Sunday, April 8, 2012

Essabet El Nissae (Lebanon/Turkey, 1968)

I freely admit to jumping on the Frank Agrama bandwagon, spurred on by posts from such reliable sources as the Mondo Macabro blog and loveable madman Jack J's En Lejemorder Ser Tilbage -- as well as the astonishingly well researched comments of one Doctor Kiss over at the Classic Horror Film Board. Hey, as far as being the subject of cult appreciation, Agrama is, from what I've seen, far more deserving than -- oh, I don't know -- Sompote Sands, say. And I'm certainly not above trying to squeeze my way in on the ground floor. All the better to hypocritically scoff at perceived Agrama newbies a few months down the line.

To the extent that he is known in the West, Agrama is probably most recognized for his role as CEO of Harmony Gold, the company that brought Robotech to American television and with it, the seeds of every anime body pillow subsequently sold to white wannabe otaku. (Though he might also ring a bell as being a co-defendant, alongside Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in the massive Mediaset tax fraud case brought by Italian officials a couple years back.) Fans of Z grade horror films might also know him as director of 1981's woeful Dawn of the Mummy.

But before distinguishing himself in those ways, the Egyptian born Agrama, under his given name of Farouk Agrama, directed a series of lively pop films in his native Middle East. These were typically International co-productions that combined stars from all of the participating regions, which were then released in alternate edits that highlighted whichever actors were the biggest draw in the targeted country. The result is the sort of "when worlds collide" casting that, in 1968's Essabet El Nissae, sees Turkish action god Cuneyt Arkin trading dialogue with beloved Egyptian comic Ismail Yasin and Lebanese singer and actress Sabah. Even Egyptian action film legend Farid Chawki shows up for a brief, fourth wall busting cameo (literally: "Hey, it's Farid Chawki!") in order that publicists for the Arab language version might tout his presence.

Agrama's approach to  Essabet El Nissae exhibits a good-natured, horny aimlessness that rivals that of the Mexican popular cinema of its day. He combines in the film tropes from both Eurospy movies and haunted house comedies, but still finds plenty of time for musical numbers and abundant cheesecake. In this busy context, Cuneyt Arkin gets to do a lot less of the trademark acrobatic brawling than you'd typically see in one of his purely Turkish productions, and instead spends a lot of his time simply fulfilling his role as just one of many pieces of eye candy, either by simply sitting and looking suave and unflappable or by laying back against a scenic background as Sabah serenades him with one of her many songs.

Essabet El Nissae centers around that most beloved of 60s spy spoof totems, the highly trained army of amazonian hit women (Las Sicodelicas, Deadler Than the Male), who, of course, also double as nightclub entertainers (Black Tight Killers). Arkin plays a reporter, saddled with both a cowardly, bespectacled photographer for a comic relief sidekick and a harried boss in the form Ismail Yassin -- here in one of his last screen appearances -- who stumbles onto the trail of the female gang while on assignment in Beirut. The ladies then employ their feminine wiles to throw him off the scent, as it were, which leads to a long series of burlesque interludes. Somewhere in all of this he meets and begins to woo Sabah, who appears to be a member of the gang.

Eventually Cuneyt follows a lead to an abandoned old house that we have seen, by way of a flashback, was the site of a brutal murder. This opens the way for some goofy, spook show slapstick reminiscent of Ismail Yasin's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein remake, Haram Alek, albeit without the participation of Yasin. This house will prove to have relevance to the overall plot later on, as perhaps will the ghost of the murdered woman, although on that last point I can't be entirely sure. Seriously, once all plot development has halted for the third time for someone to launch into an extra-narrative belly dancing routine, you will realize that none of these details matter very much. There is even an extended comic sequence in which Arkin and his sidekick don drag to sneak their way into a lady's spa. Oh, and I should also mention that the cut of the Arabic version I watched had edited into it a sequence from a different, French subtitled version that featured a woman lip synching an English language beat pop song to an audience of fright-masked dancers as Arkin engaged in a comedic brawl. So there's that.

Both the Arabic and Turkish versions of Essabet El Nissae are available in full on YouTube. (And, true to our expectations, the Turkish version is exponentially more distressed and crappy looking than the other.) While I wouldn't call it a must see, I will say that, if you can approach it with the kind of patience and goodwill that its lazily amiable approach to entertainment requires, you might, as I did, get a kick out of it. Arkin, so often comically intense, makes for an especially charming and affable presence, and as such nicely embodies the spirit of the endeavor as a whole. This is a film that seems to say that, if you don't have time to watch a few fights, chuckle at some dumb gags, listen to some songs, and look at some cool and attractive people and locations being cool and attractive, that's fine; but if you do, why not? Consider yourself Agrama'd.


memsaab said...

He's the George Clooney of Turkey/Egypt. Dreamier than Barry Prima even.

Jared said...

Nice review. I posted the Agrama story at the MM blog. Thanks for helping to get the word out about these rare and fascinating films. I haven't seen this one yet, but I have seen three other Agrama films: SOUR GRAPES, THAT MAN FROM TEHRAN (the longer Lebanese version) and ADVENTURES OF FILFILA. The last one is not very good but the first two are great examples of Agrama's talent for making pop cinema with a real zing to it. GRAPES is especially good, a kind of brooding and sensuous noir melodrama. Certainly worth tracking down.

Todd said...

Memsaab: And like Barry Prima, I'm afraid that his Turkish films are probably a bit too bloody for your tastes. This one, however, would probably make for a good intro. Then again, I seem to recall that Beth watched Arkin's legendary Turkish Star Wars and survived to tell the tale.

Jared: Thanks! After Essabet El Nissae, I'm definitely looking forward to more Agrama, and will try to track those other titles down. I especially enjoyed this film for its particular and unlikely seeming combination of stars. However, if there isn't another film in which Arkin and Farid Chawki share more equal billing, it's a wasted opportunity.

Robert Kiss said...

Nice to see some other people finally turning up at the Agrama party! ;)

WOMEN GANG/ISABAT UN-NISA fits pretty squarely within the genre of 1960s 'everything-but-the-kitchen-sink' comedies (kumidiyat khalta, with khalta literally being a mixture or a mélange) that took their inspiration from American beach party movies, combining a loosely structured narrative with song-and-dance numbers, plenty of bikini-clad gals and shirtless guys, cameos by old-time stars, and an assortment of comedy and/or fantasy subplots. The genre had been initiated by Muhammad Salman's YOUTH AND BEAUTY/AS-SIBA WAL-JAMAL (1965) and, despite its derivative nature and international casts, constituted a distinct Lebanese movie product that didn't have an exact counterpart in Egyptian, Syrian or Turkish cinema of the period.

Other kumidiyat khalta released during the same year as Agrama's WOMEN GANG included Muhammad Salman's WELCOME TO LOVE/AHLAN BIL-HUBB and Albert Najib's HOTEL OF DREAMS/FUNDUQ UL-AHLAM; both likewise featured Sabah, who had also appeared in the first movie of the type, YOUTH AND BEAUTY, and who might justly be termed 'the Lebanese Nancy Sinatra' in this context.

There are many tens of Middle Eastern psychotronic movies that have too long gone under the radar of English-language research into 'world weird cinema'. Maybe this situation is finally about to change...

Todd said...

Thanks for sharing that information, Robert! There indeed seems to be a rich vein of Middle Eastern pop cinema to be mined. I hope along with you that we continue to see more of both the films themselves and information about them come to the surface.

Meanwhile... said...

Egyptian actor Youssef Wehbi appears in this movie. The version shown here in the Middle East has him appearing miraculously in a nightclub to make his pronouncement and then he wanders off never to be seen again. He gets French subtitles but the rest of the film doesn't. Its all so OTT that its down the other side!

Todd said...

Thanks, Meanwhile. You've reminded me that I need to get back to the business of tracking some more of these Agrama films down.