Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Farewell Sir Christopher

He came to Sri Lanka as Dracula. Not many here would know Hammer Pictures today, but back then when B-movies took us in as quickly as Hollywood did, he enthralled and frightened. That is how my grandfather's generation got to know him.

Christopher Lee wasn’t like some of his colleagues. He wasn't typecast. Yes, he was a villain in practically every role. No, he didn’t look (or sound) heroic. But typecast? Not really. He wasn’t limited to the same role. Wasn’t stuck with the same character. Like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark, and John Carradine, his performances were all “variations” of the same thing. Not that it bothered him, but in the end that is how he was and will be remembered.

He wasn’t “great” the way his contemporaries were. He neither won nor was nominated for any of the big awards. No Oscars. No Golden Globes. He was awarded a fellowship at BAFTA. But that was honorary. For someone who took part in more than 250 films this is remarkable, but he had a following that compensated for this. There was a cult which paid homage to him and which he had to keep up with. If at all he was typecast (which I doubt), this was the reason.

Not that it got in his way. Unlike most other villains, we got to love and hate him.

But what was it really? What was it about Lord Summerisle, Francisco Scaramanga, Doctor Catheter, and Lord Saruman that made us admire and fear them? Few can deny that these were repulsive characters. They weren’t evil in an unredeemable way (unlike Dracula) but they were evil. Yes, there were sequences where they could have opted for redemption. But they never did. They always went back. Reverted. And lost.

In Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which had one of his most (ironically) lovable performances, he stole the show. The film after all was a parody of itself. It wasn’t long before it got to parody him.

In a brilliant sequence only a parodist could come up with, one of the monsters in the film drinks a potion. It cowers and screeches inside a cocoon. Then it spreads out. Transforms into a bat. A tune from Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" plays up, and Lee blinks on. He’s disturbed. Like he’s seeing an inverted, perverted version of himself. A thinly veiled Dracula.

That is why it jarred when he tried to redeem himself halfway through. That is why, when he died one of the most ridiculous deaths a film could conjure up, we finally realised what his characters stood for. They weren’t just unredeemable. They couldn't be redeemed.

That was Lee. Complicated. Towering. Unrepentant.

Not that there weren’t performances that lacked merit. He was Ian Fleming’s cousin and the first choice for the villain in Dr No. So when he finally got to play the antagonist in a Bond film, we were happy. But in The Man with the Golden Gun, he disappointed. Granted, Francisco Scaramanga remains one of the more enigmatic Bond villains, but in a film where he (and Roger Moore) seemed to act well and every other element (including the plotline) tottered along, it wasn’t memorable the way we’d have wanted him to be.

He wasn’t really Dracula the same way Boris Karloff was Frankenstein. Yes, it was the role he was born to play. Yes, almost all his credits were variations of that blood-sucking Count and all his gruesomeness. But flip through Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and compare that with Lee to spot the difference. Lugosi was both expressive and subtle. There was less gore with him. More talk.

My friend Chris Nonis, who knows more about films than I ever can, has this to say here:

"When you think of Dracula, it's very hard to think beyond Bela. The black and white image of his faces, his eyes, his sleek hair combed back, and his black cape pretty much come before anything else. But if you can take a step back and analyse Lee and Bela, I think Lee had more merit. He did not get enough lines. But he had an amazing voice. He was creepy, but there was something very graceful about the way he portrayed the character."

Chris is correct. Lee was different. He was more expressive. Less subtle. For a B-movie that was full of gore and (almost) nothing else, Hammer’s “Dracula” was probably meant to shock more than enthral, and this probably explains why Lugosi rules supreme. Even today. It also explains why as time went by Lee grew tired of that part (he was so disgusted by the script in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, for instance, that he refused to speak in it at all).

Still. When Karloff came and played Frankenstein, that was the end of Lugosi, who didn’t get to know or keep fame as Lee did. Neither did Lee know fame the way some of those his typecast friends did. It worked both ways for him, in the end. Happily.

His association with Hammer Pictures didn’t leave him content, which may be why he left. But take one of his gory performances there – even one of his more sensitive roles, like Sir Henry Baskerville from Hammer’s take on the Sherlock Holmes story – and see how he could never quite get away from that same association. That stood with him throughout. Till the very end.

There was honesty wherever he was, to put it simply. That was the Hammer touch.

He’s departed now. Gone on. It wasn’t sudden but that doesn’t tone down grief. For someone who entertained me and my grandfather, he bridged generations and still retained that calm and stern demeanour he was born with (his aristocratic background would have helped).

No, I’m not qualified to praise or blame him. No, I can’t attempt analysis. But I will say this. He entertained and kept us in fear. We grew with that in mind. So when his characters became repulsive (as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, he almost disappointed us when he appeared friendly with Ian McKellen's Gandalf – before he showed off his evil side to him, of course!), we celebrated.

And it’s not hard to see why. He never failed to turn out a good performance. Even in a bad film. That’s rare, certainly. Likable too.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 20 2015