Friday 10 February 2017

Sphinx (1981)

Lesley Anne Down goes off to Egypt playing a character clearly written as American (refs to Boston, Thanksgiving) but plays it with her own accent and refs to tea are inserted to make it clear she is British. While in Cairo, she meets Frank Langella as a Typhoo-drinking Egyptian playboy UN antique dealer (a role offered to the couldn't be less Egyptian Rutger Hauer!), Sir John Gielgud doing his Egyptian shopkeeper routine, Eileen Way as a mad Eileen Way-y Egyptian woman, John Rhys-Davies in proto-Sallah mode as a Greek, both Nadim Sawalha and Saeed Jaffrey and about half the cast of Raiders of the Last Ark after exploring the curse of King Tut. Filmed in Egypt. Enjoyable potboiler. Almost horror but not quite, (Gielgud gets semi-beheaded by a beturbanned Martin Benson - and Down is the witness - thus kicking off the spiralling plot) it revolves around a cursed statue relating to Howard Carter's expedition (with James Cossins and future Mrs. Steve Martin Victoria "William and Kate: The Movie/Inseminoid" Tennant as the Carnarvons in a flashback).
Down plays it as if she constantly feels sorry for herself. Langella's Egyptian sounds more Sean Connery (maybe he's a cousin of his character in Highlander) esp. in the line "Am I the rudest sonabitch you've ever met?" which he says to Sawalha's private eye wearing the same suit he did in The Spy Who Loved Me, before a quick cut to Down being picked up by Sawalha's arch-rival in the "dodgy middle-Eastern/Asian sort in British TV", Saeed Jaffrey, as an extremely Indian Egyptian guide who can't tell the difference between Ramses and Ramses I. On the tour, we meet William Hootkins giving it his all as a US tourist guide (I long thought this was made in Britain - look at the cast! But surprisingly the studio stuff shot in Hungary). Down is arrested and given some sub-Midnight Express brutality by the Egyptian cops, before Langella rescues her, as she is pursued by various dodgy sorts including Vik Tablian (the sinister Monkeyman in Raiders), Kevork "Mind Your Language!" Malikyan as a bellboy (he was in Midnight Express and Indiana Jones And His Dad, too) and Maurice Ronet as sinister Frenchman Yvon. Tutte Lemkow (no, Gatiss, he's not a woman!*) plays Gielgud's son who turns Down down. Down then has a romantic tourist-footage montage with Langella and then meets Eileen Way, as the mad bitey old bag widow of one of Howard Carter's Egyptian builders who provides the exposition of the curse.  Martin Benson disguises himself as Tutte Lemkow (almost as good as the twist in the not very good Brass Target where we learn that for half the film, Max von Sydow is posing as Bernard Horsfall)  and kidnaps Down who gets lost in the tomb, almost attacked by bats and then finds the hoarded treasure of Seti, from a tomb located beneath King Tut. She then is found out, sprains her ankle Doctor Who-companion style in a chase with Rhys-Davies, and we meet Yvon who slaps Rhys-Davies as they try to find who wants the statue. There's a chase through the streets and then we discover Frank Langella is Martin Benson's nephew and that Benson believes his nephew will ruin the family's name. They visit the tomb and get trapped within. Langella is flattened. Down escapes and feels sorry for herself.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner of Planet of the Apes fame. Some of his films can be great (Planet of the Apes, The Boys from Brazil) and sometimes they can be bloated (Patton, The War Lord). Sphinx lies somewhere between. As a friend noted on twitter, it's sort of like a US miniseries from the period. Based on a Robin Cook novel, it has that airport novel feel, and is not very cinematic despite the location shooting. The ending needed more surprise, and the lead character a lot more spunk so she wouldn't spend all day feeling sorry for herself in a jumpsuit with eternally flawless makeup. Nice score by Michael J. Lewis.

It is better than The Awakening, Orion's other Egyptian-shot curse-codswallop from the same period.

*Mark Gatiss on the League of Gents' commentary of Theatre of Blood thinks that Lemkow was a lady.

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