer, through a trapdoor underneath a statue in a temple and into a pit of snakes where Fu Manchu waits, is fabulous. So too is the climax with the fetishistic image of heroine Karen Morley tied up as the hideous yellow monster prepares to sacrifice her, being saved as Lewis Stone and Charles Starrett ruthlessly turn Fu Manchus raygun on the crowds. Some of the sets are fantastic entire wall-size maps in the museum, the tomb interior filled with opulent costumery, a bed built into a circular hole in the wall. It is a wonderfully exciting film, one that comes from a lost era of thrills that were operating at the height of its art.
The other Fu Manchu films include: a series of 23 short silent British films made between 1923 and 1924 starring H. Agar Lyons as Fu Manchu, all of which appear to be lost today; three early sound films from Paramount, The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu (1929), The Return of Dr Fu Manchu (1930) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931), starring Warner Oland who later gained fame as Charlie Chan; a 15 chapter serial The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) from Republic starring Henry Brandon; the tv series The Adventures of Fu Manchu (1956), which only lasted for 11 episodes, starring Glen Gordon; the series starring Christopher Lee produced by Harry Alan Towers, which consisted of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu/Kiss and Kill (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969); and The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980), a parody of the genre that featured Peter Sellers in his last performance playing both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith.