Yesterday, cinema at large had lost its truest patron saint. Christopher Lee was a gentleman, a tireless advocator of often ridiculed genre fare and a talented actor in a career that had spanned nearly seventy years. It is this second point that particularly stands out to me when remembering Lee’s legacy. He never looked down on many of the fantasy, science fiction and horror films that he had appeared in at all.
On the contrary, he embraced them and always provided intelligent and insightful points on their appeal, both personally as an actor and for the audience at large. In this regard, he transcended being an actor and became a professorial figure who had such an incalculable knowledge of the world.
It was clearly evident whether looking at the sheer respect and admiration that he had for J.R.R. Tolkien and the mythology that he created or George Lucas when working on Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
It is this larger point that ties into my favourite performance and film that Lee had worked on, which is the Wicker Man (1973). Cinefantastique was utterly correct in proclaiming it as “The Citizen Kane of horror movies” because of its seemingly simple but effective way in which it blends many disparities elements to terrify its audience. And like Kane, it is hard to categorise as a film. At times, it jumps between being a musical, mystery, thriller and horror, insofar as the last ten minutes of the picture.
Lee plays Lord Summerisle, the head of the remote Hebridean island that Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodard) goes to for the purpose of finding a missing girl. Although Lee has a small part in the picture, his presence looms large as the soul of the island, seemingly being unraveled as the film goes on. In his initial scene, Lee is a portrait of inherent pride and nobility as he expounds upon his family history to Sergent Howie, in a fascinating, lengthy scene.
However, it is the closing scenes that truly mark Lee’s tremendous talent and brave commitment to his craft and the film at large. Lee famously took a pay cut and worked on some of the film for free. It is with this behind the scene fact that makes his later scenes more potent. Whether it was Lee dressing in drag, complete with long black wig. Or his wild, mad scientist esque hair style that is contrasted with his matter of fact manner in which he tells Howie about his appointment with The Wicker Man.
Lee was incredible in being able to convince the audience of the sick and twisted logic of his people in the closing moments of that harrowing picture. That was perhaps his greatest ability as an actor; he was always able to bring an intelligent, cold and rational manner to whomever he was playing, even if they were delusional, contemptible or beyond redemption.
For this and many other reasons, Christopher Lee will be solely missed, and cinema is truly lesser without him.
RIP Christopher Lee