In a perfect world, we would all go out on top. I can imagine no death greater than that of Harry Einstein, a journeyman dialect comedian better known as Parkyakarkus, and better known still as the father of Albert Brooks and “Super Dave” Osborne. On November 28, 1958, Einstein performed a killer set at a Friar’s Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz before falling into Milton Berle’s lap and dying of a heart attack. In an attempt to detract attention from the guy who had just killed, then died, emcee Art Linkletter asked crooner Tony Martin to sing a song. Martin unwisely chose the all too aptly named “There’s No Tomorrow.”
Ideally, every performer would go out like Einstein. Vincent Price would have ended his long, glorious career in a state of grace, playing Edward Scissorhands’ loving creator in Tim Burton’s 1990 fantasy classic, and Robert Mitchum would have gone out on a similarly iconic high note via his tiny but crucial role in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. But the world of cinema is, if anything, even crueler to the aged than the rest of society. So instead of respecting our elders for the knowledge and wisdom they’ve acquired from decades of putting on makeup and pretending to be other people, we stick them in the cinematic equivalent of old-folks’ homes, sorry seniorsploitation movies with titles like Grumpier Old Men. In this imperfect world, Price’s final non-voiceover gig was in a TV movie called The Heart Of Justice, and Mitchum lived long enough to end his career playing George Stevens in a James Dean biopic. (And not the one with James Franco that people like, but the one with Caspar Van Dien.)
Peter Sellers’ ferociously uneven career should have ended with his idiot saint of a gardener-turned-guru in Being There walking on water, having transcended this corrupt spiritual realm and evolved into a higher state of being. After all the bad movies Sellers made, and all the turmoil and unhappiness that characterized his personal and professional life, it would have been glorious for his career to end on a note of absolute peace and tranquility. Instead, Sellers ended it by donning an Elvis-style blue-and-white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, a goatee, and a pompadour, and singing the following lines from “Rock A Fu” as the title character in 1980’s The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu: “From San Francisco to Peking / Confucius say this cat’s the king / The cops they tell you I ain’t nice / Fu knows how to fry that rice.”
I would like to be able to say that the megawatt tackiness and jaw-dropping bad taste of that sequence is indicative of the film as a whole, but the “Rock A Fu” sequence has a vulgar, shameless energy that’s largely missing from the rest of the film. It’s egregiously awful, whereas the remainder of the film is overwhelmingly, unintentionally sad. And incredibly, incredibly dull. The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu offers the sad spectacle of a great artist (and deplorable human being) prostituting his tremendous gifts for one last mercenary paycheck. Listen closely, and you can hear the muted sighs of a dying man’s disappointment and regret in Sellers’ every scene.
His abundant personal sadness doesn’t sneak into his dual performance; it dominates it. I found Fu Manchu predictably unfunny, but unpredictably poignant. Early in the film, an international cadre of crime-solvers travels to the idyllic English cottage home of brilliant-but-scatterbrained investigator Dennis Nayland Smith (Sellers) to try to convince him to come out of retirement to track down his arch-nemesis, Fu Manchu (also Sellers). Sellers plays Smith as a man not even trying to hide his emotional damage. When he looks at his lawnmower and tells his concerned professional colleagues “This lawnmower is of more use to me than you could imagine. It’s become something of a friend,” the effect is more sad than funny. Sellers inhabits the pathos of the moment so convincingly that the weird running gag of having him take his lawnmower everywhere he goes, doting on it like a child, doesn’t register all that strongly as humor. Instead, he seems like a man so broken by his many misadventures that he’s forced to seek solace with an appliance.
The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu opens with Sellers in yellowface Fu Manchu makeup, leading his minions through a perfunctory rendition of “Happy Birthday” in honor of his 168th natal day. But matters turn grim when a hapless henchman uses Dr. Fu Manchu’s magical death-delaying elixir to put out a fire. Like Sellers, who was wrestling with heart problems throughout filming, and died a month before Fu Manchu slipped in and out of theaters, the titular doctor lingers on the precipice of death, doomed to die unless his minions are able to collect the rare, precious materials needed to manufacture more of his life-giving formula, usually through strained bits of comedy. For example, one of the doctor’s henchmen sneaks into a museum with a remote-control mechanical spider and attempts to use it to steal a diamond. The problem: The remote-control spider doesn’t work any better than, say, the piece-of-shit remote-control car you might buy for the kiddies at Walgreens for a last-minute Christmas present. Consequently, it spends most of its time onscreen doggedly bumping into walls, until the flunky finally gives up and drops the fake-spider into the case containing the diamond.
There’s the germ of a good, refreshingly quirky joke there, but as with everything else in the film, the execution isn’t just lacking; it’s fucking agonizing. Spottily scored, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu has a dirge-like pace, and all the energy, excitement, and integrity expected from a crass, ambiguously racist exploitation movie starring and partially directed by a dying man who wasn’t exactly sentient sunshine under the best of circumstances. The film cycled through three directors, entering preproduction with Robert Quine at the helm. He was replaced by British TV veteran Piers Haggard, who did not get on well with Sellers (see also: everyone, ever) and was eventually replaced for re-shoots (and quite possibly more) by Sellers himself, who was likely somewhat distracted by his imminent death.
The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu consequently doesn’t feel directed so much as assembled, then grudgingly completed because that seemed a slightly preferable alternative to shutting down production and calling it a day. No one seems to be steering the ship. A handful of quirky, engagingly weird gags die at the hands of listless execution, like a sequence where the motley crew of international crime fighters decide they need a female constable to impersonate the queen as a decoy, so they hold open auditions of lady constables performing the kinds of acts that would get laughed off The Gong Show. Helen Mirren wins, of course, with a performance of “Good Ship Lollipop.” Who is better suited to playing the Queen? But the tone is all off; instead of raucous and irreverent, this sequence of Mirren auditioning comes off as airless and grey.
Like a once-great outfielder now content to catch hits on the first bounce, The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu sluggishly goes through the motions as Mirren falls under the evil doctor’s sway and Sellers, in the detective role, gets closer and closer to tracking down his nemesis/doppelgänger. The film’s DVD box riffs on Sellers’ dual roles by promising “multiple laughs.” Yes, Fu Manchu has the balls to promise more than a single laugh. We’re talking two, even three laughs. Yet it fails to deliver even a single chuckle, despite the presence of sketch-comedy great Sid Caesar as FBI agent Giuseppe Capone (excessively zany names equal a sign of desperation in lowbrow comedies) and the great English character actor David Tomlinson, who also had the misfortune of ending an impressive career on this grim note. Twenty-five years earlier, the pairing of Your Show Of Shows capo Caesar and The Goon Show’s Sellers would have been a comedy geek’s dream. In 1980, it looked less a clash of the titans than a measure of how far the mighty had fallen. This wasn’t Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. It was Pacino and De Niro in Righteous Kill.
Before the closing production number sends the film out on an appropriately horrifying note, Fu Manchu has another moment of unexpected pathos in which the famously self-loathing Sellers acts out his internal war through his dueling doppelgängers. For reasons I’m not sure anyone involved in the production even understood, Sellers’ evil doctor ends the film by giving his ostensible nemesis Smith the secret to eternal youth as part of an image makeover.
This divides the detective, who seethes with real passion, “I hated you. Oh God, I hated you.” His enemy responds “Yes. But they were the good old days. We can recapture them. We can start over.” At the tail end of an explosive career, Sellers the chameleon slipped inside the skin of a dying man and his nemesis to utter one last plea for a clean slate. But by that point, it was too late for the character, the actor, and the man.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco