The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980)

fiendish

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Peter Sellers’ last movie.

Fu Manchu (Peter Sellers) is a 168-year-old man, who on his birthday must drink a elixir vitae in order to remain youthful and alive. When one of his servants (Burt Kwouk) brings in the formula his shirt sleeve catches fire from all of Fu’s birthday candles and it causes the servant to use the elixir to put the flames on his sleeve out. This forces Fu to have his henchmen go on a international crime spree to find the necessary ingredients to create a new youthful formula for him to drink. After one of Fu’s men steals a diamond in an exhibit it catches the attention of Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Roger Avery (David Tomlinson) who then calls in two F.B.I. agents (Sid Caesar, Steve Franken) to help him on the case. They also visit the aging Nyland Smith (Peter Sellers) who is a former adversary to Fu and knows his traits well, but Nyland has become senile and eccentric. They also use the services of Alice (Helen Mirren) an undercover police detective who masquerades as the Queen, which they feel Fu’s men will try to kidnap, but when Alice gets kidnapped she falls-in-love with Fu and agrees to help him in his crimes.

This marked Peter Sellers last film and for all purposes it may well be the worst one he was in. He was just coming off high praise for his performance in the critically acclaimed Being There, but instead of using his career resurgence to find more highbrow fare he instead reverted back to his old ways of campy comedy. During the early 70’s, when he was in a lot of duds, his excuse was that he was doing it only for the money, but in this case I’m not sure of his reasoning. In any event it’s a train wreck from the first frame to the last.

Initially he was going to team-up with director Richard Quine as the two had worked together two years earlier in The Prisoner of Zenda, but they had a falling-out before production even began. Piers Haggard was then brought in to take Quine’s place, but he became horrified to learn that Sellers had taken it upon himself to rewrite the script turning it from a plot driven story into a cheap gag-a-minute stuff that didn’t seem to go anywhere. Haggard, despite Sellers objections, tried to turn the screenplay back to what it was, or at least in Haggard’s words, ‘give it something that resembled a beginning-middle-and-end’, but his attempts were futile and the whole thing becomes one, long misguided farce that goes nowhere and lacks any interesting elements.

A lot of the humor is lame and includes Nyland having falling-in-love with his lawn mower, which he takes with him everywhere even when he’s inside people’s homes. One segment has him ‘mowing’ the carpet of the inspector’s office, which is kind of funny, but then it cuts to a long shot where we see no damage to the carpet, so what’s the point of doing the gag if there’s no visual payoff? The bit where Nyland turns his country home into a flying machine had potential, but the abysmal special effects ruin it.

Helen Mirren almost saves it with her excellent performance and I enjoyed David Tomlinson in his last film, who shows more energy than the rest of the cast. Sellers though seems tired and worn-out and his acting lacks the required energy. In some ways he looks quite healthy here including showing a nice tan when he’s in the Nyland role, but this actually hurts the characterization as Nyland is supposed to be old and elderly, but despite his gray hair he really doesn’t look it. Peter’s two good moments comes when he’s in the Fu role and breathing heavily as he watches Helen strip, the bit at the end where he becomes a rock star is impressive and he seems to be singing in a completely different voice. If it was dubbed then it takes away from it, but if he was using his real voice then he deserves credit as it certainly didn’t sound like any of the other accents he had ever used in his career.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: August 8, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Piers Haggard (Peter Sellers uncredited)

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

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