Cairo Road (1950)

Cairo Road

Aka El Tariq ela el Qâhirah. They’re alive – but they’re dead. New assistant narcotics agent Lieutenant Morad (Laurence Harvey) gets the jump  on a hashish deal following the murder of a local big shot. The team is led by a rather sceptical Colonel Youssef Bey (Eric Portman) the chief of the Anti-Narcotic Bureau who is forced to indulge the new guy’s enthusiasm. Morad has recently relocated from Paris with his wife Marie Maira Mauban) who has to adjust to the new city and worries her husband is putting himself on the line. The team tries to prevent shipments of drugs crossing the southern Egyptian border. They are constantly on alert as even camel caravans are suspect in smuggling narcotics. The agents are investigating the murder of a rich Arab businessman named Bashiri. Raiding a berthed ship in the harbour of Port Saïd leads them to the trail of heroin smugglers, including Rico Pavlis (Harold Lang) and Lombardi (Grégoire Aslan). One of the police agents, Anna Michelis (Camelia) is targeted by the smugglers on board the ship. Eventually Pavlis turns on his partner, killing Lombardi, but Youssef sets a trap for the Pavlis brothers… You’ve started something today. Surely not corruption in the veddy British Egyptian police force? No, Portman is just tacking his usual dyspeptic swerve through the drama while Harvey is the neophyte whose intentions are good but whose deeds wind up being somewhat misbegotten although he gets to prove his worth at the end. It’s quite something to see Portman bullying a camel-owner pleading for the animal he reared from calfhood. He’s a bad ‘un, though. Poor camel! A wonderful opportunity to see the way that region around Suez is perceived in the post-war era and Oswald Morris’ photography has real depth. There’s also a great international cast with a rare chance to see local film star Camelia (born Lilian Victor Cohen) at work, be it ever so briefly. This was the last film of the socialite turned actress whose life swirled with rumour and gossip (particularly regarding a possible relationship with King Farouk) and whose mysterious death in a TWA flight after this film was made remains the subject of speculation. Watch out for familiar names like John Gregson, Eric Pohlmann, Peter Jones and Walter Gotell has a bit part. An intriguing action movie with car and camel chases and a strong pro-police, anti-drugs message, with the bizarre waiver at the credits’ conclusion, ‘Distributed throughout the world. Except the Middle East.’ Directed by David Macdonald from a screenplay by the estimable Robert Westerby. I trust no one

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

The Spy Who Loved Me

Why don’t you lie down and let me look at it. When a British and a Soviet nuclear submarine disappear off the radar, MI6’s top agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is ordered to find out what has happened. He escapes an ambush by Soviet agents in Austria and goes to Egypt where he might acquire an advanced surveillance system. He meets Major Anya Amasova ie Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) whose lover he unwittingly killed in Austria. They are rivals to recover microfilm and are obliged to deal with hitman Jaws (Richard Kiel) as they travel across the country. Forced to work together by their respective bosses, they identify the person responsible for the thefts as the shipping tycoon and scientist Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) who is consumed with the idea of developing an underwater civilisation …. There is beauty. There is ugliness. And there is death! Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum’s screenplay may take the title from Ian Fleming’s tenth book in the series but little else. With a son et lumiére show at Giza, a shark tank in the villain’s lair, an MI6 office shared with the Russians inside a pyramid, an astonishing hit man in the form of giant Kiel with his mouth full of metal teeth, a fun relationship between Bond and his Russian opposite number, the wonder was it was made at all, beset as it was by rights issues and production troubles. This includes the replacing of Blofeld as arch nemesis – hence the inventing of Karl Stromberg, a nuke-obsessed Nemo tribute act. Getting a director was another issue, with Lewis Gilbert ultimately taking on the project, returning to the fray ten years after You Only Live Twice, whose plot it mimics somewhat. Gilbert’s influence on the form the film took was profound, notably on Moore’s characterisation in Wood’s draft of the screenplay, which was a return to the humour and tone of the original books, despite the legal issues preventing much of the actual story material being used (and you’ll be hard pressed to see Fleming in the credits). Apparently former Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz was also brought in for uncredited rewrites on the final draft. Like Connery before him and Craig more recently, Roger Moore’s third foray into MI6 territory would be the most successful with the public, keeping his end up for England. Then there’s the showstopping title sequence with the greatest ski jump ever filmed (performed by Richard Sylvester) with a Union Jack parachute payoff; plus a barnstorming theme song performed by Carly Simon, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager and composed by Marvin Hamlisch (and the first title song not to be named for the film) who does a minor pastiching of the Lawrence of Arabia theme, making this a home run among Bond freaks. Brit flick fans will get a kick out of seeing Caroline Munro (dubbed, as Stromberg’s sidekick Naomi), the director’s brother-in-law Sydney Tafler (as a Russian ship’s captain) and Hammer Horror vet Valerie Leon (as a hotel receptionist). And that’s without even mentioning the awesome production design by Ken Adam, the Lotus Esprit that turns into a submarine and a Jaws vs Jaws swimoff! A perfect blend of action, thrills, sex, great gadgets, sly wit, astonishing stunts, explosions and pithy banter. It’s lavish, but I call it Bond. James Bond. How does that grab you?

The Mummy (1999)

The Mummy 1999

Death is only the beginning. Egypt, between the wars. When an English archaeologist’s son Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) finds the Bracelet of Anubis, it locks onto his wrist. His linguist and librarian sister Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) understands its significance and decides they must dig at the ancient city of Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, but needs the help of an American treasure hunter Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) who’s serving in the French Foreign Legion and whom she rescues from hanging. They have competition from another team of explorers led by Dr Allen Chamberlain (Jonathan Hyde). They accidentally unleash a curse and awaken the mummy of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) an evil Egyptian high priest who was buried alive and needs the bracelet to defeat the Scorpion King and he begins to wreck havoc as he searches for the reincarnation of his long-lost love, the Pharaoh’s mistress Anck (Patricia Velasquez) … What have we done? Non-stop high jinks drive this comic horror remake from writer/director Stephen Sommers who has the advantage of a location shoot and extraordinary special effects to inject new life into this resurrection of the Universal  classic. Gorgeous klutz Weisz, her dim brother Hannah and handsome heroic hunk Fraser are an ideal trio, the locals are suitably treacherous and the villain is appropriately horrifying:  he’s juicy, to begin with and then gets his body back. Quite the bloodcurdling transformation. The tone of swashbuckling hokum is sustained throughout, with Fraser giving his best Errol Flynn impression. It looks stupendous courtesy of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography and Allan Cameron’s production design, all the more impressive when you consider the shoot was dogged by sand storms, dehydration and snakes, making it a triumph of endurance for all concerned. Lloyd Fonvielle & Kevin Jarre’s story is based on the original screenplay by John L. Balderston, Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. Daffy, dazzling fun enlivened by Jerry Goldsmith’s classical score. No harm can ever come from reading a book

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky

We’re not tourists. We’re travellers. In the late Forties American expats Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are trying to inject their tired marriage with adventure in North Africa. They are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) and fall in with some loathsome English expats, the Lyles, a mother (Jill Bennett) and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). When the city hems them in they journey through the desert. Port sleeps with a prostitute while George starts an affair with Kit and now there is a complicated love triangle unfurling in difficult circumstances because Port becomes ill … No matter what’s wrong between us there can never be anyone else. Bernardo Bertolucci’s romantic interpretation of Paul Bowles’ debut novel about alienation plugs into its erotic and dramatic intensity and wisely avoids any attempt at expressing its overwhelming interiority, with astonishing performances by the leads (particularly Winger), mesmerising cinematography of the sweeping desert landscapes by Vittorio Storaro and an utterly tragic dénouement to this unconventional marriage of fine minds and wild desires that feels utterly confrontational. It’s a staggeringly beautiful work that is as decorative as it is despairing, resonant, mystifying and depressing by turn. It’s a plot that promises melodrama but is more consequential in the symbolic realm yet it also boasts a harsh lesson – that white people will always be strangers in this strange land of seductive images and grasping locals with their own motives. The haunting score accompanying this epic tale of love and death is composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz. Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. Bowles hated it – and he’s in it. My only plan is I have no plan

Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman) the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia theatrical orig

No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Legend of the Lost (1957)

Legend of the Lost 1957.jpg

A desert is full of bones that were looking for treasure. Experienced desert guide Joe January (John Wayne) leaves a Timbuktu police cell and reluctantly joins a Saharan treasure hunting expedition led by Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi), a man obsessed with confirming his dead father’s claim to have found a lost city. Dita (Sophia Loren) a woman of dubious reputation, becomes infatuated with Paul. She invites herself along and turns up on a camel in the middle of a caravan of Touareg – it’s quite the entrance. During the  ordeal Joe and Dita become attracted to each other and tensions escalate. As they run out of water, they stumble upon the ancient city and a well. There, they find three human skeletons, a woman and two men:  Joe figures out that Paul’s father found his woman in the arms of his guide, killed them and then shot himself. The treasure is nowhere to be found. Paul’s faith in his father is shattered and he becomes drunk and maniacal. They find the treasure after Joe deciphers the clues left by Paul’s father in a Bible. They load the jewellery and artifacts and prepare to leave in the morning. Paul tries to seduce Dita but she rejects him and he gets into a fight with Joe. Paul sneaks off in the night taking all the animals, supplies, and treasure with him and leaving the others to die. Joe and Dita chase after him on foot and eventually catch up, finding him unconscious from dehydration. While Joe and Dita dig for desperately needed water, Paul regains consciousness and in his delirium thinks they are digging his grave. He buries the treasure and attacks Joe from behind with a knife. Dita is forced to shoot and kill Paul. When they spot a caravan, Joe and Dita are saved. I can cook! I can breathe! I can live! Loren declares happily to Wayne and it’s this kind of snappy dialogue that enlivens what should have been a rather more fun outing. Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell, with that cast it should have been a sizzler but they don’t entirely mesh. Henry Hathaway directed it for Wayne’s Batjac Productions and it was one of a half-dozen films they made together. It’s shot by Jack Cardiff and looks amazing – with wide shots of the Libyan desert anticipating the more luxuriant episodes of Lawrence of Arabia and the treasure hunt leading to the kind of thirsty delusion worthy of Greed. It’s wonderful to see the ruins of Leptis Magna, the 7th century Roman settlement. There’s a nice fight between the three points of this love triangle and guess who comes out on top? We must give thanks for Sophia Loren!

 

She (1965)

 

She poster.jpg

This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.