I wanted to wait to write about Christopher Lee. I wanted to see if the obituaries reflected how this wonderful actor was treated in life. My suspicions were founded in the main, because however loved he was and respected, the remembrances were still a bit tepid. And tepid is not a word that befits this most powerful of screen personas who departed this world on the 7th June 2015.
Christopher Lee stood at 6 foot 5 inches, had the voice of a great opera singer, and the presence of the best matinee idol. However, his career was plagued by doubters and a critical under-appreciation. Why this was I can’t really explain, but it is probably important to remember that Lee came to prominence in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties in Hammer Horror films, and where these films are now appreciated as low budget filmmaking at its very best, back then, like Lee, they were vastly underrated as throwaway product. This seems like madness to me now. Who could have overlooked the sophisticated sets, the classic direction, and the electric chemistry between Christopher Lee and his friend Peter Cushing? I even saw one obituary call Lee the ‘second best Dracula’ of all time. If you were born after 1958 then there is only one Dracula, and that is Lee.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on 27 May 1922 to parents Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee and Countess Estelle Marie. So, maybe that grandiose presence is explained by his parentage. Lee volunteered to fight for Finnish forces in World War 2 and subsequently the RAF. Lee’s military career was quite distinguished, he was multi lingual and exuded the officer class image. On returning to London, like many an ex-soldier, he found it difficult to fit back into civilian life. It was his cousin, Nicolo Carandini, who suggested that Lee should become an actor. His cousin’s friend was film producer Fillippo Del Giudice, head of Two Cities Films, part of the Rank Organisation. He was told he was too tall to be an actor and he found himself with little more than extra work and background characters.
Of course, his big break came as Hammer Studios began making horror. The famous bite of death, Dracula, was also largely the kiss of death of Lee’s critical reception. In many people’s mind he became a heavy for hire. But, look deeper at those early Hammer performances. His Frankenstein’s monster is far more affecting than Boris Karloff’s, digging deeper into the confusion felt by the newly born dead man, childish but with a lifetime of anger. Lee’s Dracula surpasses the dark stare of Bela Lugosi by switching from charming aristocracy to wild, murderous animal in a flash. What you can also see in these early films is Lee is already a consummate professional film actor; a leading man when it is needed, and a perfect supporting actor allowing his co-stars to shine when it is time.
Then there was The Wicker Man. Released in 1973, Lee himself considered it the best film he had ever been in, even though there has always been much controversy over how the studio butchered it down to ninety minutes in order to release it as a secondary feature on double bills. Again, an example of Lee being far ahead of the game and still being vastly underrated by his own industry. Look at the scene where Edward Woodward, playing the self-righteous policeman in search of a missing girl, first confronts Lee, playing Lord Summerisle the patriarch of the island Woodward is trapped on. The exchange upon Sergeant Howie witnessing naked teenage girls dancing around some fire is one of the finest pieces of acting you could wish to see on celluloid.
LORD SUMMERISLE: I’m confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don’t commit murder up here. We’re a deeply religious people.
SERGEANT HOWIE: Religious! With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests…and children dancing naked.
LS: They do love their divinity lessons.
SH: But they-they are-are naked.
LS: Naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on.
This encapsulates Lee’s singular genius as an actor. He is at once humorous, threatening, amiable, terrifying, knowing, noble, disingenuous, and so much more.
Christopher Lee was not just the ‘heavy for hire’, he could play the victim or hero equally. Check out his performance as Sir Henry Baskeville in Hammer’s Hound Of The Baskevilles (1959) – truly vulnerable, aristocratic, but mainly likable. Search out the western Hannie Caulder (1971), ostensibly a Raquel Welch vehicle that is completely dominated by Lee’s performance as a noble, kind gunsmith. And how about the performance that Lee considered his best, playing Muhammed Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, in the film Jinnah (1998). This performance was well-received in Pakistan and stands as another great achievement. Versatile does not start to cover this man’s ability.
Lee could switch between comedy, horror, drama, dividing up the constituent parts of the human soul and displaying them beautifully. He even ended up in the odd musical and recorded several heavy metal albums when in his eighties. He produced two memorable performances in two of the biggest film franchises of all time; Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings. But, in perhaps another example of undervaluing the great man, his performance as Saruman was cut from the theatrical version of The Return Of The King.
Yes, Sir Christopher Lee made some low budget horrors, some truly dreadful Jess Franco films, and Howling 2: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (1985). But, he is also one of the most memorable Bond villains, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), the invincible Rasputin, and one of the funniest presenters of Saturday Night Live of all time.
When Sir Christopher Lee passed away on the morning of the 7th June 2015, so did one of the most distinguished film careers. Let me suggest that you pay tribute to the great man by screening some of his best performances. But, be warned, there’s a hell of lot to choose from. Retrospectively, let’s vindicate Lee as one of the greats, after all, he always was.
Illustration by Dean Lewis