Lee imbued his every role with a depth of feeling
The 'Dracula' actor, who died last week, regularly brought more to a film than the film deserved, writes Robbie Collin
Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30
The thing about Sir Christopher Lee being dead is that it doesn't immediately strike you as much of a career setback. For as long as he was an actor, 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 6ft 5in 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: he imbued every character 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, or swishing, leering and hissing his way through 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, 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 an Italian contessa. After fighting in the Second World War, he returned to England to pursue a career as an actor, and was given a seven-year contract with Rank. After that, he scrabbled around for 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 rumour Lee insisted on this after reading his dialogue. But his acting was a masterpiece of purely physical performance: stately, aching with pathos and 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. 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. "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 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 activities of a Satanic cult.
In the early Seventies, with Hammer's powers fading, Lee's graveyard shift came to an end, and he branched out. He was deliciously precise as Mycroft Holmes 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 10 years earlier. A Lee hero belonged to another era.
His wickedness, however, was timeless. As the white wizard Saruman, his presence hung over Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) 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 a 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.