In Memoriam: Christopher Lee’s Five Best Movie Roles

Christopher Lee

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This has been a pretty bad stretch for aging, big-screen entertainers.  We lost Robin Williams only ten months ago.  A scant four months ago saw Leonard Nimoy‘s passing.  Now, at the age of 93, Christopher Lee, too, has left us.

Lee was an exceptional actor known for his surprisingly badass life and the unprecedented number of film and television appearances that he made – o0ver 250 in all – over a career that spanned seven decades.  His dominating presence and deeply imposing voice made him a singularly memorable actor that added considerable weight to any project that he was involved with.  And, to honor his passing, I thought that it would be beneficial to look back on some of his best and most memorable roles  throughout the years.

5 – Kharis the mummy in The Mummy – I’ll say it again.  Christopher Lee had the most instantly memorable screen presence of any actor in his lifetime.  In part due to his indominable stature, there was never any mistaking him when he lumbered into frame, not even as a rotting, reanimated corpse.

The role of a nearly mindless zombie is often relegated to extras: thankless, physical work without any of the verbal money-shots that actors – especially up-and-coming actors – lust after.  Lee, however, never shied away from it in his work.  He was known for doing as many of his own stunts as he could physically manage and actually holds the record for participating in the most on-screen sword fights of any actor.

It’s part of what gave him such an authentic screen presence.  You knew that what you were seeing was, at least in some small part, real.  He could wordlessly grip you with a grin and a glare and leave you reeling for the rest of the film.

Christopher Lee Francisco Scaramanga James Bond the Man with the Golden Gun

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4  – Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun – If not for his increasingly busy schedule following his success with Hammer Films in the late 50s, Lee’s debut in the Bond franchise would have come in 1962.  He was Ian Fleming’s first choice for the titular part of Dr. No (helped in no small part by being his step-cousin and frequent golfing partner), but studio executives weren’t so certain about a man known for playing Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster.

Although considered for several other Bond villains, it wasn’t until The Man with the Golden Gun that his schedule and studio heads finally relented enough to allow him to take up the role.  While The Man with the Golden Gun was far from a bad Bond film, it was far from one of the better ones.  Lee’s inborn menace and dark sophistication was lost on a character best remembered for having three nipples and scrambling to survive the assassination attempts of a midget.

Still, when all is said and done, Scaramanga was as memorable of a villain as he was – and the movie as tolerable as it continues to be – purely because of Lee’s presence within it.  He was a born villain, and that rarely on better display than when squaring off with one of the twentieth century’s greatest heroes.

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3 – Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula – When you have such a long and storied career as Cchristopher Lee, you’re bound to repeat yourself a few times.  There are, after all, only so many movies out there.  And when you start your career off by playing the most iconic horror monsters of all time, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll be offered a second chance at playing any one of them.

Dracula, it seems, was a popular choice for Lee, having played the role no less than ten times by my count.  And it makes perfect sense, when you stop to think about it.  Count Dracula is the perfect marriage of Lee’s talents as an actor.  He’s a dapper, intelligent, thoroughly unsettling creature whose dark charm is greatly augmented by Lee’s booming voice and natural charisma.  His monstrous nature is further brought out by Lee’s dominating presence within any shot he’s in.  Combine that with his predaliction for the horrific and his repeated practice at this particular role, and he’s the natural first choice for anybody with a mind for terror.

Horror of Dracula stands out against Lee’s other takes at its titular character.  This is the movie that basically launched his career, and his rough edges added an extra layer of menace to the otherwise sophisticated count.  While it is perhaps not his most nuanced take on the character, it is easily his most memorable.

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2 – Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man – While the film’s otherwise pristine reputation has been somewhat diminished in recent years because of that God-awful Nicholas Cage remake, horror fans could scarcely find a better film in the genre than the original Wicker Man.  It is an exquisite film, owed in no small part to Lee’s iconic presence.

The brilliance of the film is that it understands how horror – the true, marrow-eating terror that claws at you from the midnight shadows dancing just beyond the light – isn’t flashy.  It isn’t dolled up like some long legged coed on Halloween.  It’s quite.  It’s subtle.  It sneak up behind you, hidden behind bright eyes and a well-meaning smile.

And that’s exactly how Lee played the part of Lord Summerisle.  He didn’t get any scene-stealing moments until he monologs at the very end of the film, but every scene is filled with an unsettling charm that builds up to the dark reality of his character.  He’s as memorable as he is in this film because he was so restrained throughout its run time, so that when he does cut loose in his traditionally villainous fashion, it brilliantly juxtaposes against everything that we thought we knew about Lord Summerisle, and yet never for once second seems out of place

Christopher Lee The Lord of the Rings White Wizard Saruman

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1) Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings – When it comes to discussions of Christopher Lee, it’s always the same role that first springs to mind.  His turn as Saruman the White – the traitorous head of Gandalf’s order and Sauron’s right-hand man – is the Christopher Lee-est of his entire filmography.

The character is the culmination of his entire acting career.  It mixes his striking presence with his dark, brooding voice, then mixes in some fairly extensive stuntwork to create the perfect illusion of meance.  He doesn’t simply portray Saruman; he becomes him.  That’s not bad for a man who was nearly 80 by the time that the first film hit theaters in 2001.

What’s clear now is that Christopher Lee will be missed.  His expansive legacy left an incredible mark on every person who’s seen even a single one of his movies.  Like Williams and Nimoy and countless other actors who have gone before him, it’s time to honor his legacy through his lifetime of work.

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