Christopher Lee • Euro–Actor

{short description of image}By the author of this new authorised screen history of Christopher Lee, published by Reynolds & Hearn on February 28 2001.
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Lee's Vaudeville schemer with Dany Carel in The Hands of Orlac

A Shivers feature by Jonathan Rigby

Selected from Shivers #87

On Wednesday 21st January 1959, C H B ‘Willy’ Williamson of To-Day’s Cinema ran into the 36-year-old Christopher Lee at the opening of a Jermyn Street nightclub. Lee, Willy informed his readers two days later, ‘goes from one film to another and [his] only regret is that with current demands he cannot be in two or three places at the same time. He told me his fan mail has become worldwide since Dracula, but many who write are intelligent and send interesting letters.’

Lee was aware that the impact of Dracula had been so great it had left casting directors in just as much of a quandary about how best to ‘play’ him as they had been when he was unknown. How do you follow a 500-year-old vampire Count? One answer was, of course, ‘With another vampire Count’. Lee resisted reprising Dracula himself until 1965, but when offered an Italian comedy in the spring of 1959 called Tempi duri per i vampiri (Hard Times for Vampires) he saw no harm in accepting, provided that his character was clearly signposted as Baron Roderigo de Braumfürten. The film is significant not only as an indication that Lee’s vampire persona could retain its demonic power even in a lighthearted context, but also as a forerunner of Lee’s prolific Continental engagements during the 1960s.

Known in English-speaking territories as Uncle Was a Vampire, Tempi duri was directed by comedy specialist Stefano Vanzina, popularly known as Steno, and starred the pint-sized singer-comedian Renato Rascel. The film is graced with wall-to-wall bathing beauties and lusciously coloured UltraScope photography by Marco Scarpelli, but the humour fails to translate.

Christopher Lee in Tempi Duri...Lee looks magnificent, however, as a vampire subtly different from Dracula: much more gaunt, sporting significantly bigger fangs, ashen-faced, jet-black hair plastered to his skull and with the red flanges of his cloak swept dramatically over each shoulder. Lee’s Dracula wouldn’t surrender to a red-lined cloak until Dracula Prince of Darkness, and there are many pre-echoes of that film and its sequels in Lee’s performance, too. Less happily, the Italian predilection for not bothering to use live sound means that the viewer has to watch Lee while listening to someone else entirely.

In spring 1960, Lee appeared in the first of several of his pictures that would be made in two languages. The Hands of Orlac – or, to French audiences, Les mains d’Orlac – was entrusted to Beat Girl director Edmond T Gréville. Production started on the French Riviera on 16 May and extended to 17 July, divided between Shepperton and the Studios de la Victorine in Nice. Though much slicker, Orlac is cut from much the same cloth as Beat Girl, sharing a similarly glacial monochrome ‘look’, a similar sleazy environment and Lee as the chief sleazemonger.

The result is somewhat bland, landed with a mere ‘A’ certificate in the UK and lacking the wild, hallucinatory edge common to previous screen versions of Maurice Renard’s famous novel. But it looks gorgeous and contains one of Lee’s most engaging performances – as Nero, a spiv-like burlesque illusionist dubbed ‘le Roi du mystère’.

Assembled at Shepperton, various distinguished British thespians dutifully mouthed their lines in French for the ‘version Française’ but were dubbed in post-production. Not so Lee and the film’s stolid American leading man, Mel Ferrer, who filmed at Nice as well as Shepperton and whose French dialogue is preserved in Les mains d’Orlac. “I think my performance in French,” Lee observed, “was probably far better than the one in English because I could do more with the language.” Lee’s French performance does indeed have a touch more brio, gestural as well as vocal, but in either version he cuts a splendidly hateful figure. [The Hands of Orlac was covered in full in Shivers # 62...]

Jonathan Rigby analyzes Lee's susbsequent European films including La cripta e l'incubo / Crypt of Horror and La frusta e il corpo / The Whip and the Body in the full version of this article in Shivers #87

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Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2001. Not for reproduction