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Mark Steyn

Mark at the Movies

Fangs, Light Sabers and a Supernumary Papilla

Christopher Lee died last weekend at the grand old age of 93, and remarkably his widow managed to keep it out of the public prints until Thursday, in order that she and their family might be able to grieve in peace. He had a long career going back seven decades and comprising many memorable roles: A Transylvanian count and a Jedi count, a Dark Lord of the Sith who became a Knight Bachelor in the 2009 Queen's Birthday Honours. Last year, aged 92, he made a heavy metal record of "My Way", and, in an unflashy and understated way, he did do it his way. The record shows he took the blows - from Professor van Helsing, from 007, from Anakin Skywalker, and from a multitude of hobbits.

Before he was an actor, he was an intelligence officer, and had, as they used to say, a good war, attached to the Special Operations Executive, or the "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare", responsible for espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. Afterwards, Lee stayed on to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Back in London in 1946, he lunched with a Continental cousin, now the Italian Ambassador to the Court of St James's, and confessed he had no idea what to do next, except that he had no desire to return to his pre-war job as a switchboard operator at the pharmaceutical company Beecham's. "Why don't you become an actor?" suggested the Ambassador. So he did. Two years later he was a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, in which he met another up-and-comer playing Osric, Peter Cushing.

It took Hammer horror films to make both men stars,albeit B-movie stars. Lee was a very suave and seductive Dracula trying to stay one step ahead of Cushing's van Helsing while leaving a trail of blood-drained totty behind. As a teenager, I loved the Hammer movies, although I had a mild preference for the lesbian-vampire ones with Ingrid Pitt, Pippa Steel, Yutte Stensgaard et al. The bottom seems to have dropped out of the whole lesbian-vampire genre. No doubt, in these touchy times, it would be a fraught business reviving it. But Sir Christopher's count holds up pretty well. Aside from bloodshot eyes and stick-on fangs, there weren't a lot of special effects: Today you'd do it all with CGI, but back then there was nothing to make the horror but lighting and acting. You can see, in middle age, all the techniques that would give Lee an enduring cool well into the Nineties: the mellifluous voice; the flicker of an eyebrow - and then suddenly the flash of red in the eyes and the bared fangs, the ravenous feasting on some dolly bird's neck, and all the scarier for emerging from Lee's urbane underplaying.

He was upgraded to Bond nemesis Francisco Scaramanga, The Man With The Golden Gun - and a supernumary papilla, which is to say a third nipple. Lee was a cousin of Ian Fleming, who'd offered him the chance to be the very first Bond villain in Doctor No twelve years earlier. It would have been fun to see Lee and Sean Connery together, but, role-wise, he was right to wait. He'd known Roger Moore almost as long as cousin Ian: They'd first met in 1948. Golden Gun is a mixed bag for Bond fans, what with the somewhat improbable presence in Thailand of redneck sheriff J W Pepper and the other Roger Moorier elements. But Britt Ekland runs around in a bikini, and Lee's Scaramanga is a rare opponent who is (almost) the equal of 007. Landing at Los Angeles to promote the film on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, Sir Christopher had his golden gun seized by US Customs and never returned - a reminder that these guys were pulling this nonsense long before the TSA came along.

His own favorite film was Jinnah, in which he played the title role of Pakistan's ascetic founder. It's very credible, but it's not why audiences loved him. Lee redeemed almost anything he was in, but had his work cut out when George Lucas signed him for the Star Wars prequels. By then Lucas was a director without peer when it comes to getting bad performances out of great actors. Once upon a time Ewan McGregor was one of the sexiest actors on the planet. Then George Lucas cast him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and turned him into a souvenir action-figure with no private parts and a flat monotone voice. As Princess Amidala, Natalie Portman couldn't be Aniduller. The kid who plays Anakin seems like he should be the shy fellow in the back in some passing boy band but instead his agent stuck him with some lousy movie gig in a language not his own. He and Miss Portman roll in the grass like it's a contractual obligation. The most fully realized characters are the computer-generated ones, like Yoda, the wrinkly midget with the inverted word order that nevertheless sounds less unnatural than the rest of the inert, stilted dialogue.

But, when it comes to such acting honors as there are in the series, the Empire strikes back! Lee as Count Dooku and Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine have the measure of Star Wars: go with the hokum, have some fun doing the standard creepy-snooty Brit bad-guy shtick, and cash the check.

The same year as his final Dooku turn - 2005 - I took my kids to see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, in which halfway through Lee turns up as Willie Wonka's dad. "Hey, look it's Count Dooku," I said to my youngest, who was a big fan of Sir Christopher's splendid turn as a Dark Lord. The lad turned to me very annoyed and said: "Would Count Dooku be a dentist? I don't think so." It put him in a sulky mood for the rest of the day.

The difference between Tim Burton's 2005 remake and the original three decades earlier is telling. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory just gets on with it, unpretentiously; Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is more artful and detached, as if its principal aim is not to enchant but to be admired. As usual with Burton, it looks great, with beautiful details — to single out just one, the retro delivery bikes with which Wonka's couriers fan out across the town. Burton creates a sorta-English industrial city with Wonka's gargantuan chocolate factory looming over streets of terraced houses, in the midst of which is Charlie's home, a dilapidated Dickensian ruin, its splayed gables and walls pointing in all directions simultaneously. But, estranged from Dahl's sense of humor, Tim Burton substitutes his own plot baggage — specifically the notion that Wonka is the way he is because (stop me if you've heard this one before, not least from Star Wars) he has "issues" with his dad unresolved from childhood. Oh, dear.

As he did so often in recent years, Lee gave it his best - to the point where the sincerity of Pa Wonka's scenes with Depp seems weirdly out of place in a film whose heart is icy cold and never shakes the feeling that everyone's only doing it because someone told them it would be an easy way to make a pile of money. By now, Lee, in his mid-eighties, had more work than ever. On the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he was the only member of the cast who'd actually known Tolkien. Yet my favorite moment in the series isn't even on camera, but in the DVD commentary. It's the scene on top of the tower where Lee's Saruman gets stabbed in the back by Grima Wormtongue, for which the director, Peter Jackson, wanted Lee to let out a scream.

The actor felt obliged to explain to Sir Peter why that would be all wrong. He proposed to let out a small groan, a quiet gasp, as the air is pushed out of his punctured lungs. The director was resistant, so Lee said: "Peter, have you ever heard the sound a man makes when he's stabbed in the back?"

"Um, no," replied Jackson.

"Well, I have," said Lee, "and I know what to do.'" And from somewhere deep in the recesses of his memory an old SOE agent conjured the sound a Nazi makes when you plunge the knife in.

A full life, on-screen and off.

from Mark at the Movies, September 15, 2016

 

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