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The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)

Going back to the time of this film’s release, I lived for Peter Sellers comedy. From the Clouseau films to The Party to After the Fox, when these were on TV, I was glued to the television set (and so was my Dad). I was old enough by this time to know he was being praised for his performance in Being There and his subsequent Academy Award Nomination for the role of Chance the Gardener. Sadly, I also recall his early death not long afterwards at what I now realize to be such a young age. Which brings us to this comedy misstep. A satiric take on Fu Manchu released shortly after his death.

Far from politically correct in today’s world and to be honest, even in 1980 at the time of the film’s release, it’s not as bad as I recall or as some of the reviews I’ve read in the years that followed had me believing. I did see this one at the theater but until now had never revisited it. Yes it’s far from Peter’s best but not without merit of it’s own if one looks close enough. After all, that’s what this blog is about, the celebration of film aside from poking a little fun at the odd title now and then.

Don’t be surprised to see Peter taking on dual roles once again as he’d been known to do throughout his career. Not only is he cast as the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, hell bent on world domination but also his Scotland Yard nemesis, Detective Nayland Smith. For this Fu outing, the first since Christopher Lee hung up his glue-on fingernails and colorful robes, Sellers as Fu is looking for the fountain of youth. At 168 years old, he requires a certain set of jewels to be ground up into a life sustaining elixir. The irony here is that he sends out his troops to steal them while normally he’s trying to prevent The Phantom from stealing the world famous Pink Panther diamond in the Clouseau series.

It’s early on in the film that an “in joke” takes place when Fu/Sellers is to drink what’s left of his existing elixir. It’s brought out by Burt Kwouk who the aged Sellers states, “Your face is familiar.” Anyone who calls themselves a fan of the Pink Panther series will know Kwouk sparred on camera with Sellers for the series run as Kato his manservant. Their scenes together are quite often the highlights of the films.

When a jewel is stolen in Washington, the FBI send agents Sid Caesar and Steve Franken to England as they follow clues that point directly to Fu Manchu. Why not bring in Nayland Smith to help track Fu. It’s here that Sellers comes off best as the carefree, slightly bewildered Scotland Yard detective long retired that Sellers underplays to perfection. He’s rather eccentric and convinced the Royals are in trouble of being kidnapped. Why I’m not so sure but I like the end result. The one and only Helen Mirren (looking quite stunning) is enlisted as a decoy made up to look like the Queen. Thankfully she is kidnapped and gets to share a number of scenes with Sellers as Fu.

Yes the plot is silly and the F/X are from memorable. Then there is the politically insensitive remarks that are mostly coming from Sid’s character that I won’t bother to repeat here. Looking past these issues, this Piers Haggard directed effort gave us kids at the time one more look at a new Peter Sellers flick that our parents could drop us off at the theater to see on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder if they’d have done that if they had known it was actually executive produced by Hugh Hefner in Association with Playboy Productions?

Not only is this the final film for Peter but it proved the same for long time character actors, John Le Mesurier and David Tomlinson. If Sid’s fellow agent, Franken, looks familiar he should. He played the heavy drinking waiter in Sellers smash hit comedy, The Party.

Looking to see this one? I came across a copy thanks to it’s release to DVD by the Warner Archive Collection. An original film poster? Not this time but I did have Brando do some sniffing around the vault and he unearthed some of the original lobby cards used for promotional purposes in theater display windows at the time.

3 Comments »

  1. Like you, I saw this movie at the theater when it was released, and haven’t seen it since. BUT…it holds an honored place in my cinematic life as the first movie I ever walked out on! I was really, really not liking this film, and with maybe fifteen minutes left in it, I started feeling sick…mostly nauseated. I told the two friends I was with that I was going to wait for them in the lobby, and I went out there and just sat, with my head hanging down, feeling flat-out lousy. After the movie ended and my friends came out, we headed for home, and I immediately started feeling better. It remains the only movie I’ve ever seen that truly sickened me! (And I still don’t know how it ends!)

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