There has been no lockdown for the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic in Egypt, but the cultural scene was nonetheless hit hard. The Panorama of European Film hosted by Zawya Art House, for example, was scheduled to take place last month. But due to governmental measures to curb the spread of the virus, Zawya head filmmaker-producer Marianne Khoury announced that the Panorama would be postponed till further notice. Most cultural centres also closed, so did cinemas like Zamalek. Other movie theatres are holding only commercial screenings at a low capacity.
It was in this context that I recalled, again, the two classic movies that I regard as the most significant films in Egyptian cinema; Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958) and Kamal El Sheikh’s Al-Leila Al-Akhira (The Last Night, 1963). The latter was selected to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1964. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago, but I’ve come to regard it as one of the most underrated masterpieces ever made. Unlike Chahine’s work, which is widely celebrated and viewed, El Sheikh’s is often – unjustly – forgotten.
Life or Death
When I realised tomorrow marks El Sheikh’s birthday, it felt like the perfect time to organise my own little retrospective.
Born on 5 February 1919 in Menofiya, EL Sheikh joined the team of Studio Misr in 1937 and was trained by the late famous director Niazi Mustafa, the head of the editing department at the time.
It came as no surprise for me that he started his career as a film editor. His debut in filmmaking was Al-Manzil Rakam 13 (House Number 13, 1952), starring Faten Hamama and Emad Hamdi, with a screenplay co-written by El Sheikh and Ali Al-Zorkani.
It spelled the birth of an extraordinary filmmaker, with a work built around the real-life case of a Scottish doctor who used to hypnotise one of his patients to commit crimes through him. It not only established his credentials but created his trademark, with a slow-burn psychodramas and suspense earning him the title of the Hitchcock of Egyptian cinema. His virtuosity is especially evident in pacing, with an uncanny ability to keep the viewer hooked and breathless till the last moment.
Exploring El Sheikh’s world is an engrossing experience. Watching The Last Night one more time proved as stimulating as before. The psychodrama is set on 5 October 1942, as Hamama’s narration specifies. This is the date of Nadia Borhan’s wedding, but when Nadia wakes up that day she finds herself in her sister Fawzia’s bed. Her brother-in-law walks in and, calling her Fawzia, behaves as though she were his wife. Later she finds out it is her daughter’s wedding and the house will be filled with guests. But Nadia keeps her cool as she endeavours to understand what is going on.
The powerful premise is effectively pursued, with El Sheikh pacing things perfectly as the story is plotted. Alongside excellent performances from the two male leads, Mahmoud Morsi and Ahmed Mazhar, Hamama gives an exemplary performance – a true lesson in acting – with inner turmoil balanced against outer calm in astonishing ways.
Though he acknowledged Hitchcock’s influence, in a televised interview El Sheikh cited Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) as his major source of inspiration. “The most important and the most difficult stage in making a film is the screenplay,” he told the host. “I have to be convinced of the incidents in the script so that my style can come through in the film.”
Using this method, El Sheikh spent an average of two years to make a film like Al-Su’oud Ila Al-Hawya (Ascent to the Abyss, 1978) or Qahir Al-Zaman (Time Conqueror, 1987), the latter, a science fiction classic – and a rare thing indeed in Arab cinema – being his last film. Asked about working with actors, he gave a brilliant answer: “When we do the rehearsals, I ask the actors not to give their full performance. I want the full performance to come out in front of the camera. I don’t wish to drain the actor, I prefer to save their emotions and energy for the camera.”
El Sheikh often joined forces with the late screenwriter and director Rafaat El-Mihi and so they founded a production company together.
Their first production was El Sheikh’s Ala Maan Notlek Al-Rasas (Who Should We Shoot, 1975), another classic example of tightly controlled suspense in the service of a political message. After a powerful and suspenseful opening – in which the actor Mahmoud Yassin is seen asking to meet the chairman of one of the leading government owned real estate companies, only to shoot the man dead once he enters his office – the film quickly becomes a statement on corruption and decadence.
It tells the dual stories of the man who is shot (Gamil Rateb) and his killer, later hit by a car – as well as their wives, played by Soad Hosni and Fardous Abdel-Hamid, respectively – as they lie side by side in the same hospital.
House Number 13
In 1970, before the launch of their production company, El Sheikh and El-Mihi collaborated on the film Ghoroub wa Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise), based on Gamal Hammad’s novel with a screenplay by El-Mihi.
Set on 26 January 1952 in the wake of the Cairo Fire, the film follows Madiha (Soad Hosni), the daughter of Azmi Pasha the head of the secret police (brilliantly played by Mahmoud Al-Meligi), as she ends up alone at the flat of her husband Samir’s womanizer friend Essam (Roushdy Abaza), who is hit by a car and, not knowing she is his wife, asks Samir to go to the flat to let her know and let her out.This eventually results in Azmi Pasha having Samir (Salah Dhulfuqar) killed and Madiha marrying Essam, who as it turns out is a political dissident who uses the opportunity to end Azmi Pasha’s career.
Sunset and Sunrise
El Sheikh also directed films based on the novels Al-Leiss Wal Kelab (The Thief and the Dogs, 1962) and Miramar (1969) by Naguib Mahfouz, Al-Ragol Alladhi Faqad Dhelo (The Man Who has lost his Shadow, 1968) by Fathi Ghanem, and Shiee fi Sadry (Something in My Heart, 1971) by Ihsan Abdel-Quddous.
Another remarkable film is Al-Tawous (The Peacock, 1982), starring Nour El-Sherif, Laila Taher, Raghda and Salah Zulfakar, with a screenplay by Abdel-Hai Adeeb. Hamdi (Nour El-Sherif) is secretly in love with his sister-in-law Samiha (Raghda). Confronted by his wife Nadia (Laila Taher) on their anniversary, he ends up having a car accident that temporarily paralyses him. But when he is able to walk again Hamdi keeps it a secret so as to carry out his plan of murdering Nadia – only to be exposed thanks to Nadia’s uncle (Salah Zulfakar) and a peacock-shaped brooch.
Here as elsewhere in his work El Sheikh’s brand of suspense is subtle, and his unhurried pace makes it all the more effective. In Haya aw Mout (Life or Death, 1954), for example, a little girl picks up the medicine for her father and leaves before the pharmacist realises he made a fatal mistake in the preparation and attempts to find her to save the man’s life.
El Sheikh died in 2004 at the age of 84, having received the State Appreciation Award in Arts in 1991.
*1952: Al-Manzil Rakam 13 (House Number 13)
*1953: Mouamra (Conspiracy)
*1954: Haya aw Mout (Life or Death)
*1955: Hob wa Demou (Love and Tears)
*1956: Hob wa Eadam (Love and Execution)
*1956: Al-Gharib (The Stranger)
*1956: Ard Al-Ahlam (The Land of Dreams)
*1957: Togar Al-Mout (Death Merchants)
*1957: Al-Malak Al-Saghir (The Small Angel)
*1957: Ard Al-Salam (Land of Peace)
*1958: Sayedet Al-Qasr (Lady of the Palace)
*1959: Min Agl Hobi (For the Sake of My Love)
*1959: Min Agl Emraa (For the Sake of a Woman)
*1959: Qalb Yahtarek (A Burning Heart)
*1960: Malak wi Shitan (An Angel and a Devil)
*1960: Hobi Al-Wahid (My Only Love)
*1961: Lan Ataref (I Won’t Confess)
*1962: Al-Leiss Wal Kelab (The Thief and the Dogs)
*1963: Al-Leila Al-Akhira (The Last Night)
*1963: Al-Shitan Al-Saghir (The Little Devil)
*1965: Al-Khaaena (The Unfaithful)
*1966: 3 Prisoners
*1967: Al-Mokhareboun (Saboteurs)
*1968: Al-Ragol Alladhi Faqad Dhelo (The Man Who has lost his Shadow)
*1968: Aboul Houl Al-Zogagi (The Glass Sphinx)
*1969: Beir Al-Herman (The Well of Deprivation)
*1970: Ghoroub wa Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise)
*1971: Shiee fi Sadry (Something in My Heart)
*1974: Al-Hareb (The Fugitive)
*1975: Ala Maan Notlek Al-Rasas (Who Should We Shoot)
*1978: Wa Thalethoum Al-Shitan (The Devil Makes Three)
*1978: Al-Soud Ela Al-Hawya (The Ascent to the Abyss)
*1982: Al-Tawous (The Peacock)
*1987: Qahir Al-Zaman (The Time Conqueror)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly