Christopher Lee, Actor
Today is the eighty-seventh birthday of Christopher Lee. If you understand why this is worthy of commemoration, I don't have to go into a lot of biographical detail about Lee's life, or tell you how he and Peter Cushing (along with hundreds of other film artists at Hammer Films) breathed new life (or death) into the horror genre.
If you haven't already, read Fragments of Fear: An Illustrated History of British Horror Films by Andy Boot or the new edition of David Pirie's A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema. Martin Scorsese says Pirie's book is “The best study of British horror movies” and he may be right.
Barbara Shelley with Christopher Lee as the romantic Count
Christopher Lee wasn't just the best actor to play the most suggestive archetype in English literature and film, he also played victims, doctors, artists, philanderers. In his long and still active career he has employed the art Hamlet recommended to his players: “an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.”
For Christmas last year Retro Mama gave me one of the best DVDs I've ever received—the Hammer Films Icons of Horror Collection. Lee plays in three of the four movies, but he's best in the most restrained of his roles, as Doctor Pierre Gerard, in Scream of Fear (also known as Taste of Fear).
Scream of Fear was written by Hammer's best screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, and directed by Seth Holt, who directed episodes of Danger Man for Patrick McGoohan.
Susan Strasberg as Penny with Ronald Lewis as Bob
There are only four characters in Scream of Fear. Susan Strasberg is the blind young Penny Appleby, whose father has just died. Her stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) has a strange relationship with Doctor Gerard. The only person Penny trusts is Bob (Ronald Lewis), the chauffeur who picked her up from the Nice airport and brought her to Jane's home, which is rather isolated.
Of course, things aren't the way they seem.
The scream of fear
This 1961 film is perfect, in large part due to Sangster's script. Ann Todd's characterization is brilliant. (Todd is famous for her work with James Mason in 1945 in The Seventh Veil, where Todd plays a psychologically vulnerable young woman, much like Susan Strasberg's Penny in this film.)
Ann Todd is not afraid
But the subtlety in Christopher Lee's performance as much as anything is what makes the story stunning in the last scene.
An honest method, more handsome than fine. Shakespeare would have approved.