Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

christopher lee bond dracula
The great Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93. Step-cousin of Ian Fleming and Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, he had an incredible 250+ screen credits to his name when he died. Lee was born in Westminster in 1922, the son of a Boer War veteran and Italian contessa. During World War 2 he was an intelligence officer in the Long Range Desert Patrol missions which formed the basis of the SAS. He had actually volunteered for the 1939/40 Finnish "Winter War" (when the Soviet Union invaded Finland and despite outnumbering the Fins in terms of soldiers, tanks and aircraft to a preposterous degree had a nightmarishly difficult campaign) prior to North Africa. He was also an RAF pilot until an eye injury grounded him. You honestly couldn't make up Lee's life if you tried. James Bond and Indiana Jones had nothing on him.
The North African campaign defeated the Africa Korps made famous by Rommel and - crucially - stopped the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields from falling into Axis hands. It also laid the foundation for the Allied invasion of Italy. Lee took part in this campaign too and climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted. He was at the Battle of Monte Cassino and also served in Churchill's Special Operations Executive - an elite organisation involved in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Nazi dominated Europe. The unofficial name for the SOE was The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. The SOE's activities are still classified and so Lee would never speak about his time serving with them. When the war ended, the multi-lingual Lee hunted Nazis for the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects before turning his hand to acting at the age of 25.
He had the first of his many film credits in 1948's Corridor of Mirrors (directed by Terence Young) and his path would eventually lead to Hammer Studios and his iconic portrayal of Dracula. Because Lee was such a commanding (6'5 in height) and polished presence it only took some contact lenses, a cape and a bit of make-up magic to turn him into a memorable Prince of Darkness. I enjoy The Creeping Flesh too, this one featuring Lee and Peter Cushing as brothers who become embroiled in a mystery involving a strange skeleton Cushing's character finds in New Guinea. The Devil Rides Out is also worthy of your time as Lee got to play the hero for once, a sympathetic Duke who must protect people from a Satanic cult.
While everyone has heard of Hammer, there was another British studio who did a sterling trade in horror pictures in the sixties and seventies. Amicus Productions were created by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg and - inspired by Hammer's fame - they gatecrashed the thriving British horror scene. At the time the British Government had an incentive that forced cinemas to show a quota of British made films and also offered tax breaks to British based productions. There was money to be made if you were shrewd enough and the Amicus legacy became a memorably enjoyable and colourful one.
Amicus were heavily influenced by the classic 1945 Ealing portmanteau chiller Dead of Night and found their niche with the anthology horror film. Four or five short tales within one film containing many famous guest stars - including crossover names from Hammer like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Amicus largely eschewed the period and Gothic trappings of Hammer and their anthology films were set in the present day. Because of this they remain a lot of fun now with the obviously dated fashions and backdrops. Lee featured in two of the Amicus anthologies and both films are great fun and worth seeking out if you've never seen them before.
In 1964's Dr Terror's House of Horrors (by the way, look out for a young and then unknown Donald Sutherland in this film) Lee is in a segment called Disembodied Hand as a pompous and vitriolic art critic named Franklyn Marsh who plots to dispense with an artist named Landor (played by Michael Gough). Marsh is a celebrity critic who has made himself famous for his rants against modern art, with Landor a particular target. Landor gains his revenge by having a new piece of work brought out for Marsh to evaluate. "Now this is quite a different matter," he says when he looks at the work, praising it as wildly as he trashed Landor's work. An amused Landor reveals the artist was a chimpanzee (!) and Marsh is suitably humiliated. Disembodied Hand gains a fantastic boost from Lee, who is gloriously snotty and panto villain as Marsh. It is always tremendous fun to be in his company as things go from bad to worse for Marsh.
In 1970's The House That Dripped Blood, Lee is in the story called Sweets To The Sweet and stars as John Reed, a rather stern and unemotional man who moves into the spooky house of the title with his young daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). Jane's new home tutor Ann Norton (Nyree Dawn Porter) however finds herself increasingly troubled by the strict martinet Reed's cold refusal to let Jane go to school, see other children, or even have toys. Although it builds to a somewhat predictable ending (you'll surely guess the pay-off) there is much to enjoy here, most notably the performance of Lee who is again at his snotty, sneering best as the strict father who seems to be incredibly wary of and cold with his apparently innocent daughter. Lee and his great friend Peter Cushing were wonderful at lending class and gravitas to those old horror pictures.
Another Lee performance worth catching is in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a film that flopped upon release but is now held in high regard. One of the strengths of the film is the casting of Robert Stephens as Sherlock Holmes but Christopher Lee is a real treat too as Holmes' possibly even more brilliant older brother Mycroft - who he makes enjoyably pompous and crisp in his usual fashion. And Lee was also well cast as Sir Henry in Hammer's enjoyably melodramatic spin on The Hound of the Baskervilles starring the great Peter Cushing as Holmes.
christopher lee wicker
Lee's favourite role was that of the urbane and sinister Lord Summerisle in the cult 1973 'folk horror' The Wicker Man. This was his most satisfying part and it was written especially for him. The most extraordinary thing about this film is that it made almost no impact whatsoever at the time. The unhappy studio couldn't make head nor tail of it and chopped the film to pieces. All very perplexing given how good The Wicker Man is. Thankfully, it managed to survive these rocky origins and establish itself as a bona fide British cult film.
Other notable Lee performances included The Mummy, City of the Dead, and Richard Lester's swashbuckling seventies comedy The Four Musketeers. What could have been the ultimate Christopher Lee cult film didn't happen though because he turned down the role of Dr Loomis in John Carpenter's classic Halloween. He apparently later told Carpenter it was one of his biggest regrets. 
Lee was a step-cousin to Ian Fleming and used to play golf with him so it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up in a Bond film given the connection. He turned down the part of Dr No in the original 1962 Bond film despite great interest in him doing it. Although Lee's superb performance in The Man with the Golden Gun ranks him highly amongst Bond villain actors the film itself didn't do terribly well and was seen at the time as evidence that the Bond series might have passed its sell by date. The topical plot about the seventies energy crisis dated it fairly quickly but the presence of Lee and some stylish flourishes have helped to gain it a good few fans over the years.
Lee continued to work throughout his long life and new generations of cinemagoers were able to enjoy him take on parts in blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Lee was a huge Tolkien fan and even bumped into the famous author once in an Oxford pub. He always wanted to play Gandalf but given his age and skill at playing menacing villains (Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Rochefort etc), Peter Jackson decided to cast him as Saruman. It was great to see Lee, so many decades removed from the Hammer years, still relevant and capable of such memorable performances.
You could probably carry on discussing Lee's life and work for an eternity. He once had to get permission from the King of Sweden to get engaged and released a death metal album in his nineties! It's a cliche to say we'll never see their like again when someone dies but in the case of Christopher Lee it feels more like a statement of fact than anything. What a back catalogue he left behind for us and future generations to explore and enjoy.

- Jake

c 2015 Alternative 007

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