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  Mask of Fu Manchu, The Eff You, Fu Manchu
Year: 1932
Director: Charles Brabin
Stars: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, David Torrance
Genre: Horror, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is called to Scotland Yard in London to be given an assignment by the authorities. Word has got around that the villainous Dr Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) is searching for the mask and sword of the legendary Genghis Khan, for with these relics he will be able to lay claim to being the successor of the great leader and launch an assault on the Occidental nations. Barton accepts the challenge to find Genghis Khan's tomb before Fu Manchu and goes to the British Museum to assemble his team, but after securing the agreement of his colleagues, he is kidnapped by men dressed as mummies hiding in the sarcophagi kept as exhibits and taken on the long journey to China and Fu Manchu's base of operations. Now only one man can lead the expedtition and save him: Scotland Yard's Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone).

That most gleefully sadistic (and most censored) of the pre-Code horrors, The Mask of Fu Manchu is generally regarded as the best of the numerous movies to feature Sax Rohmer's despicable criminal mastermind, and Karloff plays him with a definite spark, not to say his tongue in his cheek. Unfortunately, while the character is one of the great villains of his era, he's also one of the most racist - just look at the way he is introduced, with a distorting mirror rendering his features alien (in addition, Karloff is heavily made up), and his plans are to wipe out the "accursed white race", which is all the excuse the heroes need to put him and his countrymen in their place. Indeed, the only sympathetic Chinese character we see is the waiter on the ship at the end, as none of the others are to be trusted.

Having said that, the film achieves a pulp delirium mainly through its presentation as something akin to a pantomime, with hissable baddies and goodies to cheer on. When Barton reaches Fu Manchu's clutches he is welcomed as far as he can tell where the tomb is, and when he refuses to give up the information, it's off to one of the plentiful torture chambers with him - the set design is majestic throughout. You get the impression that Fu Manchu enjoys the torture far more than securing the facts he needs, as Barton is placed under a large, tolling bell in the hopes he will eventually break, as all the while his captor torments him with a bowl of fruit he cannot eat, and salt water to drink. "You fiend!", etc. This isn't the only torture sequence and the film treats these as the giddy highlights, and they are pretty over the top.

Meanwhile, the archaeological team have found the tomb, and the way they go about breaking in to get the mask and sword makes you wonder about the connection between archaeology and vandalism. However, Fu Manchu is determined to get his hands on the sacred objects, and one of the team, Terry (Charles Starrett), boyfriend of Barton's near-hysterical daughter Sheila (Karen Morley), takes them to him to exchange for Barton's life - but Smith has swapped them with replicas! Now Fu Manchu has Terry as well, handing him over to the services of his daughter Fah Lo See, played by Myrna Loy in a performance of amusing perversity; see her sexual excitement at Terry's whipping. This may be staged in a stately fashion, but bullets along at a fair old pace, and Fu Manchu and his associates are far more fun than the heroes, with Smith more stuffy than sturdy. By the time he's blithely zapping the Mongol hordes with a death ray, you might be slightly disappointed that Smith of Scotland Yard has succeeded in his mission, but as he and Fu Manchu were equally reactionary, perhaps they deserved each other.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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