Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Ismail Yassin's Phantom (Egypt, 1954)

After subjecting myself to the indefinable creepiness of Super Batman & Mazinger V, I thought that Ismail Yassin’s Phantom might be a nice film to cozy up to, and I was right. As I’ve said before, I don’t subscribe to the whole notion of the “guilty pleasure”. If you want to curate your personal tastes like some kind of trophy case, with an eye toward public approval, that’s your business. But, to my mind, there is so much in this life that is neither entertaining nor titillating that I can’t feel bad about seeking out that kind of stimulus in my chosen diversions. (Also, I can buy, like, ten old Indian stunt movies from Induna for what one Criterion disc would cost, so duh.)

Anyway, the point that I am laboriously working my way toward is that, if I did have a guilty pleasure, it would be a film like Ismail Yassin’s Phantom. That’s because, unlike most of the other artifacts of world pop cinema covered on this site, it neither opens a window onto another culture or holds a funhouse mirror up to my own, so there’s no justifying it with any highfalutin language suggesting some kind of feigned interest in cultural anthropology or whatever. In fact, if you were to turn the sound down on Ismail Yassin’s Phantom, I think you’d have a hard time distinguishing it from a low budget studio programmer made in Hollywood during the 1940s.

Of course, once you turned the sound up again you would notice the Arabic scales and rhythms in the musical numbers that the film’s performers are constantly tap dancing and jitterbugging to -- that is, when the number isn’t a boogie woogie or a rumba -- or the trilling ululation that Ismail Yassin’s mother lets out in celebration of his wedding announcement, or the occasional, exasperated exclamations of “Allah!” So there are cultural markers to be found. But, nonetheless, a movie like Ismail Yassin’s Phantom gives you the distinct impression that, as the Arab world’s hub of popular filmmaking, the Egyptian film industry. in the “golden age” preceding its nationalization, placed a much higher premium on pure entertainment than on the assertion of National or cultural identity. And the model that was drawn upon for that entertainment lay somewhere significantly West of Cairo.

So, yes, Ismail Yassin’s Phantom is indeed an unadulterated and unapologetic piece of fluff, and an endearing and engaging one at that. The story centers around a Cairo nightclub where the star attraction is a dancer named Kitty, played by the Greek dancer and actress of the same name. While, as the title makes clear, Phantom is a vehicle for beloved Egyptian screen comic Ismail Yassin (last seen here at 4DK in his space travelling romp A Trip To The Moon) it is Kitty who really makes the film. During her dance numbers, she’s a classic Hollywood vamp in the mold of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, but offstage exhibits a gift for feisty, screwball comedy. Either way, she’s both an infectious presence and a perfect foil for Yassin’s put-upon sad-sack routine, lighting up the screen whenever she show ups. And this is especially true once the film takes a decidedly supernatural turn in its second act.

You see, it turns out that this nightclub’s manager has driven the place to the brink of financial ruin with his gambling habit, and so his right-hand crony, Hamido (Faried Shawki) convinces him that his only hope is to murder Kitty in order to cash in the life insurance policy the club has taken out on her. In short order, Hamido tries to blow up Kitty’s car as she’s driving to a dancing engagement at a wedding in an outlying village, only to have the bomb he’s set explode underneath the car of the hapless Ismail, who just happens to be driving behind her at the time. Taking pity on him, Kitty takes the now vehicle-less Ismail with her to the wedding, where he sings a song insulting the groom and his family and promptly gets the both of them thrown out. Nonetheless impressed with Ismail’s singular talents, Kitty gets him a job at the club, where the two of them end up becoming a popular stage duo.

Once he’s been made part of the act, Ismail continues to unwittingly foil Hamido’s various schemes to murder Kitty. At one point, Hamido substitutes a real gun for the prop gun that Ismail is to use in a skit in which he’s playing Kitty’s cuckolded husband, but the plan fizzles when Ismail decides at the last minute that the husband forgiving his wife would make for a better ending than him shooting her as scripted. Finally, a frustrated Hamido opts for taking the direct route and stabs Kitty in her sleep after stealing into her apartment. Kitty proves to be a truly indomitable spirit, however, and almost immediately rises in spectral form, after which she very matter-of-factly goes about the business of seeking out the startled Ismail, demanding that he find her killer and see that justice is served.

Though Ismail, albeit amid much protestation and audible self-pity, essentially agrees to help Kitty, the who-done-it aspect of Phantom’s plot quickly takes a backseat to other developments. For it’s not long before Kitty, in the course of haunting the put upon Ismail wherever he goes, decides that she’s fallen in love with him. Furthermore, Kitty, who seems to have embraced her spookified state with childlike enthusiasm, doesn’t appear to get why Ismail doesn’t immediately warm to her suggestion that he let her strangle him so that he can join her on the other side.

Complications reach full boil when Ismail’s fiancé arrives in town, bickering parents in tow, for their pending nuptials. (Said fiancé, by the way, is portrayed as a grotesque overgrown child who carries a doll around with her everywhere, making for one of the few instances where Phantom’s comedy just got a little too broad -- not to mention weird -- for yours truly to bear.) Unfortunately for all, while Kitty can be seen only by Ismail, she is still perfectly capable of interacting with the physical world, and so is well equipped to go all Poltergeist on her love object, his bride-to-be, and his in-laws in order to squelch the wedding plans.

As I indicated before, it’s Kitty’s presence that really carried this film for me, as Ismail Yassin’s performance is largely confined to a lot of screaming and anxious sputtering. That said, I’ve got to say that I found the insult songs he performs here pretty hilarious. My favorite is a lament, sung after Kitty has succeeded in scuttling his wedding, in which he ticks off all the aspects of her devilry with the defeated weariness of Job. (Favorite line: “Your eyes are like antiseptic.”) It also helps that, as he wails his way through this catalog of iniquity, the ghostly Kitty can be seen dancing delightedly on the wall above him.

In other respects, the film is, like I said, similar to an old Hollywood B programmer: not lavish, but slickly executed and generally nice to look at. Director Hassan El-Seify and cinematographer Mossoud Issa bring a suitable amount of small-scale glamour to the nightclub sequences and prove that they know how to showcase their starlet to optimum effect. The transitions in tone -- between the comedic, suspenseful, and spooky scenes -- are also handled deftly, as are the simple optical effects required to realize Kitty in her spiritual form. All in all, you won’t see anything new here, but if you’re in an undemanding mood, the complete package makes for a winsome little dose of unabashed, old school escapism.

So, in sum, Ismail Yassin’s Phantom -- or, as the DVD’s subtitles translate it, Ismail Yassin’s Ghost -- is a charming and fun movie, nothing more, nothing less. Sure, after you watch it, you can tell your friends that you’ve been sampling some Egyptian cinema, and they’ll probably think that you’re kind of cultured and sophisticated for it. But you and I will know the truth, won’t we?


Anarchivist said...

I must ask: what is your source for Ismail Yassin DVDs?

Todd said...

From FineArt Films in the UK. They have a great selection of English subbed Arabic DVDs.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

my question exactly!