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Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

26 Jun

Christopher lee

The accolade “cinema legend” is often applied, but not always true. But for Sir Christopher Lee, perhaps my most personally beloved actor, it truly was. Like his best friend and co-star Peter Cushing, he always came across as a true gentleman and a man of formidable wit and intellect. A one-time Special Forces soldier, opera singer, fencer and (seriously) heavy metal singer, Sir Christopher was an inspiration, showing us that if you wanted to record a rock opera in your nineties, who the hell was to tell you otherwise. For those who still only remember him for Dracula, Scaramanga or Saruman, that is no total loss even if it does overlook an astonishingly varied creative career; he was so good in those villainous parts, adding gravitas to glorified pulp, that he casts a long shadow that lesser actors in those genre films will remain in for a very long time.
Born in 1922 in Belgravia, London, the son of a Colonel and a Countess, Lee came to acting young, although opera was originally the love he thought he would pursue foremost. A man borne of privilege, that is sure, but such cultural openings would have been wasted on a man without Lee’s keen mind; he embraced the creative opportunities early. His military career is also notable, including intelligence work in World War II. The latter episodes, he was always silent about, although conversely being very vocal about his adherence to the vow of silence he had made to Her Majesty’s government. In later years, when quizzed about it, Lee would reply, “Can you keep a secret? Well, so can I!”

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Opposite his friend Roger Moore in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974).

I was vaguely aware of Sir Christopher as a child, but more for his appearances in various swashbuckling romps like The Three Musketeers and its sequels (where his villainous Comte de Rochefort almost out fences all three of the Musketeers) and his turn as Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). His famous horror appearances remained hidden from my juvenile eyes, until my teens when I discovered Hammer studios’ lurid and imaginative output, beginning with the stylish and engagingly concise adaptation Dracula (1958), re-titled Horror of Dracula for the American market, to differentiate it from Todd Browning’s influential 1931 version with Bela Lugosi . Lee was a reluctant Dracula, at least after the second film of a record nine appearances, always coerced into the part by a guilt trip from Hammer’s producers. Despite this, he is to many people’s mind, the epitome of Bram Stoker’s character, even though he bared little resemblance to Stoker’s descriptions (except in the 1970 non-Hammer Spanish film Count Dracula (1970), where some adherence to Stoker’s text is attempted). He was, however, perfect as a more urbane and sexually potent Dracula, his wolfish grace and grimace making predecessors like Bela Lugosi look almost tame. As Nina Auerbach states in her influential book Our Vampires, Ourselves, each generation gets the vampire they deserve or need, and Lee’s Dracula was perfect for the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, a period of unprecedented creative and social liberation in society and the arts. Like the time he played the part through, Lee’s Dracula was the shock of the new; a shocking gaudy colour version of what had preceded it. Lee brought something else to his horror roles too, in a time where transient youth trends dominated; he brought a passionate intelligence and love and respect of literature and the arts. Even in the most fatuous of his roles, he brought a seasoned respect for the source material which invariably  elevated even the lamest product. Dracula 1972 AD (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), his last two Dracula films for Hammer, are the epitome of the kind of bandwagon chasing trash pop culture can sometimes produce, transplanting The Count to a post-Swinging London setting, with miniskirts, pop music and flash car chases. But with Lee in the part, quoting lines from Stoker, each film was far better than it has any right to be. In truth both rank as two of my favorite Hammer Draculas, the latter film coming across like an unexpected fusion of The Avengers (in which he guest starred), The Professionals, Pertwee-era Doctor Who and Quatermass. Lee hated it, but it was a memorable way to bow out of the part.

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Cinema’s longest serving Dracula, from 1958 to 1973 ; a record nine films, including seven for Hammer studios.

But he was an actor of far wider range than Dracula, The Mummy or Frankenstein’s Monster, as most fans will tell you. Even within the Horror genre he played a debonair hero (The Devil Rides Out), a charismatic cult leader (The Wicker Man) and comedy (House of the Long Shadows). An actor who communicated as much through his presence, gestures and saturnine expressions than that deep resonant voice, Christopher Lee was arguably the last of a type of actor we may not see again, at least for a very long time. A modern trained actor would surely be accused of parody or sheer ham if they attempted to replicate what Sir Lee did regularly with such dignity and panache. A combination of talent and pure charisma allowed something special to come from Sir Lee’s efforts, that just cannot be taught.

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Lee’s favourite role: that of Lord Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973).

Long term viewers couldn’t help but feel pleased when, after a decade or so of increasingly fatuous parts (Gremlins 2, while not a career bottom, is no masterpiece), he quietly returned, at first in significant guest roles in such imaginative fare as BBC TV’s Gormenghast adaptation or Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (a blatant Hammer tribute), and then more noticeably, as pivotal villain Saruman in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001- 03), and as the Machiavellian Count Dooku in parts two and three of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga (2002-05). Think of those films, and Christopher Lee’s presence lifts each film’s quality just by his presence. Even in Peter Jackson’s beloved interpretation of Tolkien’s Rings trilogy, the ultimate corrupt evil needed a face and a voice, and who else better than a consummate veteran professional and Tolkien expert? When Hammer studios returned, and began to once again produce quality horror, Christopher Lee returned to the fold, appearing in The Resident, his first Hammer for 35 years. But it was his role as the founder of modern Pakistan, Mohammed Jinnah, in the 1998 film Jinnah, which gained Lee his most consistent critical praise. Sir Lee himself thought of it as his most important film. The Wicker man may have been his favourite film, but the role he felt had made a difference was Jinnah. I can’t recommend it enough, and adds weight to the argument that Lee was underrated as an actor (or more accurately, the studios took him too much for granted, accepting his wide range as a matter of fact, but rarely utilizing it as much as they should have).
His recall and verbose accounts continued to the very end; Lee was an excellent raconteur, often relating stories from as far back as his time served in the war and early film roles such as Corridor of Mirrors (1948), where he was directed by future Bond helmsman Terence Young. He also had excellent manners, and was a gentleman in every sense. An often shared story relating to the first private screening of this beloved The Wicker Man, led to arguments over the ‘butchering’ of the film. Lee went to see the new head of British Lion, to find out what his studio had done to the film. Lee commented that he could immediately guess the manner of man he was dealing with as “he didn’t even stand up for my wife”.

Anecdotes like this are always amusing, particularly as Lee seemed happier to send himself up for an ungratuitous chuckle in later years (at a seminar in Dublin in 2011 he was asked about Dracula. Quick as a flash, Lee replied with faux confusion: “Who??”). But Lee took his craft seriously, and from the way he spoke about family and friends, he took his love and admiration for them seriously too. His advice on the longevity of his marriage was simply, “marry somebody wonderful”, and his heart breaking eulogy to Peter Cushing leaves no one in doubt to the deep friendship between to the two men.

Not just a great actor, and a true renaissance man in general, Lee is still an inspiration to those who value manners and respectful intellect alongside a creative path. Sir Lee worked until the very end, because that’s what he loved to do, and he died as he wished: “with my boots on”. I speak for millions when I say, he will be missed. Few artistes deserve as much praise as I’ve just given him, in a world where other more quiet talents could save us from war, disease and other more perils. But through creative endeavor we often have an example in conduct that lifts us from life’s gloom. A consummate professional, and a larger than life presence who entertained and sometimes shocked (but never gratuitously or without scruples) Sir Lee was rightly a treasured talent. I also fear Christopher Lee was the last of his kind, and sadly we may not see his like again.
One of the few actors I genuinely wish I’d met, and as the love of a fan can last a lifetime, I’ll probably always wish it. Sir Christopher, thank you.

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The Dracula Movies #5: ‘El Conde Dracula’ (1970)

17 Aug

Crreeeeeeaaak!Thud! Aha, there you are! As I arise once again from my coffin, let us see what cinematic delight can quench our thirst! After Hammer’s seminal take on Stoker’s book in 1958 (and the long series that followed it), there was another adaptation by the BBC in 1968 (starring Denholm Elliot). This version is especially difficult to get hold of, and therefore has not been viewed by my good self. Interestingly it was screened on television the same year Hammer released Dracula has risen from the grave. Whether it could compete with Hammer’s lurid and sexually enticing blend of horror remains to be seen.

So, onwards to 1970, and the next film adaptation of Stoker’s novel:

Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) (Jess Franco, 1970)

A very commendable idea in theory that is just poorly realised, Jess Franco’s take on Dracula is just a tiring mess of a motion picture. The whole film drags and even the standout parts, such as Christopher Lee’s more restrained and faithful portrayal, can’t really rescue the film from anything other than an intriguing curio. At first the film stays reasonably close to Stoker’s novel before becoming a bit of a muddled narrative. Early in the film, Lee’s monologue and the castle scenes were very watchable, and the scene with the brides taking the baby promised some genuine horror to follow. But as things progressed I found myself wondering what was happening on more than one occasion and Franco’s direction didn’t help (he’s a bit too over fond of his zoom lens, I have to say). Continue reading

The Dracula movies- The Hammer sequels

16 Jul

Perhaps for a modern audience, Britain’s Hammer studios, more than even Universal, have provided the visual shorthand for Stoker’s vampire villain in the minds of the mass collective. Their output ranged from the stylishly sublime to the tackily ridiculous, but they were never boring. Let’s watch…if you dare!

Like Universal studios before them, Hammer films followed up their initial Dracula novel adaptation with a sequel, which came in 1960, with a film that didn’t actually feature the Count himself, so the title was a rather misleading….

 Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)

….which was really a sequel for the character of Van Helsing, rather than Dracula.

But thankfully Van Helsing does return in splendid form, played once again by Peter Cushing , who encounters a rather feeble David Peel, probably cast for his looks, who plays a significantly less effective sub-Dracula type called Baron Meister, a vampire who’s own mother keeps him alive, but chained up at the decadent family castle. This is all until a well meaning visitor, Marianne, played by the beautiful Bardot-esque Yvonne Monlaur, sets him free.
Unfortunately, Peel is nowhere near as good as Lee, but luckily the film makes up for this is most other areas. It’s a very atmospheric movie with definite sinister undertones, and even a hint of an incestuous/Oedipus thing going on between the Baron and his mother, who even becomes one of his victims. Coupled with some great visual photography and Hammer’s usual attention to detail in their stunning set designs, this movie still has plenty going for it. Continue reading

The Dracula Movies #3: ‘Horror of Dracula’ (1958)

19 Jun

DRACULA (aka HORROR OF DRACULA) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Hammer studios are often said to have re-made all the horror classics that Universal had such success with in the 1930s and ‘40s. While this is true to an extent, the treatment of the material is far different. This, of course, is what gave Hammer Horror its appeal and was arguably its raison d’etre. Everything was in colour, and the horror was bloodier and gaudier, at least by the standards of the time; but what of Hammer’s Dracula in particular?

Finally, a Dracula you can be really scared of.

Well, I have to say Terence Fisher’s Hammer version of Dracula is a very economical one, running at less than 80 minutes. Jimmy Sangster’s faster paced and ‘punchier’ adaptation of the Stoker novel necessitates the loss of much of the original story’s material, most notably Renfield, the Carfax estate and Dracula’s actual journey to and from Romania. While it’s always good to see these events (as they are an integral part of the story), Hammer’s version allows for this by re-editing the story to manage without them. Whether it should is another argument to be had I suppose. One of the first changes I noticed, for example, was Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula was to work as a librarian (a pretence to hide the fact that he is actually there to destroy Dracula; something which doesn’t happen until the end of the film, of course.)

Sex, fangs and blood. A winning combination every time.

It’s also more sexual and (as mentioned) bloodier than previous versions, although the amount of blood on show is paltry compared to the litres even Hammer studios would throw at us throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.

One especially pleasing difference with this version are the performances. The cast are generally very good, and there are few of the mannered, wooden performances seen in Todd Browning’s 1931 version, which was still very much seen as the definitive version when this film was released. Peter Cushing is wonderfully sincere and engaging as Van Helsing and Michael Gough offers a stoic cynicism, melting to humble purveyor of justice. Carol Marsh was also very good, and her turn as the vampiric version of Lucy is perhaps a turning point for the Dracula adaptations, for at last we get to see fangs! Hisssssssss!!!

Not quite the Van Helsing from the novel, but Peter Cushing made the part his own.

Speaking of which, Christopher Lee is a magnetic presence throughout the film, despite his lesser screen time. I’m not convinced this is his strongest outing as the Count (seven more were to follow, including another version of the novel, which we’ll come to in time). He certainly presents a strong template for future performers though, and his initial appearance is quite suave with a disturbing animalistic side emerging soon afterwards. Lee doesn’t get many lines in this film, and I do think that was a shame, but despite my reservations about that, the performance does work very well for this version.

I don't think it'll go an extra round.

There’s also a nice atmosphere throughout, although not quite as oppressive as the 1931 version, and the production design is pleasing. Dracula’s castle is a case in point, looking rather cleaner and more style conscious than most of Dracula’s homes! The whole film is perhaps more accessible for a modern audience in comparison to Browning’s adaptation, and particularly Murnau’s. There is some nice original dialogue and some pleasing attempts at a scientific angle to the ‘vampire problem’ in Van Helsing’s discussions, which a savvier modern viewer will perhaps appreciate. The whole production is, as I said, quite economical and takes some huge liberties with the source material, to the extent where it often borders on being a completely original story. However, despite this (and perhaps because of its original take on the tale) it is quite engaging and does its best to entertain, even if it is not particularly scary. Hammer would present more thrilling spectacles than this, but it’s still a very worthy addition to the Dracula canon and while not my favourite Hammer, I do hold it in high esteem.