By Robbie Collin
11 June 2015
The thing about Sir Christopher Lee being dead is that it doesn’t immediately strike you as being much of a career setback. For as long as he was an actor (which was a very long time indeed; his first film role was a one-line part in Terence Young’s baroquely strange romance Corridor of Mirrors, in 1948), his characters have often exuded – not immortality, exactly, but a kind of ennobled deathlessness. You always sensed they’d been around for longer than was perhaps entirely natural, and would more than likely outlast you.
Part of it was his face and imposing 6’5” frame, which had the sharply hewn angles of a medieval woodcut. And part of it was the wood-fire crackle of that bass-baritone voice, which made every script sound like illuminated manuscript. But there was also something less easily explicable at work; he imbued every character, however far-fetched, with a cold and granite grandeur, as if each one was a monument that would withstand whatever time and the weather could throw at him.
Whether he was stalking across windblown Scottish clifftops in The Wicker Man, his hair thick and wild as a tuffet of heather, or swishing, leering and hissing his way though any number of the Dracula pictures he made for Hammer Film Productions, Lee imbued each role with the depth of feeling you expect actors of his reputation and calibre to save for their big Shakespearean comeback at Stratford.
But at the age of 92, there was his Saruman, in Peter Jackson’s final Hobbit film, fighting off the forces of the Nazgul with hitherto-unseen powers of kung fu. The scene was preposterous, but Lee didn’t just emerge from it with his dignity unbroken – his unbreakable dignity was the framework on which the entire sequence was built. He regularly brought more to a film than the film perhaps deserved from him, which is what separates a truly great actor from a talented one.
Lee was the son of a Lieutenant Colonel in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and a much-admired Italian contessa, which makes sense. After fighting in the Second World War (he was born on 27 May 1922, and was 17 years old when war broke out), he returned to England and pursued a career as an actor, and was given a seven-year contract with Rank.
After that, he scrabbled around for supporting work, his height a disadvantage until he was cast as the Creature in the 1957 Hammer production The Curse of Frankenstein (Peter Cushing played the Doctor). The character was mute: there was a wicked rumour Lee insisted on this after reading his proposed dialogue. But his performance was a masterwork of purely physical performance: stately, aching with pathos and, against all the odds, intensely moving.
The following year he was cast as the Count in Terence Fisher’s Dracula, with Cushing as Van Helsing, and the future of his career snapped into place. His Dracula was netherworlds apart from Bela Lugosi’s more straightforwardly tragic portrayal of the character in Tod Browning’s 1931 film for Universal. This denizen of the dark was sensual, exotic and wolfish; red-blooded in his appetites in every sense.
He was also mostly silent: the character was almost entirely informed by Lee’s suavely elongated physicality, and speaks only 13 lines of dialogue throughout. “One of the most revolting pictures I have seen for years,” said the critic for the Daily Express. Audiences agreed, and flocked to see it.
Lee hit his sepulchral stride. Over the next decade, he played a Mummy, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Dracula and other vampires, and assorted wicked earls and barons, all for Hammer. Then in 1968, in Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out, he bucked the trend and played the hero: the dashing Duc de Richleau, a dapper initiate in the ways of the occult who disrupts the foul activities of a Satanic cult.
The film was a commercial failure for Hammer, but one of their best films: Lee always regarded it as a personal favourite during his time with the studio, along with Taste of Fear, a truly unnerving Clouzot-ish psychological thriller, with Lee as an unctuous French doctor tending to a young woman who keeps spotting her father’s corpse around the house.
In the early 1970s, with Hammer’s powers fading, Lee’s graveyard shift came to a natural end, and he started branching out. He was deliciously precise as Mycroft Holmes, the great detective’s elder brother, in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), and unforgettable as Lord Summerisle, the gallant intercessor between man and nature in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).
And as Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), he was Roger Moore’s equal and opposite in every respect. “Face it,” wrote the critic David Thompson, “he could just as easily have been Bond.” Well, yes, but perhaps not in the 1970s, as the series swung into its camp heyday. Lee brought a sculpted cruelty to his Bond film that recalled the Sean Connery films of ten years earlier. A Lee hero belonged to another era.
His wickedness, however, was timeless, and could expand to fill almost any available space. As the white wizard Saruman, his presence hung over Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-3) like a volcanic pall. You sense George Lucas cast him as the fallen Jedi Master Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in the hope that he’d provide exactly the same instant gravitas, and Lee couldn’t help but graciously oblige.
Of all Lee’s performances, it’s his entrance in the first Lord of the Rings film that I just can’t shake. “Smoke rises from the mountain of Doom, the hour grows late…” he intones, gliding down Orthanc’s black staircase to receive the friend he’d already in his heart betrayed.
In The Two Towers, Tolkien devotes an entire paragraph to describing Saruman’s voice. It is “low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment…for those whom it conquered, the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice, whispering and urging them.” That’s also unmistakably Lee’s voice, and Lee’s physicality, and Lee’s undying talent. He was the shadow at the top of the stairs, the smiling predator beckoning you in, the flash of silver in the dark.