Monday, July 11, 2016

The Charmer, aka Saher Al Nisa' (Egypt, 1958)

That Egypt suffered its own share of post-war anxieties is evidenced in part by the prevalence of film noir within the country’s cinematic output of the 50s and 60s. These films are remarkable not just for their high technical quality, but also for how easily they slot into the genre overall, deep shadows, rain slicked streets and all. As such, they’re worthy of being judged side-by-side with the canonical works of masters like Wilder, Mann and Tournier. Take, for example, The Charmer, which chooses as its subject one of noir’s most generative figures, the shady spiritualist.

From Nightmare Alley to The Amazing Mr. X, the fraudulent fakir has provided for some of noir’s bleakest visions of human nature, given he is a character who cynically exploits people at their most vulnerable. I think it’s a gimme that anyone who is driven to find a supernatural solution to their problems has got to be at a pretty catastrophic low point in their lives. Only a monster would play such a person for a sucker.

Hamza, the character played by Farid Chawki in The Charmer, is just such a monster, although director Fatin Abdel Wahab (Ebn Hamido, The Haunted House) cannot resist giving his exploits a somewhat light-hearted treatment during the film’s first half. The idea of the picaresque con man seems to have an intractable hold on the imaginations of commercial filmmakers, perhaps because they see in him/her a sort of fellow traveler. Wahab, for instance, piggybacks upon Hamza’s prolific use of spooky sideshow gimmicks to swath his moody crime thriller in a haunted atmosphere worthy of Val Lewton. It’s all good fun, but ultimately makes for a stirring transition once The Charmer takes an inexorable turn into darkness.

As the film begins, we find Hamza, a small time crook, on the eve of his release from prison. Another inmate, Kawakby (Tawfik El Deken), has become Hamza’s criminal mentor during his time inside and now asks him for a favor. He will point Hamza toward a treasure ripe for the taking if Hamza promises that, after stealing it, he will use half of the money to pay the tuition of Kawakby’s sister so that she won’t be expelled from school. Hamza agrees, but not necessarily out of a generousness of spirit. Instead, he launches into a diatribe about how much he hates women and about how this job somehow will provide a platform for his revenge against the whole damn lot. Hamza’s misogyny is due, he tells us, to a history of abuse, neglect, and disappointment from the women in his life—in particular his mother, sister, and step-mother. Not surprisingly, that information does nothing to make this exchange any less troubling.

Hamza’s marks are two people who live in the same tenement in Tablia Alley, a rough part of the city. They are Morsi Amin, a drug dealer (Reyad El Kasagby) and Adalat, a matchmaker (Wedad Hamdy). Hamza shows up in the guise of wild-haired holy man Sheikh Maksouf and, using information provided him by Kawakby, makes short work of dazzling the two with his mind reading abilities. A series of supernatural escapades follow, which end with Hamza fleeing town with both Amin and Adalat’s treasure in hand—and each of them blaming the other for the loss. As I mentioned before, most of this is played for laughs, with Hamza making preposterous animal noises (awoooo!) during his conjurations and quite hilariously portraying himself as an ascetic who cannot touch cash.

The Charmer then skips forward in time a bit, where we find a much more high-toned version of Hamza (smart suit, groovy shades) haunting an upscale resort with a female accomplice. His target this time is Rashid Abdel Wahab, a disabled businessman (Mohamed Elwan), and his devoted wife Aziza (Hind Rostom). Hamza introduces himself to Aziza as Sharraf Eddin, a “Spiritual Scientist”, and gradually convinces her that he alone is capable of curing her husband.

Given that he is already planning to rob them, the “treatment” that Hamza then subjects Rashid to can only be seen as needlessly humiliating and cruel—an insult added to injury. Declaring Rashid’s infirmity the result of demonic possession, he proceeds with an “exorcism” that mostly consists of a weird floor show involving dancers in devil costumes and really loud drums. At the same time, opining that it would be helpful to Rashid to be more aroused by his wife, he encourages Aziza to wear ever more revealing outfits. He also sets out to seduce her, with the result that the character played by Hind Rostom gradually goes from being a tremulous innocent to being exactly the kind of back-stabbing gold digger that we’re used to seeing her play. Eventually, she falls so deeply under Hamza’s spell that she says she is willing to kill Rashid to get him out of the way. This, of course, not before Hamza has encouraged her to steal a fortune in jewels from her husband’s safe—such loot being necessary to Hamza purchasing from America the “nuclear device” he needs to complete Rashid’s treatment.

Hamza’s ruse begins to unravel when Kawakby, released from prison, returns home to find that Hamza, contrary to their agreement, has contributed absolutely nothing toward his family’s wellbeing. Incensed, he sets out to track his former friend down—only to blackmail him into giving him a cut of the take when he finds him. Meanwhile, the District Attorney (Hassan Hamed), now hot on Hamza’s tail, has other plans for the two. No amount of legal intervention, however, can prevent poor Aziza from meeting a karmic fate which she perhaps does not so richly deserve.

The Charmer is a rewardingly tight little thriller filled with gorgeous kitsch. The film loses none of its narrative punch for you taking time out to bemusedly savor Sharraf Eddin’s modish office with its smoke billowing whatsit and prominent disco ball, or its talk of nuclear devices from America that cure the lame… or that batcrap crazy dance number, for that matter. More importantly, it is a superb showcase for Egyptian cinema’s legendary tough guy, Farid Chawki. As Chawki is usually presented as more than a bit of a roughneck, it could be said that playing a suave and calculating con man might be a little off his beat—yet he acquits himself terrifically, making Hamza as compelling as he is loathsome. Meanwhile, Hind Rostom, if not playing against type, definitely plays against her normal trajectory, playing a good girl whose heart gradually ices over, rather than the other way around.

Sadly, those sympathetic to Hamza’s brash misogyny might see Aziza’s turn toward treachery as a validation of it. That’s awful, but I like to think, perhaps naively, that those people don’t read 4DK. If they do, I would point out to them that one of the translations of this movie’s Arabic title is “Betrayer of Women”, which indicates to me that no endorsement of Hamza’s behavior is being made on the part of its makers. Yes, it might be nice if they had expressed that sentiment a little more emphatically, but I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that this is the best we can hope for from a film made in the Middle East—or America, even—during the 1950s. In other words, sure, you might not like this film, and with good reason--but, personally, it is simply too good for me to conceive of any reason that it should not be seen.

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