Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ana Antar, aka I Am Antar (Lebanon/?, 1966)

During the 1960s, Lebanon rivaled Egypt as one of the biggest producers of popular cinema in the Middle East, matching it both in terms of output and technical acumen. At the time, the Lebanese film industry was dominated by a resolutely commercial, crowd-pleasing aesthetic, one that gave rise to colorful pan-Arabic co-productions like Frank “Dawn of the Mummy” Agrama’s Essabet El Nissae. Also representative of this trend is 1966’s Ana Antar, which includes among its star attractions a Syrian comedy duo and a Lebanese pop singer/sex symbol. Indeed, I momentarily entertained the notion that Ana Antar was another of Agrama’s directorial efforts, until I learned that it was helmed by another Egyptian, Joseph Maalouf, who also directed the Ismail Yassin vehicle The Adventures of Ismail Yassin.

Like Essabet El Nissae, Ana Antar is a lighthearted crime caper with a distinct swinging sixties vibe owing in large part to its seductive pallet of rich Eastman Color hues. In it, Nihad Quali and Doreid Lahham play investigators charged with solving a series of jewelry robberies that, unknown to them, are being committed by a nightclub singer who is under the hypnotic control of her unscrupulous psychiatrist. “Doreid & Nihad”, as they were called, rose to prominence on Syrian television in the early 60s before going on to star together in a series of 21 successful theatrical features, usually with Quali playing the straight man to Lahham’s antic character Ghawar. As was often the case, they are also credited with writing the screenplay and dialogue for Ana Antar, with Maalouf taking credit for the story.

In their day, Doreid & Nihad were compared to Laurel and Hardy, which, looking at them now, seems a little dubious. While Nihad, rotund and mustached, could arguably pass for a Middle Eastern version of Oliver Hardy, Doreid looks a lot less like Stan Laurel than he does Groucho Marx, while at the same time exhibiting the jittery hipster mannerisms of a young Woody Allen. Here he plays renowned private investigator Antar, who is recruited by harried insurance investigator Hosni (Nihad) to help him put a stop to the jewelry robberies that are costing his superiors a lot of money.

I can’t say for sure that Antar is ironically named after the revered 6th century poet and warrior Antarah ibn Shaddad, though I suspect he is. What I am sure of is that he is intended as a vehicle for spoofing all of the secret agent tropes of his day. It’s all here: the shoe phone, the contact lens that doubles as a camera, the swank bachelor pad laden with booby traps, the exotic yet dangerously impractical weapons (among them a gun that shoots backwards), the oily self-regard, all signaling to us once again that the 60s were a time when no barrier of geography, language or culture could stand up to the contagious influence of James Bond. It also bears mention that Antar has a girlfriend, Salwah, played by the charming Egyptian actress Hala El Shawarby, who serves as both a loyal helpmate and a comic foil.

Ana Antar’s credits play over an arresting expository sequence that clues us in to something that Antar, Hosni, and Salwah are yet to learn. Shot with a distinctly Bava-esque lighting scheme, these scenes show a pretty young nightclub singer, Halo, being hypnotized by her psychiatrist, Dr. Sabri. She leaves his office in a trance and is next seen methodically lifting a set of diamond encrusted jewelry from a posh home. These she returns to Sabri, who adds them to what is obviously a growing collection. The caddish Sabri is played by Shafiq Hashim, a Lebanese actor and musician who, at the time, was married to the world famous belly dancer Nadia Gamal (who is not related to or to be confused with world famous belly dancer and actress Samia Gamal). Halo, meanwhile, is played by popular Lebanese singer and actress Randa, who is afforded four musical numbers throughout the film.

Antar and Hosni’s investigation eventually leads them to the nightclub where Halo is performing, whereupon Hosni’s boss, Abu Nour (Khaled Kharanouh), immediately falls for her—as he well should, given he is exactly the kind of blandly handsome romantic lead that always gets shoehorned into comic vehicles like this. Meanwhile, we learn that the receptionist in Abu Nour’s office, Suad (Dadnd Jabour), is working for Dr. Sabri and has been keeping him informed on the progress of the investigation. Being a maniacal control freak in the classic B movie villain mode, he sets out to throw them off his scent by any means possible. All of this, of course, still leaves time for Antar and Hosni to get involved in a series of absurdist comic vignettes, including a bit where an eccentric woman serves them an invisible meal which they then, in an abundance of courtesy, elaborately mime eating.

Sadly, the version of Ana Antar that I watched lacked English subtitles, so I am in no way equipped to judge just how funny Doreid & Nihad’s dialog is. However, their cadence and body language alone is enough to tell me that Doreid is meant to be the wise-cracking operator of the two, while Nihad is the oafish one who is most likely to be on the receiving end of the movie’s many slapstick humiliations. At one point, after being brutally beaten by a pair of Sabri’s gunsels, he stumbles back to Antar’s apartment, only to be subjected to the gauntlet of crude booby traps meant to ward off intruders. (Yes, there is a boxing glove on a spring and bucket of water propped over the door. Yes, I laughed.)

In many ways, Ana Antar’s combination of glamour and goofiness, along with its good natured desire to entertain by whatever means necessary, reminds me of the Mexican spy spoofs of its era--which is in every way a compliment, given that those films, being so open hearted and almost reckless in their inclusiveness, are, to me, the definition of “world pop cinema”. As with Cazadores de Espias or Las Sicodelicas, Ana Antar’s makers, while putting their comedic foot forward, do not renege on their covenant with the audience to also make a film that fully functions as a thriller. Thus the film gradually works its way around to a satisfyingly action-packed climax, starting with Halo leaving behind a telltale red scarf at the scene of one of her robberies. This prompts Antar to make a visit to her psychiatrist’s office, which unwittingly put him at the mercy of Dr. Sabri, who hypnotizes him in an effort to turn him against his friends. Much chasing and shooting follows. And also lots of things that are a very bright shade of red.

Despite understanding exactly none of its dialog, it is easy for me to praise Ana Antar, because it looks amazing. I took me twice as long to watch as it should have because I was tempted to make screen captures of every individual shot. Of course, if you are going to make a film that combines mid-century design with saturated colors and a lot of pop art-inspired, modernist camera compositions—and that also includes lots of nightclub scenes and go-go dancing, it is literally guaranteed that it will be a film close to my heart. I am just that shallow.

Seriously, though, that the makers of Ana Antar, despite working with a limited number of minimal sets and an obviously modest budget, managed to create of film of such visual allure speaks very well of their industry as a whole—and guarantees that I will be ardently seeking out more films of its type in the future.

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