A discussion of Atef Salem’s 1959 Encounter with the Unknown, part of a cycle of films we will be covering as a way of setting a context for better understanding the work of Youssef Chahine. We discuss the very glamorous pairing of Omar Shariff and Samia Gamal, the superb mise-en-scène and visuals, what such skill brings to a rickety script and what it cannot, the relative lack of conceptual and thematic richness in comparison to Chahine and much else.
Here’s another more detailed article with more about her film career. Its interesting that other than Sharif she’s one of the performers in Chahine’s films about which there’s the most information in English available
I’ve made a selection of clips so that you can follow the discussion:
Omar at the Beach: Encounter with the Unknown:
Circus Encounter With the Unknown:
Dance number in Encounter With the Unknown:
At the factory:
Another factory setting with very inventive editing Encounter With the Unknown:
José Arroyo and Richard Layne discovered the work of Youssef Chahine at a retrospective of his work at Bologna last year, are thrilled that so many previously difficult-to-see films of his are now available on Netflix, and hope that these podcasts encourage people to watch and discuss the films. This is the first in a series. We hope to cover as many of them as possible, and in chronological order. We hope you join us on this journey
In Film Alert 101,Peter Hourigan alerts readers to the Chahine treasure trove on Netflix but writes of Blazing Sun: ´BLAZING SUN (aka Struggle in the Valley 1954, 116 min) An example of his early work, when he was trapped in commercial Egyptian film production. This is a hoary melodrama – but enormously entertaining, and with brilliant b & w photography. There is also an absolutely ravishingly beautiful young man called Michel Chelhoub in the lead. Later, he was to find fame in the west as Omar Shariff´.
We agree on the film being enormously entertaining and on the extraordinary photography but I also happen to think it´s a great melodrama and a great film, the struggles of the poor against the wickedness of the rich, about love, life, community, the material aspects of life that reproduce it, all bound with questions of morality and justice. It´s very moving, extraordinarily beautiful to look at — Chahine is a visual poet — and the moments of awkwardness that often accompany cinemas of poverty seem to me to only add to its power.
A great opportunity to see these films and we hope the podcast will convince you to take a look,
Richard Laine has been able to track another Faten Hamama/ Omar Shariff vehicle, with English sub-titles if not in the best condition, and you can see it here:
The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.
Sidney Sheldon’sBloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.
You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.
You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets its star and protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ’emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of treatment Audrey gets here.
I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.
The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.
The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.
This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.
Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.
Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….
Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.