KINO LORBER Blu-ray Release of a Pre-Code double bill:
THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU & THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU
As well as a double commentary by Tim Lucas
Blu-ray Review by Frumkoid
Interestingly enough, while I’m no fan of Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan films, I think he makes a
dynamite Fu Manchu. And whereas Boris Karloff’s MGM sequel is delicious pre-camp, Oland’s
Fu is sly fun, with a smart, camp-less script that holds up for an immediate second viewing.
Not the first installment, however! Just the second. This was early sound, and Director Roland
V. Lee (THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) wasn’t on top of his game with the ’29 film, THE
MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU. He and everyone else on the production were still busy
encountering problems with the new format. A year later, however, with the same cast and
screenwriters, he is on top of things which, beyond its plentiful entertainment value, makes the two films an insightful study of the establishing years of talk cinema.
Midway through the 73-minute second feature, there comes a long, long (emphasis on ‘long’)
stationary sequence featuring Nayland Smith and Doc Fu engaging in verbal combat, seemingly with Fu holding the upper hand while Smith plays it cool in the face of a brain-draining fate. The first film has intimations of such a confrontation, but nothing to equal it. Tim Lucas, touring with us on the commentary track, is the most erudite of all the commentarians. His presentations are unerringly researched and his thoughtful insights are beautifully written. He has this to say about the wildly static center piece:
“The next five minutes or so are going to revert to a more locked-down theatrical presentation, as Fu and Nayland Smith sit down together and politely duel one another with words and deadly niceties. Even in contemporary films there is great satisfaction in such scenes because they tend to show actors at the top of their game, each sharpening their skills against the other.”
The bulk of this scene runs from 38:10 to 44:10, actually six minutes, with the two adversaries
seated facing one another as if they were playing chess, cutting only from the key two-shot to
occasional mediums of each actor. These closer cuts allow the framed-out actor to shift his
physicality, or introduce some sort of prop. At one point, for example, we cut from a close shot
of Smith to a close shot of Fu who has produced a small gong-stick which he appears to be
smelling while savoring the progress of the confrontation.
There is a break after this point, when the script allows both actors to stand and move about
while the narrative shifts slightly, enough possibly to swing in Smith’s direction. Fu is needed
briefly in the next room at this point, which is when Smith makes his move.
There follows a kind of third act to this scene, the contents of which I shouldn’t reveal, only to
re-iterate that this extended sit-down drama is so outrageously amusing and charming…and
never for a moment boring…that it has the effect of being rather visceral. The scene has been
static enough to make one wonder if a microphone was hidden somewhere nearby in a vase of flowers, which is how actors capitulated to sound a mere few years earlier. The much shorter third act to the sequence briefly allows physicality to take precedence over dialogue.
Regarding Tim Lucas’ explanation that contemporary films also use the device of the long, static dialogue take for dramatic means, one modern example that jumps to mind is the several minute-long confrontation between John Huston as the quietly evil Noah Cross and Jack Nicholson as the confident detective J.J. Gittes in CHINATOWN (and I assume there is no
narrative connection with FU despite the title, but I could be wrong).
Most of this review involves the above-described scene, something that I realize is an
aberration in itself, but with good reason. I frankly have never seen anything quite like it.
Ordinarily it would be painfully obvious that early sound film restrictions are being utilized here, but no, it is quite the opposite. The writers, the director, the actors, even the art department, appear to be milking the limitations of the medium for all they’re worth rather than having to suffer through them, and it becomes more and more apparent that not only is everyone in on the joke, but that they are inviting us in on it as well.
And I just loved it. It reminded me of Lon Chaney’s interminable laughing fit in the third act of
THE UNKNOWN. As with the playing out of that horrifyingly extended thespian display, Lee and Oland and O.P. Heggie play this sequence absolutely straight as it stretches further and further out, altering the psychic content of the scene into something rather miraculous, and something that only could have been accomplished here, within these few pre-code years, on the far cusp of the ‘talkies.’ Check it out. Buy it. Keep it. You’ll be revisiting it for sure.
All of which is not to say that the film is flawless. There are some stupid comedy interludes
typical of the period, and if I had a magic editing implement I’d gauge these scenes out. As an
alternative there’s this little button on the control that can advance you past these pathetic
And a final comment: The Blu-ray poster art is great.