Jun 11, 2015

Remembering the Great Christopher Lee

According to numerous outlets including The New York Times, Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93. I find that hard to accept. Obviously 93 years on this earth is an incredibly good run for anyone, and especially for someone who has managed to pack those years with careers as an airman, a spy, a musician, a writer, a scholar, and, certainly not least, an actor with over 250 credits in film and television, including among them work with some of the biggest directors of all time and in several of the biggest franchises ever. But even in his nineties, and even after an on-set injury left him less mobile and reliant on a cane, Christopher Frank Carandini Lee had shown no signs of slowing down. He continued acting right up until the end, reprising his iconic role as the wizard Saruman in last year's The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, and celebrated this past Christmas by releasing an EP of heavy metal carols. I had fully expected him to keep going strong for another decade still. So it was with shock more than sadness that I awoke this morning to this terrible news. Because such a full life of so many accomplishments is one to be celebrated rather than mourned.

My first exposure to Christopher Lee was in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, opposite Roger Moore. For me, Christopher Lee was the greatest Bond villain ever. The Man With the Golden Gun was certainly not the best movie (though it was my favorite as a kid), but Lee was fantastic as the titular assassin Francisco Scaramanga, transforming a character who was basically a common thug in his step-cousin Ian Fleming's novel into a much more interesting thug who has cloaked himself in a veneer of charm and sophistication. Scaramanga was the first, and most successful, of several attempts over the course of the series to create a villain who was a dark reflection of 007 himself, an equal in his deadly skills, and thus a truly worthy adversary. Lee brilliantly delivered what's probably my favorite villain monologue in the whole series when Scaramanga shares his personal history with Bond while seated next to him in a kickboxing arena. While keeping the tone conversational and even jovial, Lee subtly conveys tragedy, pathos, and eventually sadism and psychosis by the time he concludes his story of seeking revenge for the mistreatment and death of a beloved elephant with the line, "You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I loved animals. Then I discovered that I enjoyed killing people even more."

While Lee is of course most associated with the horror genre (a genre he did a lot to elevate), and it's no accident that EON and George Lucas looked to a quintessential Dracula actor for their respective spy and sci-fi villains, he worked across all genres over the course of his career, and actually racked up quite a few spy roles. One of his earliest parts was an uncredited role as a KGB agent in the 1952 Oskar Homolka spy comedy Top Secret. He was probably able to rely to some degree on his harrowing real-life role in wartime military intelligence for his role as a Nazi commandant in the resistance thriller Missiles From Hell (1958). One of his surprisingly few forays into Eurospydom came very early in the cycle, in 1962's Cold War thriller The Devil's Agent. His only other Eurospy movie came six years later, with a villainous cameo in Five Golden Dragons. His ridiculously fun Sixties Fu Manchu movies all have an espionage flavor, as do the horror movies Scream and Scream Again (1970), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, in which the Count takes on MI5), and Raw Meat (also '73, in which Lee himself has a small role as an MI5 agent). He also brought horror to spydom with a cameo as Dracula in the Sammy Davis, Jr./Peter Lawford spy spoof sequel One More Time (1970). One of his best roles was as Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), a film that very much plays up Mycroft's espionage activities. (Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself on two separate occasions, once in 1962 in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, and again in two miniseries in the early 1990s collectively known as Sherlock Holmes: The Golden Years.) He was a popular villain in TV spy movies including Once Upon a Spy (1980), Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979) and Detonator (1993), the latter opposite Pierce Brosnan. Lee's guest appearances on spy television series included an episode of O.S.S. (1958), two episodes of The Avengers opposite his grammar school classmate Patrick Macnee ("Never, Never Say Die," with Diana Rigg, and "The Interrogators," with Linda Thorson) and a spy-themed episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles ("Austria, 1917"). It's also notable that over the course of his career, he acted opposite three James Bond actors: Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (in The Golden Compass).

His real life spy adventures are not so well documented, as he always adhered strictly to the secrecy expected of him. While in Air Force Intelligence, he was attached to the SAS and SOE, but when pressed for details in a 2011 interview with The Telegraph, he enigmatically (and typically) responded, "Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like." The wartime stories he recounted in his autobiography Lord of Misrule (an updated version of Tall, Dark and Gruesome) were mostly humorous anecdotes about things like awful commanding officers ("some people are just bastards") making him empty latrines in the desert. But when I was working on behind-the-scenes documentaries for The Lord of the Rings, I remember a moment caught on camera (though I don't recall if it made it into one of the documentaries) where Peter Jackson was attempting to demonstrate to Lee how Saruman should cut the throat of his hapless lackey Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). Lee took the knife from Jackson in exasperation and told him, in that inimitable baritone, something to the effect of, "no, this is how it's done." An awed and bemused Jackson then whispered to the camera, confessing his embarrassment at trying to direct a former commando how to cut a throat. So maybe it's best to follow Lee's advice and "leave it at that."

During his final months of service, according to his autobiography, Lee served with the multinational Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects, investigating and apprehending fugitive Nazi war criminals. These investigations took him to a number of concentrations camps, the all too real horrors of which left him completely inured to the greasepaint horrors of the movies he would later star in.

Lee's horror filmography is the stuff of legend. His performances as Frankenstein's monster and Count Dracula in Hammer Studios' Curse of Frankenstin (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), respectively, helped launch the genre into the color era—and Lee to stardom. His Dracula, while terrifying, had a carnal sexuality absent from Bela Lugosi's earlier portrayal. Both of those Hammer gothics were directed by Terrence Fisher, with whom Lee would work many times over the course of his career, and both co-starred Peter Cushing. Cushing and Lee had both previously appeared in Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet (1948, in which an uncredited Lee played a spear carrier) and John Huston's Moulin Rouge (1952), but it was their twenty horror and fantasy movies together, many for either Hammer or Amicus, for which the pair became famous. Lee and Cushing starred together in the Hammer classics The Mummy (1959), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Gorgon (1964, a must-see), and the camp-fantastic Dracula 1972 AD, among others. Without Hammer, they made more great horror movies with unforgettable titles like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), The Skull (1965), Island of the Burning Damned (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), The Creeping Flesh (1973), Nothing But the Night (1973), The House of Long Shadows (1983), and my personal favorite, Horror Express (1972, and another must-see), as well as fantasies like She (1965) and Arabian Adventure (1979).

Without Cushing, Lee made more excellent Hammer movies (The Two Faces of Dr. Jeckyll, Scream of Fear, The Devil Rides Out) and excellent non-Hammer horrors, including two collaborations with Mario Bava, The Whip and the Body (1963) and the phantasmagorically awesome Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). He also made two off-brand Dracula movies, Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970), a Dracula movie that aimed to, but didn't quite succeed at, sticking closer to Stoker than the Hammer interpretations, and the under-seen, under-appreciated and unfortunately poorly dubbed French comedy Dracula, Father and Son (1976). In 1973, he made what he (and many others) considered to be his best horror movie, Robin Hardy's cult classic The Wicker Man, opposite Edward Woodward. I think I would say it's his best film, and one fully deserving of all the praise that's been heaped on it over the years.

I discovered Lee's horror movies a little late in the game, in college, but it quickly became an obsession tracking down even the most obscure. Because his presence assured a good time, even on the occasions the movies themselves were not good. Christopher Lee was the sort of actor who elevated any material. I couldn't hazard a guess as to what percentage of my own DVD library is Christopher Lee movies, but it's not small.

In recent years, Lee enjoyed a real renaissance. He became a good luck charm for Tim Burton, appearing in the director's 1999 Hammer homage Sleepy Hollow as well as The Corpse Bride (2005), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012). Martin Scorsese cast him in Hugo (2011), George Lucas cast him as the villainous Sith Lord Count Dooku in two Star Wars prequels, and of course Peter Jackson cast him as Saruman, a once great wizard turned villainous in his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. That was a dream role for Lee, who was a lifelong devotee of J.R.R. Tolkien, and read the books on a yearly basis. I suspect he knew more about Tolkien than anyone else involved in those productions. (He also knew more about Bram Stoker than anyone else involved in his Dracula movies, and often insisted on line changes or cuts to reflect the author's intentions.)

Apparently, there were few subjects in which Christopher Lee wasn't an expert! He was also a polyglot. In his autobiography, My Word is My Bond, Roger Moore recalls working on an episode of Ivanhoe with Lee in which Lee played Otto the Hun. Moore was fighting a duel with him for the freedom of a serf, played by a child actor. Lee uttered a phrase of German, and the boy asked if he spoke it fluently. "Without pausing for breath," Moore writes, "Christopher said, 'Yes, and Portuguese, French, Italian, three dialects of Urdu, Swahili...' He went on and on - and yes, he does speak all these languages." Maud Adams recalled that on the set of The Man With the Golden Gun, she and Britt Ekland used to speak Swedish to gossip about all the other people in the cast and crew, thinking they were doing so in complete privacy. One day they made the mistake of doing it in the presence of Lee, who turned around and surprised them by joining the conversation, much to their shared embarrassment.

That mastery of languages, literature, and pretty much all things is part of Lee's legend. He was the total sum of the vast and varied parts of his extraordinary life. When he spoke, everyone listened. On those Lord of the Rings documentaries, we always knew that if we were ever stuck for a crucial line of narration, all we had to do was go back to the Christopher Lee interview, which occupied far more tapes than anyone else's. He provided erudite commentary on any aspect of Tolkien or Ring lore you could wish for, as well as the production. And he did so in such a commanding voice!

I seriously regret never meeting Christopher Lee in person, despite several close calls and feeling like I knew him through those tapes. But I did see him once in traffic, driving the most appropriate vehicle imaginable. After fifteen years of living in Los Angeles, where you see a star almost every week, that moment remains my favorite star sighting ever. I was stopped at a traffic light in the left turn lane at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills around the time Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was due to be released. I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw a vintage, mustard colored Rolls Royce drawing near in the next lane over. It pulled even with me, and I glanced over and did a double take. At the wheel was Christopher Lee, in his Eighties but driving himself, and his wife Gitte was seated next to him. Both were, of course, impeccably dressed. I couldn't believe it. Now that he's gone, I'll cherish that memory even more. As I'll cherish the immense and astounding body of work he leaves behind.

What a life! What a star! Sir Christopher Lee was undeniably one of a kind.


Mark Zutkoff said...

Because of the mention of Patrick Macnee in this story, I'm commenting here. I've been hoping you'd post an In Memoriam piece for Macnee, who passed away last week. As both John Steed and the character he played in A View To A Kill, he certainly deserves it!

Tanner said...

Yes, he definitely deserves it! And he deserves a good piece, which I didn't have time to write last week. But I will have it up soon. The Avengers is my favorite TV show ever, largely thanks to Macnee, and his passing hit me very hard. I definitely intend to post a proper remembrance.