It is a solemn occasion as a Tibetan Grand Lama reads out the charges against criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) and consigns him to his execution. Fu Manchu slowly walks to his fate, places his head on the block and the axeman chops it off in one stroke. There to witness this is a Westerner, Sir Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), the man who brought the villain to justice, but several months later, after putting the day to the back of his mind, he has cause to remember him during a strange new crimewave - could it be the world is hearing from Fu Manchu again...?
Of course it could, you don't call your movie The Face of Fu Manchu for nothing, after all. The cunning baddie had substituted a lookalike actor for himself during that execution ceremony, and now has turned up in London to begin once more where he left off. A serial outing apart, Sax Rohmer's famed character had not been seen on the big screen for around three decades when venerable producer and scriptwriter Harry Alan Towers brought him back, not, as one might expect of this era, as a kind of sixties James Bond villain, but as a period piece.
To some extent this is carried off with aplomb, and the world of nineteen-twenties London is nicely conveyed on a middling budget, but it's the committed performances that really sell the adventure. Lee is icy menace from top to toe, with his tendrils in every aspect of British life so that the heroes can be driving along a country lane when suddenly a plane will fly over and the pilot will drop a bomb or two on them to discourage any further attempts to foil his master. Yet it's Green's debonair inspector who stands out as the most fun to watch.
Smith is the ideal hero for this type of thing, backed up by a collection of blustering Englishmen, and some of the dialogue he is allowed is highly entertaining, especially when put across with such a straight face. So it's a pity that Don Sharp's direction lets the excitement flag too often, being far too pedestrian for the most part - would it have killed him to put in a few crazy camera angles for example? But while the lack of energy in some scenes is a flaw, the script and actors have the right idea, notable amongst them Tsai Chin as Fu Manchu's wicked daughter Lin Tang.
It is she who relishes the idea of whipping a traitor, and it's a pity she doesn't get to carry out many of her threats, but I suppose the censor of the day wouldn't allow it. In fact, the only genuine torture sequence sees Fu Manchu lock the traitor in a chamber in his sewer lair and fill it with water from the Thames, thereby drowning her and making it look like a suicide. Not to worry, as he's as dastardly as his reputation in other scenes as he creates a deadly gas with which to hold the United Kingdom to ransom, and in scenes familiar from a few British adventure and science fiction movies knocks out a whole village to prove he means business. With some German allies (including Joachim Fuchsberger and future Bond Girl Karin Dor), this being a UK-West German co-production after all, Smith endeavours to overcome this foe, but as there were five films in this series, you can bet he didn't entirely succeed. Music by Christopher Whelen.