An unhappy day for these quarters with the sad news that Christopher Lee has passed away, aged 93. As a fan of Hammer movies, I naturally see Lee as a hero of the acting fraternity, known for his presence, deep, solemn voice and so many performances that packed in a genuine feeling of menace. He didn’t always play villains; his performance as Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out added real heroism to a standout film. But he was best known for his bad guys; his imposing height of just under two metres making him ideal for the playing of heavies and a natural for the monster in Hammer’s breakthrough The Curse of Frankenstein. The following year saw him add grace and a certain sexuality to Count Dracula, the role with which he would forever be associated. Lee might have hated having to don the Count’s cape within a series that had an admittedly uneven sequence of entries, but there’s little doubt he fit the part like those menacing fangs he bore for a total of seven Hammer Draculas. He remains by some distance my favourite ever actor the take the part.
Lee was one of those actors who at one stage seemed to pop up everywhere. I loved him in Richard Lester’s Musketeers flicks, adding a great sense of comic timing to his otherwise menacing Comte de Rochefort, the arch-enemy of Michael York’s dashing d’Artagnan. He was wasted a little in The Man with the Golden Gun; no fault of the actor’s, it just wasn’t a very good Bond film. But there was nothing wrong with The Wicker Man. Lee played Lord Summerisle, the leader of a remote island cult that slowly draws in a visiting police sergeant to his doom, and it’s every bit as weird and unsettling as that description implies; a great piece of work.
In later years, the ageing Lee snagged a couple of supporting roles in two of this century’s biggest selling trilogies. In the Star Wars prequels he was Count Dooku, the duplicitous rebel leader who’s also a Sith apprentice. Better still was his part in Peter Jackson’s superior The Lord of the Rings. Playing Saruman, the head of a virtuous wizardly order who betrays it to join the evil Sauron’s cause, it’s a perfect bit of casting as Lee quickly overpowers Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. When the trapped grey wizard makes his escape from the lofty tower of Isengard, Saruman looks on, his imposing words – ‘So you have chosen death‘ – carrying a real haunting resonance.
Do I have a favourite Christopher Lee performance? I’m honestly not sure that I do, enjoying all of those mentioned above and otherwise grab-bagging from any number of his astounding 281 film appearances to produce a composite character of all the best bits. A couple of non-Dracula Hammers stick with me though. There’s his sinister Doctor in Taste of Fear, one of a series of gripping black and white psychological thrillers the studio churned out that channeled the low budget brilliance of Psycho. Lee’s close identification with villainy made him the obvious murder suspect, only in a lovely bit of misdirective casting he turns out to be perfectly innocent. And then there are his two turns in Hammer’s pirate films, The Pirates of Blood River and The Devil Ship Pirates. Both are nonsensical, and in one Lee puts on a fabulously forced French accent, but they’re so much fun that it’s impossible not to sit back and enjoy them for the cheap matinee fare they are.
I might not be doing him justice by choosing these movies as favourites; there are many that are so much better. But it doesn’t really matter. They’re titles I look upon with affection and Christopher Lee was a big part of that. He’ll be missed.