Monday, October 14, 2013

El Achrar, aka The Bad Guys (Egypt, 1970)

Like many of the most entertaining Egyptian pop films, Hossam El-Din Mostafa’s The Bad Guys takes time-tested genre elements recognizable to all classic film buffs and places them within a uniquely Arab context. In this case it’s a classic heist-gone-wrong/dishonor-among-thieves tale set against the desolation of the Western Desert and punctuated with encounters with bloody events from Egypt’s recent history.

The Bad Guys starts with a trio of smugglers arriving in Alemain, the site of a decisive battle between the allied and axis powers during World War II and home to a vast, Arlington-like Commonwealth Cemetery populated by the bodies of allied soldiers. Like any gang of smugglers worth their salt, this one includes among its number a twitchy loose cannon, Hatem (Adel Adham), who promptly stabs a third smuggler, Erfan, in the neck and pushes him from their car. The gang is transporting a fortune in U.S. dollars for a client named Mr. Ellie and Hatem pragmatically calculates that the fee for same will be much more handsomely divided with the subtraction of one smuggler from the equation.

It should also be noted that Hatem considers himself the fiancé and life’s love of Erfan’s daughter Zhara (Wolves Don’t Eat Meat’s Wahed Sharif – Arooooooooo!), a love connection that Erfan fatally disapproved of -- though its delusional nature is clearly revealed once we meet Zahra and see how freely she recoils from Hatem. In any case, once Hatem and his remaining partner Diaa (Ibrahim Kahn) deliver the cash to Mr. Ellie, it is determined by Ellie that it is counterfeit. This means that Erfan, after substituting the funny money, has made off with the real cash and hidden it somewhere, necessitating that Hatem retrace his steps.

Meanwhile, Khaled, a manly good Samaritan played by Rushdy Abaza (who we’ve previously seen in Bride of the Nile and Oh Islam!) comes upon the not-quite-dead Erfan and takes him to the hospital. Erfan asks that Khaled fetch Zhara and, once she is at his side, confesses to the two that he has hidden the loot in Rommel’s Cave, a manmade cave near Mersa Matruh where the infamous general planned his ill-fated attack at Alamein. Khaled and Zhara then pile into Khaled’s car, only to find a knife wielding Hatem in the back seat demanding that they take him to the treasure. Initially, Khaled leads him to the Commonwealth Cemetery and tries to lose him in its maze-like rows while he and Zhara escape. They are quickly recaptured, but not before a suspenseful chase that takes them through the winding catacombs dedicated to housing the battle’s Italian casualties.

Khaled next seeks to hire a guide to lead them to the cave. This guide, who’s face is at first hidden by his head wrap, is later revealed to be Diaa, who is quickly becoming as unhinged as Hatem. (Suffice it to say that there is a lot of creepy laughter in this movie.) The route that Diaa plans for them takes them off road and across a vast stretch of open desert, where the tense little quartet runs the constant risk of dehydration, automotive breakdown, unexploded mines, and simply killing one another.

That The Bad Guys – which is also known as Duel at Alamein and The Evil Ones – is an “A” list production is evidenced by its top heavy cast, starting with Rushdy Abaza. The son of an aristocratic family, Abaza struggled in Egyptian cinema for a decade -- even, thanks to his fluency in the language, taking a brief and unsuccessful sideline into Italian cinema – before being given star-making turns by director Ezz Eddine Zoulficar in 1958’s A Woman on the Road and, the following year, the gangster picture The Second Man. Abaza’s subsequent stardom was such that he did not escape the notice of Hollywood. He had a small part in The Ten Commandments and was considered by David Lean for the part in Lawrence of Arabia that ultimately went to Omar Sharif (the director was reportedly turned off by Abaza’s haughty attitude).

Adel Adham, who plays the perpetually cap and shade sporting Hatem, was no less of a star than Abaza, and made his name playing heavies, which accounts for the easy menace he exudes here. As for the smoldering Wahed Sharif, she gives a ferocious performance that is barely undermined by the fact that she spends much of the film clad only in a tiny slip, black bra and panties. As the tensions within the close confines of Khaled’s sweltering car mount, Zhara matches her male cohorts point for point in terms of burgeoning crazy eye, and is just as prone to outbursts of savage violence (at one point the subtitles have her screaming “I’m stressed out!”, which is a monument to understatement.)

All in all, The Bad Guys is a lean and mean little crime thriller, combining the stylish fatalism of 50s noir with the worried edges of 70s Hollywood’s more cynical capers. Cinematographer Aly Khairallah flaunts an accomplished arsenal of claustrophobic angles and off balance compositions in driving home the increasing dementia of the principals. Meanwhile, the specter of the war’s thousands of dead hanging over much of the picture grants it a haunted, almost supernatural veneer. The performances by the accomplished cast entirely live up this expertly established mood, even if they do merely trace varying shades of mania.

Yet, while being as compact and basic in its aims as its title suggests, The Bad Guys does take an unexpected twist in its final act. As expected, the four squabbling travelers finally run out of gas in the middle of the desert. When they all go crazily chasing off after a mirage, Zhara gets separated from the group and is captured by a gang lead by a fearsome bandit named Gasser. The rest collapse and are rescued by a Bedouin tribe. The tribe is later attacked by Gasser’s band and the Sheikh’s daughter, Salma, is abducted. Out of gratitude to the tribe, Khaled, Hatem and Diaa agree to put aside their differences and take part in an attack on Gasser’s camp. What follows is a straightforward and well staged action set piece that includes the very Bollywood detail of Khaled, Hatem and Diaa disguising themselves as musicians to breach the camp. Nonetheless, in its swashbuckling execution, it provides quite a contrast to the gritty spectacle of psychological endurance that has preceded it.

Whether the above was a flaw, a capitulation to audience expectations, or an attempt at signifying something larger I’m not sure. But it does seem salient that, once the money is retrieved and the gang once again faced with the prospect of divvying it up, the brotherly feeling born of their brief alliance quickly dissolves. These are Bad Guys, after all, the film seems to be saying, though just how bad seems more subject than one might think to the exigencies of circumstance.


Joshua said...

Hi Todd! Brand new to the blog, but I'm loving it already. I heard good things about the blog from Miranda at filmi-contrast. She was sure right!

I'd love to find out how to see "The Bad Guys." I have tried a couple dozen different Google searches with no results! What would you recommend?

Todd said...

Welcome, Joshua! Thanks for your kind words. There's a good quality DVD of The Bad Guys available with French and English subs. There are a lot of online retailers that sell Arabic DVDs. I got my copy here.