With the passing of Sir Christopher Lee on June 7th, The Snooty Ushers all wanted to pay tribute to one of cinema’s icons. Over a career spanning seven decades (his first role was in 1947!) he played many iconic characters, and Chris, Dan, and Dave will be writing about their favourite roles of a true silver screen legend.
Personally, I’ve chosen two of my favourite Lee roles, from the middle part of his career. In the late 1970s he moved to Hollywood because of a lack of roles for him in England, due to the poor state of the British film industry and his potential typecasting after his success as Dracula in multiple Hammer films. These are two films that Lee just before heading off to Hollywood, and you can understand why after these two fantastic performances he wanted more than to go back to Dracula films.
Here are my brief thoughts on two Christopher Lee roles.
Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
There are certain films that I wish I could watch without knowing anything about them. I’m not even talking about spoilers, I mean wish I could watch Psycho without knowing The Bates Motel is where most of the action will take place (the opening theft that sets the films in motion, and Janet Leigh’s portrayal of guilt, is as intriguing as any crime movie, and draws me every time). Or that Fight Club hadn’t made me suspect that almost any character in any film could be the product of someone’s imagination. Or even that I could watch Unbreakable or The Village without knowing there was a twist coming,
The Wicker Man might be the top of this list. Obviously, it is one of the most iconic closing scenes in cinema, one that has transcended and crossed over into popular culture, being ingrained into the collective British psyche. Christopher Lee is brilliantly unhinged here as he leads the islanders in the singing of Sumer Is Icumen In, and the film builds to a horror climax that for me has never been better.
However, this impact means that the rest of The Wicker Man sits in it’s huge, ominous shadow, which for me is a shame. Christopher Lee’s performance as Lord Summerisle (owner of the island that Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie is sent to investigate) is sublime throughout the film. Take the first meeting with Sgt. Howie, where Lord Summerisle explains that his Grandfather had allowed the islanders’ to return to the “old religion” basically to placate them while he tried to grow crops on the island. Lee is calm, reasonable, charming, a true Lord of the Manor. Yet, by the end of the film, he is the crazed, wild-haired, chanting, leader of a murderous rabble.
Lee helped to buy the rights to the book Ritual on which the film is loosely based, and according to reports (hew ould have been too modest to admit) worked for free on the film, as he was that passionate about getting the film made. And as the tension builds in the film, so does Lee’s performance. Edward Woodward is brilliant as the straight laced policeman who falls victim to the old religion, but Lord Summerisle IS the island, he IS the dark sense of foreboding, he IS the wicker man. Howie may physically die in the wooden structure, but Lord Summerisle is the real cause of his death.
Christopher Lee repeated said The Wicker Man was his best film. I am not going to argue with him. I would also say that it is one of his best performances.
Francisco Scaramanga, The Man With The Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton, 1974)
If Goldfinger was the template for all good Bond films, The Man With The Golden is the template for the Bond spoofs. There is too much comedy, and it is both bad and badly timed, for example here’s a pretty cool car chase which ends with Bond jumping a river ruined by having the American sheriff from Live and Let Die involved. Britt Eklund plays Mary Goodnight as a simpleton. The martial arts sequences are pointlessly shoehorned in. John Barry has claimed it is his worst soundtrack (the aforementioned car jump is accompanied by a freaking slide whistle) and Lulu’s theme song is rubbish. And most importantly, Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga is not in the film enough.
Francisco Scaramanga is the best assassin in the world, charging $1 million an assignment. Trained by the CIA before he went into business on his own, he is the match of James Bond in every department. The original script for the film played out as a simple battle of wits between the two, before rewrites brought in an energy crisis subplot. But it is the showdowns between Scaramanga and Bond that show the true skill of Christopher Lee.
I would argue that Daniel Craig’s James Bond is closer to Lee’s Scaramanga than Moore’s Bond. Christopher Lee is fantastic bringing a ruthless, realistic, hard edge to his character. Just look at the picture in this part of the article. So cool. Scaramanga isn’t a crazed, ranting, “monologuing” lunatic. He’s a cold blooded assassin, who even calls out Bond on his hypocrisy with a single line – “Come, come, Mr. Bond, you disappoint me. You get as much fulfillment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”- which gives me an excuse to include this clip of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon from The Trip (contains some bad language with the Scaramanga lines coming 45 seconds in)
In that clip Steve Coogan says “don’t do a caricature, try and do it real”, which is exactly what Lee does with Scaramanga. He is the best thing in a very poor Bond film. He plays it straight in a film that is almost a parody.
Christopher Lee was a fantastic actor who brought a gravitas to any role. Watching him on screen, there was “something of the night” about him, but this isn’t “Dracula-as-assassin”. Although one of the most high profile, his performance as Francisco Scaramanga probably isn’t regarded by many people as one of his best, but for me it’s one of my favourites.
Remembering Christopher Lee
These are just two of many great performances by one of British cinema’s greatest performers. I have only scratched the surface of even this period of Christopher Lee’s career, so keep an eye out for more Snooty Usher articles coming soon. Christopher Lee was an absolute pillar of the British movie industry. He was pretty much singly responsible for the success of Hammer Horror, and therefore is the reason there is a history of British films in the horror genre at all.
But he was so much more than that. Lee was such a prolific actor that the quality of his work gets overlooked. I hope that my affection for these two roles has come across. He was an actor I always wanted to see more. His almost cameo role in Gremlins II plays on his past and shows a hint of the comedy he was capable. He was offered the Leslie Nielsen role in Airplane! but it came too soon after his Airport ’77 role (his first job in Hollywood) for him to take, which shows how versatile at least Hollywood recognised he could be.
In the current time of heroes and villains no longer being black or white, he could have had even more iconic roles as an anti-hero, or a sympathetic villain. When we get to his later career renaissance as Count Dooku and Saruman (two roles taken at a time when most normal people would be well into their retirement), he has such a weight of work behind him, being able to make those characters even slightly sympathetic shows his level of skill.
Oh yeah, as well as having a near seventy career, speaking English, Italian, French, Spanish, German and passable Swedish, Russian and Greek, and being in the SAS during World War II, he was a rather decent singer, The Wicker Man being one example of his talents. He was an opera singer, but also a fan of heavy metal, and in his 80s he recorded two “full on” heavy metal albums. Here is his last single.
Christopher Lee was a screen legend.
Scratch that. Christopher Lee was a legend.
He will be missed. RIP.