He was Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and Fu Manchu. He played Sherlock Holmes, Scaramanga and Count Dooku. But before all that, his characters had names like ‘Pirelli’s assistant’, ‘Russian agent’ and ‘German officer at the dentist’.
Sir Christopher Lee may have spent most of his storied acting career as a veritable institution, but it took him a long time to get to the point where anyone had even heard of him. He made more than 30 film appearances between his debut in Corridor of Mirrors (1948) and his breakout performance in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Although many of them were blink-and-you-miss-it brief, together they present a portrait of a legend taking slow but indelible shape.
You can see that shape forming as early as 1948’s Penny and the Pownall Case, a production of The Company of Youth, an acting school set up by the Rank Organisation in order to nurture young British acting talent (besides Lee, other notable graduates included Honor Blackman, Patrick McGoohan and Jean Simmons). Lee plays Jonathan Blair, a cartoonist ultimately revealed to be sending secret messages to the Nazis via the hairstyles of his unwitting model (Peggy Evans). While his performance is endearingly awkward – he was 26 at the time, but did not yet seem comfortable in his sky-scraping six-foot-four frame – there are whispers of Lee’s future monsters in his desperate, wild-eyed gaze once Jonathan’s crimes have been discovered.
His next batch of film roles would be largely minor and eclectic; a swordfight with Gregory Peck in Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951) – Lee’s fencing skills were repeatedly honed and exhibited during this period – would prove one of few highlights. There was no such showpiece for him in The Crimson Pirate (1952), but nevertheless, he cut quite a figure in his handful of scenes, adorned in striking velvet green naval regalia.
He was also rather dashing in Paul Temple Returns (1952) as Sir Felix Raybourne, a celebrated explorer who spends much of the movie as the prime suspect for a rash of murders plaguing London. As married amateur detectives Paul and Steve Temple (John Bentley and Patricia Dainton) pay a nighttime visit to his house, they discover it festooned with mysterious souvenirs from his travels: the walls are covered with hieroglyphs, there are statues behind secret curtains, and a snake that gets loose and almost puts an end to Steve. It turns out he’s not the murderer, but Felix’s unusual home could well have belonged to a character from Lee’s Hammer days.
With the exception of a memorable appearance as Georges Seurat in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) – which also featured close friend and frequent screen partner Peter Cushing – the following few years represented a cinematic drought for Lee.
That drought ended in a hugely prolific 1955. There were further swashbuckling adventures: he was bested by Gilbert Roland in That Lady, and Errol Flynn left him with a lifelong injury to his little finger after their duel in The Dark Avenger. Most important to his career trajectory however, was his headlining of two productions that, more than any other from this pre-fame period, foretold the emergence of the star he’d become.
Alias John Preston was Lee’s first lead role. His title character was a shadowy businessman who arrives in a town, quickly establishes himself a prominent citizen, and is later uncovered as a murderer repressing the memory of his crimes. John Preston was – like Jonathan Blair and Sir Felix – an enigmatic figure, elegant and ostensibly charming, with an intensity to his gaze that ignites suspicion in those around him. The film is no great lost classic. Lee’s performance is hampered by turgid dialogue and a mystifying attempt at an American accent. Still, in his first star turn, there’s a palpable growth in the power of his presence and the ease with which he holds the camera.
In Cross-Roads, a 20-minute short, he played Harry Cooper, a recently bereaved brother determined to get revenge on the man (Ferdy Mayne) whose callousness caused his sister’s death in a car crash. The late revelation that Harry also died in the car crash, and is enacting his revenge while literally being a dead man walking, marks the short as an early Lee induction into the world of the cinematic supernatural (his first supernatural role was in the 1954 short The Mirror and Markheim, adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story). Indeed, a prominent close-up of his eyes seems to mimic similar shots of Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), and eerily foreshadow Lee’s imminent assumption of that famously fanged mantle.
Cross-Roads appears to present Lee in his fully formed, commandingly creepy state, but he still had a last assorted host of supporting roles to assume before escaping from relative obscurity. If there’s a connective tissue between them, it was the heavy cloud of suspicion that seemed to follow him to whatever corner of the earth he travelled: in Port Afrique (1956), Beyond Mombasa (1956), Fortune Is a Woman (1957) and The Traitor (1957) he played characters suspected of murder, each ultimately proven innocent.
Finally, 34 features and nine years after his film debut, Lee landed The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which soon led to Dracula (1958) – the movie that truly propelled him to stardom. The rest, as we know, is history.
Watching from the other side of his monumental career, it seems astonishing that it took the British film industry so long to see what they had in Lee, and yet having such a protracted and ungainly path to renown proved formative for him. So much of his appeal as an actor was his cheerful willingness to lend his formidable gravitas to features that many of his peers would have deemed beneath them. That Lee – forged in the fire of a decade of journeyman struggling – saw nothing as beneath him, resulted in a filmography rarely matched for its length, breadth, and sheer enjoyability.
Although few of the films from his pre-fame years are worth watching on their own merit, if it hadn’t been for them, it’s quite possible he would never have become an actor we’d be commemorating on his 100th birthday.