It is definitely undeniable that director Kamal El-Sheikh was one of the big five whose names graced the silver screen as directors in the history of Egyptian cinema. This was not due to the number of his films, which exceeded 30, but because of the significant mark he left on the silver screen, whether as an editor or as a director. He had a very special way of directing his masterpieces that elevated him to singularity and uniqueness.
El-Sheikh was born in a village in Menoufia governorate on 5 February 1919. His father was grooming him to be judge, or at least a law graduate. However, fate made him enter a cinema house where he watched The King of Kings (1927, Cecil B. DeMille) when he was 13 years old. He was enchanted by the cinema, and at first loved acting. But coincidence put him behind the camera, not in front of it, when he joined Studio Misr in 1937 during Ahmed Salem’s top managerial post of the studio. This then took him to Niazi Mostafa, the famous director, head of the editing department made him train the young man.
Thus, El-Sheikh’s relationship with cinema started as a lover of editing. Perhaps he began from this point to believe in Alfred Hitchcock’s quote that cinema is the art of editing. It is the most suitable sentence to understand Kamal El-Sheikh’s cinema.
El-Sheikh used to assert that he learned the rules of cinema in that dark room where he spent 15 years editing 57 of the most important films of the time. In this respect, it is enough to mention that he was the editor of the films of Anwar Wagdi, Leila Mourad, Farid Al-Atrash, Umm Kulthum, Faten Hamama and others. Until that stage, he couldn’t find the style with which he would introduce himself to the audience. When he saw The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang), he realised that he had found his style. He was adamant to be different from the main stream cinema prevalent in the 1950s, which was soaring with the wings of comedy and singing as well as a felt presence of melodrama and weepies.
El-Sheikh chose for himself the suspense genre, not the detective genre as some believe, as a frame or form for the content which he aims to convey. Thus, he secured the first element for the film’s success; excitement. He believed that it is necessary for any director to have the ability to make the viewer glued to their seat until the closing credits or else he would have lost control, and the content he wanted to convey becomes ineffective.
When Studio Misr Cinema in Cairo was packed on 22 September 1952 for ‘The House No. 13’, Kamal El-Sheikh’s debut, the audience realised, even before watching the film, upon reading the publicity pamphlet, that they are encountering an unusual director. The director based the film’s plot on an incident published in the newspapers about a Scottish doctor who controlled one of his patients through hypnosis and made him commit crimes. He adapted these events into a film starring Emad Hamdi, Faten Hamama and Mahmoud El-Meligy. It was to mark the emergence of a new director who had his own style in cinematic excitement.
With his third film Life or Death (1954) – he directed Conspiracy before it – El-Sheikh’s characteristics became crystal clear. The film revolves around a simple yet profound idea: a sick father sends his daughter to buy a medicine for him, but the pharmacist makes a mistake during the drug formulation. He doesn’t discover this except after the girl has left. Thus, the pharmacist, the police and the radio station have a mission to obstruct the girl from reaching her father or warning the father against taking the medicine.
As for the daughter, she exerts the utmost effort to quickly reach her father by taking shortcuts through Cairo’s streets, overcoming all the obstacles in her way. The camera succeeds in conveying a tense tempo as the girl walks from one street to another and from one pitfall to another. Hence, it generated a reversed sympathy with the girl, i.e. the viewer wants that the girl to meet all kinds of hindrances possible so as not to reach her father with the poison medicine.
Thus, El-Sheikh’s cinema creates a particular kind of relationship between the viewer and the film’s characters, especially the villains. It is true that he always has good triumph by the end of every film, but he also generates a kind of sympathy for the evildoer, who does what he does due to external factors. This occurred with Yehia Chahine in The Stranger (1956), with Rushdy Abaza in An Angel and a Devil (1960), Shokry Sarhan in The Thief and the Dogs (1962), Mahmoud Morsi in The Last Night (1963) and Soad Hosni in The Well of Deprivation (1969). All these protagonists are deviant characters who may have committed murder sometimes, but they were inclined to deviation due to psychological, social or even romantic motives.
I remember El-Sheikh saying to me once in one of my interviews with him:
“It isn’t necessary for suspense to be a vessel of violence and blood, for human emotions should also have their place. Human emotions, rather, are my protagonist. I am unlike my teacher Hitchcock or horror filmmakers. I don’t feel myself absolutely obliged to insert violence in my films, even if it were for the sake of the style I chose early on in my life.”
Despite the few exceptions in El-Sheikh’s career where he abandoned his favourite style, such as in The Lady of the Palace (1958), For the Sake of My Love (1959) and Miramar (1969), and his repeated assertion that his style is just a form in which he forges the content he wants, the follower of his films would realise that the content was always subservient to form, and not vice versa. Since Art is always a choice, the late director’s choices suited his favourite style through which he achieved distinction among his peers.
Away from his outright suspense choices such as in The House No.13, Death Merchants (1957), I won’t confess (1961) and The Peacock (1982), there are the psychodrama films such as The Last Night and The Devil Makes Three (1978); political and patriotic films such as The Land of Peace (1957), Who Should We Shoot (1975), espionage films as in The Ascent to the Abyss (1978), and science fiction as in The Time Conqueror, which was his last.
Even romantic films with traditional plots, which crammed the silver screen, were characterised with a special nature with El-Sheikh. With fiery emotions there was always a crime, suspicions and chases, as in the films: Love and Tears (1955), My Only Love (1960) and The Traitor (1965). When El-Sheikh wanted to direct films adapted from novels, what did he choose? He chose Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë in The Stranger and The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz, The Man Who has lost his Shadow (1968) by Fathi Ghanem, Sunset and Sunrise (1970) by Gamal Hammad, Something in My Heart (1971) by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, and The Time Conqueror (1987) by Nihad Sherif. All these literary texts were compatible with El-Sheikh’s style.
After El-Sheikh made The Time Conqueror, he stopped directing, and even being awarded the State Appreciation Award in Arts in 1991 did not encourage him to return from retirement. He preferred to focus on work in the Egyptian Cinema Professions Syndicate, until sickness made him bed-ridden and he died in 2004.