A bit of my childhood died with the passing of Christopher Lee. I’m being deliberately provocative with the title of this piece. I’m certain that Sir Christopher would grumble that only 70 of his 250-or-so films could be called “horror.” There are doubtless other parts of his career that he would prefer to be remembered for. But consider this–in the history of the movies, from their nickelodeon beginnings to their wall-to-wall CGI present, how many actors have there been? Thousands? Tens-of-thousands? But in that vast assemblage of the talented and the not-so-talented, there have been fewer than a dozen “monster men”–actors who made their marks in the cinema of the fantastic, and Sir Christopher Lee was the last of them. I’m certain that someday there will be others, but for now, we’ve come to the end of a line that began with Paul Wegener in German silent cinema.
Sadly, Lee seems never to have gloried in the uniqueness of his role. He had a voice for the ages but he could be equally effective in roles like the creature in “The Curse of Frankenstein” or Kharis in “The Mummy” where he was essentially mute and acted in pantomime. But for the vaster, younger audience he will be the wizard Saruman the White and the traitorous Jedi Count Dooku. Filmgoers of my age who avoided horror films may remember him as the deadly swordsman Count Rochfort in Richard Lester’s two Musketeers films or as the super-assassin Scaramanga in the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun.” Moviegoers older than myself with sharp eyes may recall him crossing swords with Burt Lancaster (“The Crimson Pirate”), Gregory Peck (“Captain Horatio Hornblower”) and Errol Flynn (“The Warriors”). Lee did interesting work as an excitable Spanish announcer in Michael Powell’s “The Pursuit of the Graf Spee” and a hard-bitten commando sergeant in Nicholas Ray’s “Bitter Victory.” He did extra work for Sir Laurence Olivier in his film of “Hamlet” (and perhaps watched enviously as his future acting-partner Peter Cushing performed in the meatier part of the foppish courtier Osric). Before horror films became his bread-and-butter Lee also had a sideline playing small-time criminals in films like “Beat Girl” and “Playgirl After Dark.”
But he was always at his best playing “imperious.” Only Yul Brynner did “imperious” better. His many turns as Count Dracula and Dr. Fu-Manchu always stressed the commanding presence of the men. (He played opposite this brilliantly in what was perhaps his finest “horror” role as Lord Summerisle the pleasant, slightly twit-ish ruler of an isolated Scottish island in “The Wicker Man.”) Lee’s commanding voice and slightly stiff demeanor allowed him to play well opposite Peter Cushing’s softer, slyer performances. They did a wonderful doubles act as feuding scientists in Eugenio Martin’s “Horror Express” and again, but in a slightly more subdued manner, in Freddie Francis’ “The Creeping Flesh.” But of course it was their work in a string of Hammer films from 1957 through to 1964 that established them as a horror team second only to Karloff-and-Lugosi (who it should be remembered appeared in far fewer films together than did Cushing and Lee.)
Lee’s great love was singing and he performed in pieces ranging from the classics to Broadway to Metal. I find his recording of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” to be his most satisfying vocal performance, but his work in Stravinsky’s “Story of a Soldier,” in which he plays every role from the soldier to an old woman to the Devil himself, is also quite good. I regret that no one ever translated Mussorgsky’s song-cycle “Songs of Death” for Lee to record–that would have been some recording!
So, rest in peace Sir Christopher, you wrought better than you perhaps knew, and now you have joined Veidt, and Karloff, and the Chaneys and your good friends Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, fellow swimmers in the river of dreams that is Cinema.