KEVIN NICKELSON picks his favourite films from the Prince of Darkness, Christopher Lee – do you agree with his selection?
I remember it just as if it happened yesterday. I was 8 years old and snuck out to my living room on a late Saturday night in 1975 to watch the local Creature Features show here in San Jose, California.
A dry-humored, bespectacled man in a suit and with a cigar was introducing a film that I didn’t know from Adam called Horror Express. I could see at first that it was either about trains or had something to do with it. I was cool with that even on that lone level.
I’ve always had the fascination with trains and the mystery around them.
But I digress, so time to shelve that for another day. I would soon find that the film had an alien entity, brain drains, trepanning (found out what that was later in the school science class, adding more nausea for me) and Cossack zombies.
I also discovered an actor who transfixed me with his steel eyes, unflappable demeanor and human heart behind a towering presence. He was Christopher Lee. As movies became more ingratiated into my life and I grew aware of the acting profession, I knew I wanted to be just like him. Strength, nerves, nobility all wrapped into one tall package.
It also didn’t hurt that, like Lee at 6’4” I, too, would be destined to stand extraordinarily tall as an adult (I topped out at 6’9” in height). It was inevitable that Lee would be my idol. Though I’ve long since changed my vocation goal over the years (being tall and big didn’t fit the resume of my matinee idol objective), my passion for Sir Christopher (knighted in October 2009) has never wavered.
In fact, it has gone to near-inferno status over the years. As I became a writer on film and on all things classic and current horror in 2016, the one subject that I realized I’d never put to paper was a top ten or fifteen list of the films he graced with his formidable talents and sheer presence that impacted me to the highest caliber.
I don’t know if this will be of interest to anyone else but no matter. I write on subjects that are of my own interest first. It’s one of the few accepted acts of selfishness remaining amongst the writing profession that is not quietly derided by readers or colleagues in the comfort of their own homes. So here goes, with fifteen of what I deem are the best of his efforts. As Mr. Lee was determined to have the word versatility attached to his name always, the list is rather varied in genre.
I’ve also, just for fun, inverted the order so it goes from fifteen to one. Since his resume is a rather mountainous-sized 250 plus credits, I’m also limiting the list to projects where he has a starring or major role in. Without further adieu….
15. To The Devil… a Daughter (1976)
Hammer’s swan song in horror, this film was done very much late in the wake of the devil cult formula really begun in the late 1960s with 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby in America and the studio’s own The Devil Rides Out the same year. Lee delivers a surprisingly energetic, coolly driven performance as the villainous defrocked priest Father Michael Raynor. A stark contrast to Widmark’s full on nice guy hero. The film, itself is well-directed and photographed (with some nice locations in Germany, West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and London). Read about To the Devil… a Daughter here.
14. The Diamond Mercenaries (1975)
From his Hollywood/international cast days comes this efficiently-produced heist thriller from veteran helmer Val Guest. Loads of good action bits replete with gunfire and explosions galore, Lee’s Major Chilton is a cold, brutal type looking for the big score as much as his fellow band of thieves are. This is all about looting a South African diamond mine and getting past security chief Telly Savalas. Pure pulp fun here, with a top cast of Savalas, Lee, Peter Fonda, Hugh O’Brian and O.J. Simpson having a grand time. Location filming in South Africa lends a true realism to the proceedings.
13. Diagnosis: Murder (1975)
It’s Columbo for the U.K.-set. A wealthy psychiatrist is accused of murdering his wife and a Cockney detective is doggedly pursuing him. Lee is uber-smooth as the suspect doctor, looking more than a bit down his nose at the working class cop (Jon Finch) hounding him at every turn. A superb support cast of Finch, Judy Geeson (as Finch’s partner) and Jane Merrow, along with confident direction by Sidney Hayers, solidify this effort as a glossy mystery gem. Note: an oddity regarding the feel of a Columbo mystery as mentioned above, one of the writers credited on this is Ivan Goff, who had written for the Mannix series years before.
12. The Four Musketeers (1974)
Milady’s Revenge and…
11. The Three Musketeers (1973)
Opulent, rousing and larger than life grand adventure. Filmed at the same time (originally conceived as one lengthy film before it was split into two), and featuring Christopher at his most comfortably tongue-in-cheek as the villainous swordsman Rochefort. More than 50 locations in Spain and 100 sets were used in filming these.
10. Airport 77 (1977)
Lee doesn’t often play the henpecked, abused husband but gets the chance here and runs with it beautifully. There’s a strong layer of sympathy for his affluent businessman Martin Wallace, suffering the dysfunction of his marriage to an alcoholic shrew played by Lee Grant. His self-sacrifice of life late in the film is given that much more meaning. In fact, Lee performed his own stunt in his drowning sequence, holding his breath for several minutes. The movie’s stunt workers were so impressed they bestowed upon the actor the Union’s Silver Stunt Buckle award.
9. The Disputation (1986)
Lee as King James of Aragon who, at the request of the Catholic leadership in 1263, arranged a debate between Judaic and Christian representatives as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. A mix of nobility, strength of conviction and decency is given to Aragon by Lee. No easy feat to make Aragon likable, considering accounts of his rather overwhelmingly pious nature. Directed with an almost Edwardian aura by Geoffrey Sax for television, the film received minimal exposure on the BBC’s Channel 4 at the time and is rather difficult to find these days.
8. I, Monster (1971)
Finely detailed period project reworked from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, with Lee expertly handling the dual role of psychologist Dr. Charles Marlowe and, through his experimental drugs to remove inhibitions, the lust-filled and savage Edward Blake. The staid Marlowe is rather stock for the star. The skill from Lee is making the Blake character even remotely sympathetic and sad, which the actor manages to do even under the grotesque makeup. One scene in the finale, where Lee glances at a mirror and sees his own ugliness just prior to falling to his fiery death down a staircase, speaks volumes. A last minute attempt to make the film into a 3D gimmick (a few odd camera angles in the opening lab scene) only slightly marr this gem. Read about I, Monster here.
7. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
One of Hammer’s finest films, derived from Dennis Wheatley’s best seller about an occult expert who risks all to save the lives of two young friends from sacrifice to a powerful satanic cult in 1920s England. Atmosphere, performances, direction, period detail, and story are all first-rate. Lee, as the heroic Duc De Richeleau, is all nobility, vulnerability, fear and courage in one package. Read The Devil Rides Out review here.
6. Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966)
Historically hog-wash but the emphasis on brisk pace and action by director Don Sharp, detailed set design by Bernard Robinson, and a simply magnetic turn by Lee as Grigori Rasputin make this high fun. Read Rasputin the Mad Monk review here.
5. The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Admittedly he’s playing the hoary old Asian stereotype of the “yellow peril” variety (and still another anglo actor portraying an Asian character, yet causing another grimace reaction from myself), yet his constantly impassive face and graceful, deliberate hand and body movements (picture a stone edifice coming to life) are the stuff of acting studio demonstrations on underplaying menace. Read The Face of Fu Manchu review here.
4. Serial (1980)
Lee’s best comedy (a genre property he often chose poorly from), about the changing times and mores surrounding a group of characters in Northern California’s Marin County at the end of the 1970s. Hippies assimilating into society, group jacuzzi parties, and Christopher as Sid Luckman, businessman by day and leader (named Skull) of a gay leather biker gang at night. Talk about casting against type! Even in a smallish role, the performance is delivered with relish and a sense of fun by the icon. A roster of comic artists including Martin Mull, Tuesday Weld and Bill Macy and dialogue gold script (“Carol: By the way, I saw Harvey last night with his secretary. Kate Linville Holroyd: Oh, yeah, I know, he said they were working late. Carol: At an orgy?”) only adds to this riotous classic from director Bill Persky.
3. The Mummy (1959)
Asking an actor to convey emotion without use of either dialogue or facial muscles would be impossible for most to accomplish. For Lee, there is no issue. His Kharis the mummy, doomed to a love that can never be fully consummated for all eternity, is education in the eyes revealing the soul of the character. You can see the forlorn longing, rage, frustration in them after he is revived and comes across Isobel Banning, wife of archaeologist Stephen Banning and the spitting image of his beloved Princess Ananka. This performance, combined with peerless direction by Terence Fisher, sumptuous camera work by Jack Asher and set decoration by Bernard Robinson, and a lively script from Jimmy Sangster helps make the film the very best version of this creature’s story put to film, in my opinion. Read review of The Mummy here.
2. Dracula (1958)
Despite having only 16 lines and 7 minutes of screen time as the titular Count, Lee manages the impossible by delivering such the sexually-charged, charismatic and powerful turn that his presence is felt everywhere even when not on camera. A script can help with this, but it takes an actor of significant presence to carry it forward. Stellar cast (with Chris’ frequent co-hort Peter Cushing headlining as the hero Dr. Van Helsing), Terence Fisher’s flair for the gothic as director, gorgeous sets and color, and another flavorful script by Sangster all add to what is Hammer’s best film to date. Read about the making of Dracula here.
1. Jinnah (1998)
The story of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, became the culmination, of sorts, of an acting career for Lee. A personal reaching for the mountaintop of sorts for the artist.
The courage, progressive mind, fragility, and charisma of the man who stood against Lord Mountbatten as he sought to create a separate nation from the Muslim regime.
This film is unique in that it is told from the vantage point of Jinnah after death as his soul seeks an eternal resting place and events all unfold via flashback.
Not the easiest narrative from which to cultivate a performance of flesh and depth, but Lee and director Jamil Dehlavi do just that.
A picture that is epic in scope yet never loses sight of the intimate human drama unfolding.
A shame that the Academy Awards never beckoned for this film (in fact, it was not released on dvd until 7 years later in 2005, due to having no distributor) as it would’ve likely garnered several statuettes.
Lee, himself, once referred to his performance here as “by far the best thing I’ve ever done.”
So there, you have it. Laid out for all to see.
Fifteen pearls in the treasure chest of a master performance pirate.
I wonder if today’s acting class members have their own idols they look to as a role models.
Maybe a Zac Efron, a Chris Evans, or even a Robert Downey Jr? Not bad choices if so. Still, I wonder if any in that trio would jump at the chance to play a gay leather biker gang leader named Skull.
Would take just a bit of guts to be that kind of versatile.
Sir Christopher Lee was that and so much more.
I tip my fan’s cap to you, sir!