The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu Film Details
Overview: When Fu’s age-regressing elixir vitae is spilled by a hapless flunky, Fu Manchu sends his lackeys to round up supplies for a fresh batch of elixir, including a precious jewel, which prompts a team of agents to track him down.
Tagline: BEWARE! See this movie – An hour later you’ll want to see it again!
Review: “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu” was the last project made by the great Peter Sellers. Sellers had a curious career trajectory, starting on radio’s “The Goon Show” (if you haven’t heard it, look it up online). He was essentially a character actor who became an international star, a rarity in movies, where audiences like familiarity (even Olivier couldn’t manage the star quality when submerging himself in his roles as he did on stage). From radio Sellers ventures into classic little British movies (“The Ladykillers”; “The Wrong Arm of the Law”; et al). Then he began costarring with the likes of Sophia Loren in international features. Finally, he hit the big time with “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark” (both Clouseau movies). Big name directors and producers wanted him for major project. While working on a Billy Wilder movie with Dean Martin, Sellers had a heart attack. Surviving that, he found himself uninsurable for movies (people who back movies like to make sure their stars don’t drop dead in the middle of filming). The heart attack and Sellers’ incredible ego (combined with his fear of acting with anyone with the talent to upstage him) led to the fiasco that was the Bond spoof “Casino Royale.” After that, his career hit its nadir, churning out low-budget bombs. His career looked to be over until he teamed with “Pink Panther” director Blake Edwards for more Clouseau movies. After that, his career began rising; and so did his vaunted ego combined with a fear of big stars and projects. Finally in a position to make his long-desired role of Chance in “Being There” he was nominated for an Oscar, made “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu” and promptly died. So much for that. The story is a typical McGuffin. Fu Manchu (Sellers) is celebrating his one-hundred-and-sixty-odd birthday when he loses his rejuvenating formula. Desperate to get more before he kicks the bucket, he sends his minions to find the ingredients, which consist mainly of precious jewels . . . although it also involves a mummy (which is never otherwise utilized). Fu’s long-time adversary Nayland Smith (Sellers) is on the trail of the stolen artifacts, to recover them, or bring Fu’s career to an end, or something. In a comedy the story is just a line to hang the laughs on. Unfortunately, the laughs come sparsely. For the movie: It’s actually a well-shot feature with a solid cast (including the always-wonderful Helen Mirren) and with sound production values. As an historical feature set vaguely in a stylized 1920s/30s (one reference seems to establish it as post-1936, but who cares?) it has a feel for early steampunk; and I’m surprised steampunkers don’t embrace it. Its problem is that the film has a few good laughs, which is not good enough for a comedy. The film’s greatest problem is Sellers himself. Fu Manchu is right up his street (though the voice is irritating) but he also tackles the role of the detective, Nayland Smith. Smith is the sort of role a younger Sellers might have sunk his teeth into (reference the old men he played in “Battle of the Sexes” (1960) and “The Smallest Show on Earth” (1957). Whether Sellers is feeling ill personally or whether he tries to give Nayland Smith the sort of world-weariness Sellers hadn’t shown in a role (well) since “Only Two Can Play”, Smith comes across without a spark. According to the (extremely long) exposition Smith was seized by Fu Manchu and tortured until he was mad; that alone would have given Sellers in his prime a nail to hang a wacky character on. Instead, whatever Sellers meant to achieve with Smith, he only comes across as dull. It’s only in the film’s final few minutes that Sellers, and the movie, really come alive. While a lot of Sellers fans (including me) often wished he’d died slightly earlier so the last shot he ever had in a movie was Chance walking on water in “Being There,” the end of “The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu” is actually pretty good. Another problem is the script. It simply doesn’t have enough laughs. Apart from a handful of notable exceptions, comedy in movies was wilting on the vine until the advent of “Airplane!” (released the same year). By the late seventies other movie writers, directors and/or producers, as in another Sellers feature, “Murder by Death”, seemed to think plugging in comic actors was enough for a comedy. Put comic actors (in this case, Sid Caesar, Clive Dunn, Steve Franken) in selected roles and let them rip. Unfortunately, the best comic actors need funny material. In a great many of his movies, comedian Bob Hope proved a funny man can’t be funny without funny material. As for the rest, Mirren does a bang-up job as a policewoman in disguise (using so many voices she might have taken on a multi-role movie herself) who as a captive in Fu’s lair begins reading him his rights (a classic moment). She seems desperate to make the movie work and much of what is good in “Fiendish Plot” is her doing. And though it appears churlish to say so in light of her talent, she’s never been lovelier. The rest of the cast tries as well, particularly David Tomlinson (best known in America as the father in “Mary Poppins”). Simon Williams, only five years after making a splash in “Upstairs, Downstairs”, tries a little too hard in an idiot role for which he is ill-equipped. Legendary comic Sid Caesar is embarrassingly unfunny as an American FBI agent. And one slightly amusing moment has Burt Kwouk (Inspector Clouseau’s Cato) in a small role as an inside joke that weakened that scene’s verisimilitude. Not many laughs, but the few that appear are laughs-out-loud. Some of the photography, especially exteriors in England and the French Alps, are exquisite. It’s a beautiful movie that almost spares no expense, apart from a few tawdry not-so-special effects (and didn’t they do any research on how a balloon operates?). So is the movie a little gem? Perhaps. It’s not in the top-ten Sellers films. For its pre-“Airplane” time it’s not a bad movie. The laughs aren’t frequent, which is the kiss of death for comedy. Still, it’s not as bad as the critics like to make out. One critical problem is that Sax Rohmer’s original stories (like Earl Derr Biggers’ “Charlie Chan” mystery novels) have fallen under the heavy hammer of political correctness. But Rohmer’s original stories weren’t social commentaries, they were ripping adventure stories about a (rather dull, unfortunately) detective named Nayland Smith trying to stop a criminal mastermind (who happened to be Chinese). They were early Bondian escapades which picked up an erotic element with the introduction of Fu Manchu’s extremely lovely, if treacherous, daughter. “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu” would have fallen under p.c. censorship if it were the funniest movie ever made. The fact that it isn’t all that funny, despite some solid performances, a pretty good story and sometimes excellent production values, makes it an easy target for those who like to shut down anything that has a perspective they don’t happen to like. Mainly for Sellers fans, who can overcome their grief that Chance wasn’t Sellers’ last part.
Duration: 100 min
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Fantasy
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