Egyptian cinema — born shortly after the Europe and Hollywood’s film emergence, was already mature enough to produce its “Golden Age,” in the 1950s. That’s the era when it produced its first international screen icon, the great Omar Shariff.
Youssef Chahine was the Egyptian filmmaker who popularized Shariff and brought him to the attention of the world and David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”). Chahine was already a veteran director when he directed and took the the villainous lead in his gripping potboiler, “Cairo Station.”
The film is a vivid black and white slice of life at Cairo’s Ramses Station in the late 1950s, with classes mixing and mingling in the secular Arabic state. Chahine shows us this hustle and bustle parade of traditionally clad and more religious rural folk, riding the (British built) rails back to their small towns and villages and Westernized sophisticates with their sports coats and cleavage, shorter hemlines and rock’n’roll tastes boarding for Alexandria and ocean liners that would take them abroad.
The few films of Chahine I’ve seen have a lot more in common with Carol Reed (“The Third Man”) and Hollywood noir specialists than the great artist and social observer Satyajit Ray, his Third World cinema contemporary over in India. Chahine liked melodrama and action and a little sexual sizzle. King Farouk or President Nasser, Chahine worked his way towards “lurid” and probably got his closest to that with the sexy and twisted “Cairo Station.”
Chahine, his camera chasing dancing around passengers as the men with shop stalls or carts make and sell juices or coffee, the female soft-drink peddlers with their buckets of bottles evade the cops and the porters bicker over who gets which client with baggage. We are instantly immersed in this milieu — “entrepreneurs” dashing onto stopped (or still moving) trains to sell drinks (and collect the empty bottles), hustlers of every age scampering through an unregulated, unsafe railyard outside the terminal.
The news stand owner Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi) is our narrator, a man up on the news and gossip thanks to what he sells, but also someone who takes in the passing scene with a studied eye.
Madbouli recalls taking in the “lame” beggar Qinawi (spelled “Kenawi” on the Netflix subtitles), giving him a job hawking papers to travelers.
“How could anyone have foreseen how Qinawi would end up?” he wonders (in Arabic with English subtitles). We know who the villain is, right from the start.
Our filmmaker shows a little vanity, and a lot of Hollywood chutzpah in the way he hides Qinawi’s face, showing him only on the ground on his damaged leg, giving the character the director himself plays a “star entrance” in the best John Ford/Alfred Hitchcock/Orson Welles tradition.
The cause and effect of the screenplay involves showing us Qinawi’s railyard shack, papered with cut-out pin-up girls, and letting us just his guilty-pervy eyes as he finds a new beauty to gawk at, eavesdrop on and lust after.
But his heart seems to belong to blowsy, loud and vivacious Hunama, played by Hind Rustum, sort of an Egyptian Anna Magnani or Shelly Winters. Hunama is the loudest, most abrasive of the soft drink sellers. And she’s wondering if the smart, burly porter Abu Siri (Serih, on Netflix, played by Farid Shawqi) might be her man and her ticket out of this hard, dangerous work.
He’s tough enough and clever enough to realize the porters are getting screwed-over by the traditional pecking order that leaves a corrupt unofficial “boss” in charge of who gets to work, taking kickbacks as he does. Abu Siri’s talking “union.”
Qinawi just creeps around in silence, an “Incel” before Incels had the internet. We sense what’s coming, and Chahine underscores the guy’s stalker/serial killer vibe by letting us see the shifting cultural dynamics in play/
The young folks are dressing more Western than ever and listening to Mike & His Skyrockets, a rockabilly combo (with accordion) that jams for the youthful hep cats on the train.
“Newfangled ideas lead straight to old,” old Madbouli mutters. Murder is the effect, a sexualized permissive culture and toxic masculinity — check out the porters catcalling female passersby — is the cause, Chahine suggests.
The suspense comes from what we fear Qinawi will do, and what could happen at any moment at a pre-OSHA railyard this recklessly run. A couple of the stunts were shot in slow motion and played by at regular speed to heighten the danger. But most are not, and it’s easy to see workplace safety regulations weren’t common on Cairo film sets back then.
No “unions” in other words.
The fights range from “stage slaps” to actual rolling tumbles down stone stairs.
And the acting is first rate, with Rustum and Shawqi shining and Chahine practically begging for a straightjacket as Qinawi.
As dated as such films inevitably are, the collaborators here ensure that this 1950s melodrama never feels like an artifact, but merely another era in the passing parade of Egypt’s rough and tumble underclasses, perhaps one less divided by religious conservatism than the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt of today.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Farid Shawqi, Hind Rustum, Youssef Chahine and Hassan el Baroudi
Credits: Directed by Youssef Chahine, scripted by Abdel Hai Adib and Mohamed Abu Youssef (dialogue). A Columbia Pictures release on Netflix, other streamers.
Running time: 1:17