Last week, Sir Christopher Lee, the remarkably prolific actor best known for his run of films with Hammer Pictures and for playing Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, died at the age of 93. Lee starred in more than 200 films, and he worked right up until his death, having most recently appeared in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, part of Jackson’s gluttonous attempt at reeling in more Tolkien dollars. His acting career notwithstanding, Lee led a sensational life. Before he started in movies, he had a storied military career serving in Intelligence and the Special Forces during World War II. His transition into acting was marred by his unusual height: standing six-foot-five, he was told to remain seated during his first screen appearance, as a nightclub customer in 1948’s Corridor of Mirrors.
Luckily, he hit his stride playing monsters for Hammer, and from there made a transition into a long career playing patrician figures with outsider attributes, characters who were clever, charismatic, cultured, yet ultimately terrifying. Nobody was better at expressing wild animosity hidden beneath a veneer of elegance. He was also really funny: he put his stoic grandeur to great comedic use hosting SNL in 1978. “I would like you to meet loaf,” he intones, introducing musical guest Meat Loaf with some of the best deadpan you’re likely to hear. Lee’s gifts were extraordinary, and it seems impossible to distill such a major career down to a simple list, but I did my best to come up with his five best performances. You can see them below.
5. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (dir. Billy Wilder, 1970) One of Billy Wilder’s most underrated films, in which Lee makes a small but nevertheless seismic appearance as Mycroft Holmes. In one of the film’s more inspired touches, Wilder and Lee put their own spin on the Mycroft character, diverting from the canonical model of an indolent waif in favor of a more waspish figure clearly modeled after the actor’s screen persona.
4. The Curse of Frankenstein (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957) Of course, Lee was reinventing classic fictional characters long before Mycroft Holmes, not only in his iconic appearances as Dracula but also with this lively appearance as Frankenstein’s monster. Playing opposite fellow Hammer legend Peter Cushing, who did some character overhaul of his own playing the title scientist, Lee plays the famous monster as a kind of childlike victim, further exploring ideas originally presented by Boris Karloff.
3. I, Monster (dir. Stephen Weeks, 1971) Some of Lee’s best horror roles didn’t happen at Hammer, but at less successful rival studios Amicus and Tigon. This Amicus production is a rough, surprisingly brutal adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the main characters’ names are changed to Dr. Charles Marlowe and Mr. Edward Blake. Lee, playing both roles, is once again joined by Peter Cushing, while Ian McCulloch, he of Zombi 2 fame, makes an uncredited appearance.
2. Dracula, aka Horror of Dracula (dir. Terence Fisher, 1958) Admittedly an obvious choice, but this is the actor’s most famous role for a reason. More menacing than Max Shreck, more frightening than Bela Lugosi, Lee is the definitive Dracula. He imbues the gangly, horrific figure with an urbane, almost regal malevolence. The movie around him isn’t great—Lee played the character in nearly a dozen films, and of those I’ve seen, I like 1970’s Scars of Dracula the best—but this is iconic nonetheless.
1. The Wicker Man (1973) (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973) On multiple occasions, Lee called this cult classic the best film in which he ever appeared, and I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Happily enough, he also gives what’s easily his most effortless and enjoyable performance, playing an enigmatic cult leader and exhibiting all his strengths as an actor: cosmopolitan charisma, a mellifluous speech pattern, quiet intensity, and a unique fusion of warmth and exacting malevolence. If you need to be convinced of his genius, this ought to be your first stop.