He was an urbane villain. Dracula, Lord Summerisle, Count Dooku, Saruman all have that in common, the sense that each of these figures is a creature of refinement, able to converse at length on subjects ranging from history to philosophy, as well as being a font of wry anecdotes, not to mention, a gourmand. In each case, the impression is aided by that voice, which seems somehow to come up from underneath the words, to catch them and to hold them for our consideration. The face helps, too, with its pleasant openness. (What a shame he never played Hannibal Lecter!)
That face, though, the expression he wears on it: there are moments when he lets you see the arrangement of his features slip, when a minor irritation allows a glimpse of something else, at once animal, and vital, and cruel. Eventually, that secret self, which is not the opposite of the public self so much as its complement, will be given free reign, and then, whoever has set themselves against it had best watch themselves. Because there’s a convincing physicality to the rest of him, as if his tall, rangy form is eminently capable of fulfilling whatever menace his expression promises. (And from what little we know of his record in the Second World War, this part of his performance was rooted in experience.)
Speaking about his movies, Christopher Lee compared them to fairy tales. In his best films, as is so often the case in fairy tales, we find that what appears respectable, civilized, may also be the source of terrible violence. The worst wolves, Angela Carter wrote, are hairy on the inside. It was Christopher Lee’s great and lasting achievement as an actor to allow us, in performance after performance, to see the beast in all his finery.
You can read more thoughts on the life and career of Christopher Lee in the Team Unwinnable obituary.
John Langan has written two collections of short stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and a novel, House of Windows. You can follow him on Twitter @MrGaunt.