Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Secret of the Vanishing Cap (Egypt, 1959)

The Secret of the Vanishing Cap is Egyptian director Niazi Mostafa’s belated follow-up to his 1944 smash The Vanishing Cap. Mostafa was a prolific contributor to Arabic popular cinema during its golden age, and was also responsible for such previously 4DK-ed titles as Antar The Black Prince (starring his wife -- and, during his early days as an editor at Egypt’s Studio Misr, former assistant -- Kouka) as well as the irreverent farce Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan.

The original Vanishing Cap followed a shift by Mostafa from directing more socially conscious fare to delivering films with more assuredly crowd-pleasing content, and was a success due largely to its use of fanciful special effects. Until the Egyptian film industry started dipping its toe into the horror genre in the 1980s, fantasy elements such as those seen in The Vanishing Cap and its sequel were a rarity in Arabic film, and were most likely to be seen in a comedic context, such as in Afrita Hanem and Ismail Yassin’s numerous supernatural romps.

Of course, we know from experience that what most marriages of comedy and the supernatural beget is lots of googly-eyed mugging and “feets don’t fail me now” imbecility, both the products of stars and directors convinced that the surest path to laughter is through exaggerated displays of what is clinically known as the heebie jeebies. Sadly or otherwise -- depending on your taste for such antics -- Secret of the Vanishing Cap star Abdel Moneim Ibrahim is a master of such extravagant displays of the willies, and often resorts to a disconcertingly high-pitched shrieking and gibbering as a part of his process. For his part, Mostafa tries to boost the arguable hilarity of this shtick with antic pacing that keeps the film overall practically stumbling over itself in its race toward the end credits.

The problem is that, while Secret of the Vanishing Cap’s simple invisibility effects might have been novel to Arabic audiences of its time, for the rest of us they’re nothing we haven’t seen done many times before, and often better. Thus un-bedazzled, we’re left with what is really a pretty shrill and uninvolving example of Egyptian screen comedy, lacking a star capable of conveying the underlying smarts so typical of Ismail Yassin’s comedic portrayals, as well as the sharp satirical edge of Yassin’s films themselves.

Here Ibrahim plays Asfour, an incompetent newspaper reporter who is in love with his colleague Amal, who is in turn trapped in an arranged engagement to her cousin, a bluto-esque bully by the name of Amin. Asfour also has a little brother, Faseeh, who is portrayed by an actor billed as “Wonder Child Ahmed Farahat”, and whose status as a grotesque human Hummel figurine prefigures the celebrity of oddities like Emmanuel Lewis and Gary Coleman by a good couple of decades.

Faseeh occasionally assists Asfour’s eccentric father in his activities as an amateur alchemist, and it is in the process of doing same that he one night inadvertently conjures forth a genie. Unfortunately, Faseeh, because it’s funny, faints upon seeing the genie, and is thus unable to completely free him from his otherworldly bonds. As a result, the poor genie explodes into flame, and his ashes scatter about the laboratory -- in particular upon a cap that Amal has brought for Asfour as a gift from Mecca. This, it is eventually discovered, imbues the cap with the power of rendering its wearer invisible.

Luckily for the poorly secured bank vaults and women’s locker rooms of Cairo, Asfour, realizing the evil uses that such a cap could be put to, resolves to use it only for good. However, his definition of “good” proves to be a little on the narrow and self-serving side, as it consists mostly of him tormenting Amin and trying to derail his upcoming marriage to Amal. Amin, for his part, is quick to realize the cap’s potential himself, and after conning it out of Asfour’s possession, goes on an invisible crime spree involving theft, vandalism, and even murder.

Although Secret of the Vanishing Cap proved to me that I am indeed capable of disliking an old Egyptian comedy, despite what had previously seemed like a knee-jerk affection for same, I can’t call it a complete wash. Far from it, in fact. For buried within it is a hula hoop themed, nightclub musical number that’s possessed of an almost hypnotic awesomeness. Perhaps the Citizen Kane of hula hoop themed, nightclub musical numbers, even.

In it, a group of strapping, Jack LaLanne types work the hoop while extolling its virtues as a -- well, as a preserver of virtue. Hula hooping, they say, “cools down the fire of love” and, as such, is “the sport of real men”. (The also say “we invented it”. And by “we”, I’m not sure whether they mean men, the nation of Egypt, or the human race as a whole.)

And then, of course, a bunch of girls come along and ruin everything. As the hoops spin around their suggestively swiveling hips, these sirens opine that hula hooping in indeed all about the booty -- that it, in fact, “feeds the fire of love”! In response, the men can only linger ineffectually in the background, trying vainly to keep their hula hoops from falling limply toward the floor as the women distract their efforts with their undulations. Sadly, we never see how this debate is settled -- for, instance, was the Koran consulted? -- but the questions raised by it hang over the remainder of The Secret of the Vanishing Cap like a disconcertingly musky philosophical fog.

Now, whether you greet this evidence of the Middle East’s lack of immunity to staggeringly frivolous pop culture fads like the hula hoop with despair or celebration, you have to admit that you want to see this number. Luckily for you, there is a magical device that can make the remaining portions of the movie on either side of it disappear, and its only as distant as your remote.


kenjn60 said...

Oh I do! I'd love to see the Hula Hoop number! Thanks for the info you've been providing on Egyptian films.

Todd said...

You're welcome! Thanks for reading. Watching these old Egyptian films has become the closest thing I have to a guilty pleasure. Except for the fact that I don't feel guilty.