Friday, August 15, 2014

SALON KITTY 1976

The controversial Italia-Franco-German production, Salon Kitty, was released in the United States in 1977 under the title, Madam Kitty (because we Yanks do need to have things spelled out for us), but I honestly, have no direct memory of its release and can’t recall ever reading anything about it at the time. Which is really weird given: a) It stars dreamboat  #1, Helmut Berger, going full-frontal (why hadn’t my friends told me about this?!!?); b) It’s an X-rated, European art-house flick, which, if you knew me in my film-school days, was practically catnip; c) It’s a semi-musical with Ingmar Bergman star, Ingrid Thulin, channeling Cabaret and doing her best Sally Bowles impersonation as the singing proprietress of a decadent, high-class Berlin bordello in 1939; e) It reunites the stars of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 opus, The Damned (Thulin & Berger) in an over-the-top, trash/camp vision of Nazi Germany that is worthy of Ken Russell in being a film of almost operatic poor taste and visual excess.

With so much about Salon Kitty so perfectly suited to my oddball tastes, I really am at a loss for understanding how this film failed to capture my attention back in 1977. Except to note that when I Googled the original US release poster researching this essay, what I found was a poster so tacky and cheap-looking, with "X-rated" plastered all over it, there's a pretty good chance that I mistook Madam Kitty (Salon Kitty) for a run-of-the-mill porn film back in 1977 and never even bothered to read the credits. In the end, perhaps it was all for the best because, as I understand, the US version was severely edited, and I'm happy that my first exposure to Salon Kitty (just last month!) was through the restored director's edit (Italian director Tinto Brass, of Caligula infamy) currently available on DVD.
Helmut Berger as Helmut Wallenberg
Ingrid Thulin as Madame Kitty Kellerman
Teresa Ann Savoy as Margherita
Bekim Fehmiu as Hans Reiter
John Ireland (!) as Cliff
Inspired by a true story (movie-speak for “outside of the basic premise, we essentially made everything up”) Salon Kitty is about an apolitical madam (Thulin) who runs the most popular whorehouse in Berlin during the early days of WW II. Salon Kitty is a luxurious bordello/nightclub democratically catering to an international clientele of foreign dignitaries and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party (“Himmler…Von Ribbentrop…they are all my clients!”).

Under the orders of icy SS General Biondo (John Steiner), ambitious secret security officer Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) closes down Kitty’s Berlin brothel and sets up her up in a new location in the more remote Grünewald district, only instead of keeping her multi-ethnic whores (who are deported, killed, or sent to prison camps), she is obliged to accept and train a specially-selected all-German cadre of prostitutes-in-training chosen for their devout National Socialist loyalty. Kitty thinks she is doing her part for the morale of the German army, but unbeknownst to her, each of the rooms of her new bordello has been outfitted with bugging devices intended to secure information leaked by German military officers during pillow-talk which might prove useful for blackmail purposes or the unearthing of treasonous behavior.

What happens when Kitty discovers she is being used as a pawn in Nazi espionage, or what revenge is plotted when an otherwise reprehensibly unsympathetic recruit (Teresa Ann Savoy) falls in love with a disillusioned Luftwaffe Lieutenant (Yugoslav heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, whose US career sank without a trace after appearing in the flop Harold Robbins sudser The Adventurers in 1970), serve as mere backdrop for Salon Kitty's most pressing concerns: the wholesale depiction of sexual depravity, the display of naked male and female flesh as often as possible, and allowing for Helmut Berger to strut around like Norma Shearer in one outlandish fetish uniform after another.
Does this swastika make me look fat?
Although it all sounds positively loony in synopsis, as stated, Salon Kitty is based on actual events culled from a 1972 book by Peter Norden about a madam (Kitty Schmidt, name changed to Kellerman for the film) whose brothel was indeed used for the purpose of spying by SS agents. The chief difference being that in real-life, Kitty was aware of the wiretapping but was threatened with cooperating or being sent to a POW camp. But in a Tinto Brass film, the prurient always takes precedence over the political, so, much like one of Ken Russell’s fervently overheated biographies of famous composers (The Music Lovers, Lisztomania), Salon Kitty is less a look at civilian-coerced Nazi espionage than a full-tilt wallow in the kind of “divine decadence” that Cabaret could only hint at.
The controversial "recruitment" scene
Salon Kitty was recommended to me by Netflix on the strength of the 5-star rating I gave Visconti’s The Damned when I watched it for the first time last year. I’m not a big fan of films about Nazi Germany; in fact, I tend to go out of my way to avoid them. but Visconti’s film was like The Godfather to me: a nihilistic epic of evil couched in a cutthroat family saga. I liked its scope and visual opulence, and I particularly liked Visconti’s artful way of distilling an epoch of unspeakable inhumanity down to an emotional scale that didn’t give the watchful observer the easy-out of being able to say, “That could never happen here.”

Alas, while Salon Kitty feels and looks on the surface like a companion-piece to Visconti’s The Damned, in truth it’s more a well-heeled example of a (mercifully) short-lived cinematic sub-genre known as Il Sadiconazista (or Nazi exploitation film). These were films that, in the wake of controversial arthouse successes, The Night Porter (1974) and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), sought to capitalize more on the sensationalistic depiction of the sexual/sadomasochistic side of Nazism with only superficial, contextual attention paid to the political.  
SS Commander Biondo leads Wallenberg through a gymnasium of bottomless fencing students
Salon Kitty attempts to dramatize the rise of National Socialism in Germany by equating the decadent conduct of aristocratic culture with the gradual erosion of individual morality that was at the center of the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic recruitment practices of the SS. It shows, rather effectively, that the only way to turn people into obedient drones is through the dismantling of self. And undeniably, much of what is on display is in accord with what we’ve come to learn about the controlling, brainwashing techniques of cults, religions, and extremist groups.

But in placing so much emphasis on all things sexual and in taking events so far over the top as to appear stylized, Italian director Brass not only weakens the seriousness of these themes, but makes it all too easy to focus exclusively on the downright bizarre set-pieces and often hilariously bad dialog (“A soldier also wants to shoot his bullets, not just those the army gives him!”  or, Wallenberg: “You have to close your nightclub.”  Kitty: “What a pain in the ass!”). What, for example, is the appropriate response to a scene in which a prostitute literally goes mad and starts foaming at the mouth after a German official, upon placing a loaf of bread shaped like an enormous phallus between her thighs, bites off its head?
One of Madam Kitty's girls with a client
In The Damned, a character attributed the following quote to Hitler: “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible.” I have no idea if Hitler actually said this, but if the wall-to-wall debauchery depicted in Salon Kitty could be said to exist in service of anything beyond cheap exploitation, I’d say it serves to decry the basic criminal degeneracy of the Nazi movement and the moral decay fueling their particular brand of fascism. Too bad you have to stop giggling long enough to get that point.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
People (myself included) often use the phrase, “Only in the 70s” when referring to a certain unbridled, anything-goes lunacy characteristic of movies of that decade. In most instances it’s said in a pejorative way; but when I say it it’s with an almost proprietary, boastful pride. I’m happy to have discovered film in an era when filmmakers, giddy with the new-found freedom of relaxed censorship and permissiveness, took chances and were allowed to cater to adult tastes, not required to pander to adolescent fads.
John Steiner as Commander Biondo
Far from a work of art, a film of such questionable taste as Salon Kitty gets a major thumbs-up for me simply because, in light of the corporate, committee-sanctioned analgesics passing for movies today, I can’t help but admire a film that pushes boundaries. Wholly independent of whether or not I approve of the boundaries being pushed.
Fascism as Fetish
PERFORMANCES
While I tend to be of a mind to say a bad performance is a bad performance in any language; European films with international casts pose a unique problem, what with the widespread practice of post-production dubbing. In Salon Kitty I can’t tell if the often disembodied-sounding voices are due to dubbing or poor sound recording (as I recognize several of the actor’s real voices), but let’s suffice it to say that, outside of the leads (and just what is Joan Crawford's Queen Bee and I Saw What You Did co-star, John Ireland [fully clothed, thankfully] doing here?), I think it’s fair to say that most of the cast was selected for their willingness to  appear in various states of undress first, for their acting ability second.

The beauteous Helmut Berger is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’ve always considered to be more a presence than an actor. He has a kind of brittle intensity that I like, but mostly I just regard him as a kind of male Garbo…just looking is enough. By far, the best and most entertaining performance in Salon Kitty is given by Kitty herself, Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin. (Thulin began her career as a star in several Ingmar Bergman films. The same year Salon Kitty was released in the US, Bergman's own Nazi-themed film, The Serpent's Egg was also released.)
Kitty & Wallenberg attempt to make beautiful Teutonic music together
 As the resilient, pragmatic whorehouse madam, Thulin is like a character out of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. With her expressive, wry mouth, and that magnificent face that can look both masculine and feminine at the same time, Thulin plays her role to the hilt, cannily never really letting on whether she’s playing it straight or playing to the camp, melodramatic heights of the material. The earthy zeal with which she attacks the role breathes vibrant life into Salon Kitty's austere, unerotic eroticism.
Life is a cabaret at Salon Kitty

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
While Salon Kitty at times makes a pretty persuasive case against the perils of fascism and the abuse of power, I have to say, after sitting through the entire 133-minute director’s cut, the strongest images I come away with are those depicting decorous depravity, and those highlighting the visual splendor of the sumptuous art nouveau décor and the eye-catching costumes.
Not since the excesses of Lucille Ball's Mame (1974) has the drag queen aesthetic
been given such full rein in costume design. Credit Jost Jacob & Ugo Percoli
Always dressed for the occasion, Kitty attempts to enlist the aid of a client (Stefano Satta Flores)
 in a plot to turn the tables on Wallenberg
You know it's a high-class whorehouse when the girls wear gowns inspired by Hollywood designer, Adrian. In this instance, a black and white number worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Salon Kitty features scenes of orgies, whippings, sadomasochism, lesbianism, homoeroticism, voyeurism, animal slaughter, and some things I could only look at through the bars of the fingers covering my eyes. Although unpleasant at times, none of it ever feels purposeless. Indeed, when Salon Kitty is at its best as a film to be taken seriously, the explicit barbarism depicted feels calculated to prevent us from ever slipping into “enjoying” the film’s eroticism independent of its monstrous context of impending death camps and genocide.
Humanity Reclaimed
"Man belongs to mankind...not to a country, or to a race or religion."
But for all the baroque displays of violence, degeneracy, and depravity, Salon Kitty’s most chilling moment and most powerful anti-Nazi indictment comes in a quiet sequence that takes place in an aquarium. A Jewish family encounters a group of Hitler Youth girls, and as the family attempts to avoid a confrontation, their small son accidentally drops a small wind-up toy at the feet of one of the girls. A tense moment transpires as the child stares innocently into the face of one of the sternest girls (later to become one of Wallenberg’s recruits) who proceeds to methodically crush the toy under her foot without once breaking her gaze from the child’s confused eyes.
This scene, played without dialog, packs a serious wallop and should clue those who would dismiss this film out of hand for its excesses, that there is perhaps a method to Tinto Brass' madness, and the whole of Salon Kitty is likely greater than the sum of its outrageous parts.
Salon Kitty bid you Willkommen
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 8, 2014

PAPER MOON 1973

When most people think of film in the 70s, they think of a time of innovation, upheaval, and experimentation. And indeed, it was. But the 70s was also the decade which introduced the first generation of film-weaned filmmakers; directors, producers, and writers who grew up watching movies.
Wholly uninterested in the experimental exploration of film’s potential as an art form or means of creative expression, this new breed nostalgia-prone, rear-view-fixated filmmakers – many of them former movie critics or film scholars – not only seemed to have spent the entirety of their formative years in front of movie screens (and therefore appeared to be devoid of any actual, real-life experience insights to impart beyond those gleaned, secondhand, from movies), but when granted the opportunity to make films of their own, strove for no ambition loftier than to remake, revisit, and re-imagine the films that meant so much to them growing up.

The legacy of such willfully arrested artistic development can certainly be seen today in Hollywood’s worrisome over-reliance on remakes and reboots, and the almost-surreal global dominance of mega-budget, adolescence-coddling comic book movies. But back in the day of the Auteur Theory, the Nouvelle Vague, and the New Hollywood; the regressive filmmaker was largely dismissed by serious cineastes, but embraced by a moviegoing public showing signs of having grown weary of avant-garde filmmaking techniques, artsy pretensions,  and non-linear storytelling.  Indeed, in the wake of the 70s oil crisis, inflation, Vietnam, and Watergate, many audiences found the notion of escaping into the romanticized idealization of the past to be a very appealing proposition.
Cinema Dreams
In the background of this shot, Bogdanovich pays tribute to one of his favorite directors, John Ford, by featuring a theater marquee advertising Ford's 1935 feature, Steamboat Round the Bend

Some directors, like François Truffaut, paid homage to the filmmakers they admired (Hitchcock, in his case) by reinterpreting that director's style through a modern prism. Others, like Francis Ford Coppola, found fame through the application of auteurist theories to classicist filmmaking. Only Peter Bogdanovich – actor, film scholar, and critic – drew the ire of Hollywood Renaissance movie cultists while claiming success as the Golden Boy of the nostalgia craze by making new “old” movies.
Ryan O'neal as Moses (Moze) Pray
Tatum O'Neal as Addie Loggins
Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie Delight (alias, Mademoiselle)
P.J. Johnson as Imogene
Burton Gilliam as Floyd
John Hillerman as Deputy Hardin / Jess Hardin 
Randy Quaid as Leroy
Although Peter Bogdanovich is technically credited with being its director, Paper Moon, like its predecessors The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up, Doc? (1972), is a film so heavily influenced by Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Orson Welles, each gentleman, by rights, could share co-director billing. A point Bogdanovich himself would likely make no bones about, as on the DVD commentary he states, “The movie was very 1935 with 70s actors.And to be sure, what with the film’s salty language, racy humor, and a pint-sized, cigarette-smoking heroine so cheeky she’d take the curl our of Shirley Temple’s hair; Paper Moon feels very much like some kind of pre-Code Preston Sturges movie shot through with a dose of 70s self-awareness.

Paper Moon, a Depression-era road comedy skillfully and hilariously adapted by Alvin Sargent (The Sterile Cuckoo) from John David Brown’s 1971 novel, Addie Pray, is the story of small-time con man, Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), who meets his match in little Addie Loggins (Ryan's real-life daughter, Tatum O’Neal), an old-beyond-her-8-years, recently-orphaned waif  who may or may not be he his illegitimate daughter. Entrusted with escorting the child from Kansas to Missouri to stay with relatives, Moze’s attempt to first swindle, then unburden himself of the cagey tyke, results in the tables being turned on him in a manner which ultimately binds the two as reluctant partners in cross-country flim-flams. The quarrelsome duo’s misadventures swindling widows, bilking shopkeepers, and taking up with buxom carnival dancer, Trixie Delight (Kahn) and her beleaguered maid, Imogene (Johnson), is played out against a bleak Midwestern landscape of barren skies and vast Kansas plains redolent of The Grapes of Wrath.
Paper Moon's grim depiction of the Midwest during The Great  Depression not only served as dark subtext to the film's comedy, but  resonated with 70s audiences contending with gas-rationing and rising inflation

Gloriously shot, cleverly conceived, superbly-acted, and consistently laugh-out-loud funny, Paper Moon is a feast of period detail and sharp comedy writing that manages to be sweetly sentimental without veering into the saccharine. And while I find the film to feel a little draggy in its third act, the first two-thirds of Paper Moon are very nearly perfect. (It makes perfect narrative sense for things to take a darker turn once Addie & Moze's overconfidence in their con leads to greed and their ultimate comeuppance, but both the bootleg swindle and hillbilly car swap have tension without wit. But to be honest, Paper Moon reaches such a giddy height of comedy incandescence with the introduction of the characters of Trixie and Imogene, their departure can't help but make the rest of the film - excluding the marvelous denouement - feel like an anticlimax.)

If it can be said of Bogdanovich that he is a director who has spent his life forever at the feet of The Masters, then at least he’s a student who learned his lessons well. For as with all of his early films, Paper Moon reveals Bogdanovich to be a deft and sensitive storyteller, versatile and fluent in the language of cinema. He understands what he’s doing, knows what he’s going for, and despite a film-geek tendency toward stylistic imitation-as-flattery, he has an inspired touch when it comes to comedy and has a talent for making the familiar feel engagingly fresh.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Paper Moon is one of my favorite comedies, one I’ve always regretted never having seen at a theater in the presence of an audience. But as I recount in an earlier post about The Last Picture Show, as a young man I was less than enthralled by the whole 70 nostalgia craze:

“As African-American teen inspired by the emerging prominence of black actors on the screen and excited about the upsurge in positive depictions of African-American life in movies of the 70s; these retro films, with their all-white casts and dreamy idealization of a time in America’s past which was, in all probability, a living nightmare for my parents and grandparents, felt like a step in the wrong direction. The antennae of my adolescent cynicism told me that all this rear-view fetishism was just Hollywood’s way of maintaining the status quo. A way of reverting back to traditional gender and racial roles, and avoiding the unwieldy game-change presented by the demand for more ethnic diversity onscreen, the evolving role of women in society, and the increased visibility of gays.” 

And while I still feel this to be true and witness the same thing happening today in Hollywood’s focus on fantasy films populated with mythical creatures, elves, gnomes, wizards, and superbeings of all stripes (anything but those pesky, problematic humans); the passage of time has literally transformed Paper Moon into what it was always designed to be: an old movie. And old movies I can watch through a prism of the past I’d otherwise find unacceptable, if not reprehensible, in a contemporary film.
If there's a method to Bogdanovich's retro madness, it's that Paper Moon is often at its funniest when it uses our familiarity with 30s movie tropes as the setup for contemporary, very 70s comic reversals. Tatum O'Neal's tough-talking Addie amuses in part because she's so very unlike the kind of little girl every parent wanted their daughter be like in the 30s: Shirley Temple. Trixie's maid, Imogene, may recall the sassy black maids of 30s comedies, but it's her uproariously open and blatant hostility toward her employer which lays to rest the quaint stereotype of the devoted domestic.
I think it was Bogdanovich who once made the observation that people of a certain age visualize the 1930s in their mind's eye as a black-and-white era because that 's the only way they know it: black-and white-photos, black-and-white movies. When Paper Moon, with its meticulous recreation of the look and feel of a 1935 film (which is, importantly, not the same thing as recreating 1935), has its very period-specific characters using language unthinkable in films of the day, the visual and behavioral incongruity is riotously funny.
Ryan's Daughter

PERFORMANCES
As everyone knows, 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal made history by being the youngest person to ever win a competitive Oscar when she won Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon in 1974. And on that score you’ll get no argument from me. I’m really not very fond of kids (either on or off screen) a predisposition compounded by precocious kids whose mature behavior I’m supposed to find adorable. But Bogdanovich works a minor miracle with Tatum O’Neal. She actually IS an adorable, precocious child…sweet of face, husky of voice, and inhabited, apparently, by the soul of a 50-year-old grifter.
Paper Moon's great, unsung asset is Ryan O'Neal. Looser and funnier than you're likely to see him any other film, he is a real charmer with an impressive range of exasperated reactions
Tatum O'Neal is nothing short of a marvel in a role in which she’s required to play a range of emotions a seasoned professional would find challenging. And even if the rumors are true that Bogdanovich shaped every gesture, nuance, and line reading (easy enough to believe given the flatness of her subsequent performances in The Bad News Bears and International Velvet), hers is still an amazingly assured and natural performance for one so young and in her first film (O’Neal was eight when filming began).
Now, with all that being said, I do have to lodge my one complaint: there is no way in hell Addie Pray is a supporting role. It’s a lead. The entire film rests on her shoulders and she appears in more scenes than anyone else in the film. It’s patently absurd that Tatum O’Neal was entered in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Of course, my rant is based in my ironclad certainty that, taking absolutely nothing from O’Neal’s great performance, it was Madeline Khan who deserved that award. As good as Paper Moon is, without Khan’s Trixie Delight, my A+ rating would drop to a B-minus. She's that good.
I'm sure someone somewhere has tallied the length of Madeline Khan's screen time in Paper Moon, but from her memorably jiggly entrance, through her umpteenth speech extolling the virtues of bone-structure, to her magnificent scene on that hilltop (one of the finest moments in Khan's entire career. I love when an actor can make you laugh, yet at the very same time touch upon something pathetic and sad behind the facade); every single moment is sheer brilliance.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The off-kilter charm of Paper Moon is in it essentially being a romantic comedy. An uneasy love story between a father and daughter who may or may not be biologically-related (“It’s pothible!”). That Addie doesn’t really see herself as a little girl and Moze not seeing himself as anything closely resembling a father, makes for several amusingly touching scenes wherein the querulous duo are forced to play-act as a loving father and daughter in order to perpetrate a swindle, yet at all other times reluctant to yield to even the slightest display of affection for one another . 
Waitress - "How we doin' Angel Pie? We gonna have a little dessert after we finish up our hot dog?"
Addie - (never taking her eyes off Moze) "I dunno."
Waitress - "What d'ya say, Daddy? Whyn'y we get precious here a little dessert if she eats her dog?"
Moze - (slowly and through gritted teeth) "Her name ain't precious."
Two days and 36 takes (!) produced this exceptional continuous shot sequence

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Over the years, both Peter Bogdanovich's unrealized potential and the dysfunctional family circus that has become the O'Neals has lent a bittersweet air of nostalgia to Paper Moon wholly unintended and unrelated to its roots in 1930s wistfulness. For years it had been hinted that Bogdanovich's success was owed in large part to his wife, production and costume designer, Polly Platt. Paper Moon marks their last collaboration (they divorced after Peter fell in love with Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show) and tellingly, the end of Bogdanovich's success streak. As a longtime admirer (if not idolater) of Orson Welles, it couldn't have been lost on Bogdanovich the degree to his decline in popularity mirrored Welles' own tarnished Golden Boy career decline.
By way of talks shows, memoirs, and tabloid headlines, Ryan and Tatum O'Neal have practically built a cottage industry around airing the dirty laundry of their familial discord. Watching Paper Moon these days, one can't help respond to the almost documentary aspects of Moze and Addie's push-pull relationship. This is especially true of scenes depicting Addie's possessiveness toward Moze and jealousy of any female attention directed towards him (Addie's relationship with Trixie is like being given front row seats to how the whole Tatum O'Neal/Farrah Fawcett thing played out).
In light of the unhappy reality we've come to know about the O'Neals, Moze and Addie have become for us the idealized image of Ryan and Tatum.

As with Orson Welles, I'll always associate Peter Bogdanovich with the genius work of his early career, and largely overlook his latter contributions. And although I know it to be far from the sad reality, I like to imagine Tatum and Ryan O'Neal driving off to an uncertain but happy future together, devoted father and loving daughter, down that long and winding road into the horizon. Remembering the past as we'd like it to be is what nostalgia's all about, isn't it?
And They Lived Happily Ever After

BONUS MATERIAL
YouTube clip of Tatum O'Neal winning her Oscar for Paper Moon - HERE

YouTube clip of Ryan O'Neal, Tatum O'Neal, and Peter Bogdanovich on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson  - HERE
In 1974 Paper Moon was a short-lived TV series starring Jodie Foster (just two years away from her own Oscar nomination) and Christopher Connelly, an actor who played Ryan O'Neal's brother in 1964's Peyton Place, yet another TV series spun off from a motion picture. YouTube Clip of series' opening sequence.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, July 28, 2014

SPHINX 1981

“Get more out of life. See a fucked-up movie.”  John Waters

I don’t know why, but certain kinds of bad movies do have a unique charm about them. The best are happy accidents comprised of good intentions, poor decisions, lofty ambitions, and overburdened talent - all culminating in a perfect schadenfreude cocktail.
To be fair, Sphinx doesn't legitimately qualify as a fucked-up movie, but it is an implausible, convoluted, unrelentingly silly movie which, provided it hasn't put you to sleep with its sluggish pacing, is a great deal of fun. The fact that I derive so much pleasure from a film considered by many (some being members of the film's cast) to be absolutely wretched, is a riddle worthy of the Sphinx itself.
Lesley-Anne Down as Dr. Erica Baron
Frank Langella as Ahmed Khazzan
Sir John Gielgud as Abdu-Hamdi
Maurice Ronet as Yvon DeMargeau
Sphinx was released toward the tail-end of “Tut-Mania” - a superficially New Age-y 70s craze inflamed by the mass-marketing and rampant publicity surrounding the record-breaking 1976-1979 U.S. tour of the Egyptian artifact exhibit: The Treasures of Tutankhamun. Virtually overnight, America became obsessed by all things Egyptian. 
Comedian Steve Martin had a Top-20 hit with his novelty song, King Tut; bookstores overflowed with tomes extolling the virtues of Pyramid Power (my college had a pyramid in its courtyard under which students could sit for energy renewal. Its acoustic-resistant design ideal for muting the sound of snickers); and everywhere you looked you saw King Tut posters, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and massive reproductions of ancient Egyptian jewelry. Rare was the home you’d visit which didn't have at least one Egyptian-themed artwork, shelf knickknack, or coffee table book on display.

In the grip of Egyptomania
Cher (who never met a fad she didn't like) plays "Hands off my Tuts" while
Steve Martin gets wild & crazy with an Egyptian mummy (w)rap song
In 1978, thanks largely to Michael Crichton’s slick direction and Geneviève Bujold’s intelligent performance, Coma - author Robin Cook’s 1977 bestselling medical-thriller - enjoyed a commercially successful book-to-screen translation. The following year, Cook topped the bestseller lists again with Sphinx, another profession-based mystery-thriller with a spunky young heroine at its center, this time set in the fast-paced, life and death struggle, never-a-dull-moment world of Egyptology. That the novel would be made into a motion picture was a foregone conclusion the moment it hit the stands.
Sphinx’s serpentine plot (aspish plot?) virtually defies description, but the base, TV-miniseries gist of it all is that Lesley-Anne Down is a young and beautiful Egyptologist (is there any other kind?) who stumbles upon a cutthroat gang of antiquities black marketeers, and in doing so, possibly unearths Egypt's last undiscovered, perfectly preserved tomb. In her efforts to claim the discovery for herself ("Do you know what the chances are of getting anywhere in Egyptology through the normal routes are for a woman?!?" she asserts at the beginning of a long-winded, ill-timed feminist jeremiad that doesn't have the cumulative effect the screenwriter hoped) while assisting an ambitious French Journalist (Ronet), and falling in love with/evading a mysterious Egyptian official (Langella); Down must first survive being thrown down a flight of stairs, imprisonment, being chased, terrorized, shot at, assaulted, entombed, bitten by an old woman(!), nearly beheaded, run off the road, and being attacked by old bats (they flying type, this time, not the aforementioned little old lady). It's action, it's adventure, it's romance...it's Sphinx.
In a 1922 flashback sequence, Victoria Tennant and James Cossins portray Lady and Lord Carnarvon, the real-life financial backers of the discovery and excavation of Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb. Ironically, in 1986 Tennant would wed Mr. King Tut himself, Steve Martin.
If Hollywood wasn't already intrigued by the lightning-strikes-twice success potential of Robin Cook's sound-alike suspenser (it’s essentially Coma in Cairo), most certainly the timely, exploitation-friendly setting of Egypt was enough to seal the deal. The aforementioned Treasures of Tutankhamun museum tour was still going strong (it toured globally from 1972 through 1981) so Sphinx must have looked like a boxoffice slam dunk. In an out-of-the-gate bid to compete in the big leagues, recently-formed independent production company Orion Pictures snapped up the film rights to Sphinx in pre-publication for an estimated $1 million dollars. The directing chores immediately assigned to Oscar-winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes, The Boys from Brazil), who also co-produced. 

After such a hefty initial cash outlay, and with a substantial portion of the film’s budget (reported to be in the vicinity of $12 million - $17 million) yet to be allocated to the securing of a cinematographer (Ernest Day - A Passage it India) and the understandably high-priority task of acquiring the rights to film in some of Egypt’s most historic locations (Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza, The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities); the makers of Sphinx can’t be blamed if they felt it necessary to tighten their shentis a bit when it came to the screenwriter and cast.
Sphinx boasts breathtakingly beautiful scenery
In a decision tantamount to trying to build a pyramid upside down, the job of adapting Robin Cook’s novel to the screen was handed over to Mahogany screenwriter John Byrum; an ignominious claim if ever there was one, and a screen credit one would think sufficient to prohibit Mr. Byrum from ever being allowed anywhere near a typewriter for the rest of his days. When the film opened, Byrum's talky, nonsensical screenplay was cited as a prime offender in the film's many unfavorable reviews, most famously the terse two-word put-down, "Sphinx Stinks," which is right up there with I Am a Camera's "Me No Leica."
  
British actress Lesley-Anne Down copped the plumb female lead in Sphinx's nearly all-male cast. An alumnus of Upstairs Downstairs (the 70s Downton Abbey), Down’s film career at this point consisted mainly of high-profile supporting roles and second-leads in a string of increasingly dismal big-budget features. Sphinx gave Down her first opportunity to carry an entire major motion picture by herself.

I won’t say the lovely actress fumbles the opportunity, but following Sphinx, the actress who at one time starred opposite Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, and Burt Reynolds, was reduced to lending support to such kiss-your-career-goodbye movie co-stars as Andrew Stevens, Eric Roberts, and Hulk Hogan. Happily, television welcomed Ms. Down back with open arms, and for years the now-retired actress enjoyed a thriving career as the Joan Collins of daytime soaps.
Shady antiquities dealer Abdu-Hamdi shows Dr. Baron a rare statue of Pharaoh Seti I

No matter how slickly packaged, bad movies have a way of tipping their hand rather early. Before Sphinx even reaches the ten-minute mark, we're given an indication of what kind of ride we’re in for in a scene where Down engages in a forced, exposition-heavy conversation with a museum curator. In record time we learn where she’s from (Boston by way of England for Egyptology graduate studies); how long she’s lived there (five years); why she’s single (she’s sworn off men after her beau, a fellow Egyptologist, left her for a tenured position at a Chicago University); and why she’s in Egypt (she’s working on a paper on Meneptha, chief architect of the tomb of Tutankhamun).
The scene lasts but 60-seconds, but in that time we’re alerted to the fact that this is a film which regards character as something to be hastily dispensed with in order to get to the most pressing matters at hand: implausible plot twists, narrow escapes, close calls, travelogue views of Egyptian scenery, and placing the heroine in as much jeopardy as possible over the course of two hours.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
As “Women in Jeopardy” films go, by description Sphinx may sound a lot like Coma (a movie that gets it 100% right and which I absolutely adore), but in execution it most resembles Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (1979), one of Audrey Hepburn’s last films and a movie so off-the-rails loopy that I urge to run, not walk, and secure yourself a copy if you've never seen it. 
Sphinx has beautiful scenery to recommend it, lots of lovingly rendered shots of Egyptian artifacts to drool over, and even a pretty decent mystery at its core, but these serve as mere backdrops for the film’s primary amusement: Sphinx’s consistent inability to make good on even its most modest ambitions.
For example, Sphinx can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a rollicking adventure along the lines of, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (which opened five months later in 1981, effectively obliterating Sphinx from people’s memories), or a smart mystery thriller like Hitchcock’s Notorious. Thus, in settling unstably somewhere in between, Sphinx at times feels jarringly schizophrenic. From a narrative standpoint, this means physical comedy and broadly-played character schtick shatter interludes of funereal soberness without preparation or warning, making plot points that already stretch credibility seem farcical.
John Rhys-Davies as Stephanos Markoulis
He appeared as the less threatening Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark this same year
For poor Lesley-Anne Down, this means her character has to vacillate between being a resourceful, no-nonsense Egyptologist; a gushing tourist; and a screaming, hysterical ninny...sometimes all within the same scene. Saddled with a crayon-red hairdo that makes her look like the love child of Laurie Anderson and Annie Lennox, the movie asks us to take her character seriously while the filmmakers undermine her credibility by keeping every hair in place, clothes spiffy clean (that cream-colored jumpsuit must have been dipped in Scotch-Gard), and makeup flawless, no matter how many ruins she crawls around in.
Mullet and Shoulder Pads
A look as timeless as the Pyramids themselves

PERFORMANCES
I’ve liked Lesley-Anne down since I first laid eyes on her in A Little Night Music in 1977 and then a few months later in The Besty (another world-class stinker you should make it your business to see). She was so different in each film I scarcely knew it was the same woman. Although her subsequent output gave me pause (the deadly dull Hanover Street was almost the final nail), I was excited at the prospect of her being cast in Sphinx after reading the book and thinking it would at last provide the ill-used actress an opportunity to be something other than glamorous window-dressing.
The Stepford Egyptian
Talented actor Frank Langella (a lip-reader's nightmare, his mouth never moves when he speaks) must have used the saying, "Expressionless as a Sphinx" as his character motivation. Honestly, his performance is comprised of steely-eyed stares (his 1979 Dracula bit) while his voice emanates from...where, his ears?...certainly not that immobile mouth
Down is actually the best thing in the film, but on the whole that turns out not to be saying very much. At some point  the makers of Sphinx must have realized that they had constructed a thriller exclusively around a bunch of grim, glowering, middle-aged-to-elderly men (mostly silent) whose main interest is to keep a secret hidden. This may play well on the page but makes for a deadly dull movie. Subsequently, it falls to the Erica Baron character to shoulder the entirety of the film’s “thrill factor.” So, as if to compensate for a whole lot of nothing coming from the male side of the cast, Down is directed to scream, shriek, jump, weep, yelp, and basically be in hysterics at annoyingly frequent intervals just to remind people they are watching a thriller. So while I can't say Lesley-Anne Down ever convinces me even for a minute that she's an Egyptologist, I have to hand it to her for giving the role everything she's got. For those who only know Down from the robotic demands of soap operas, the physicality of her performance in Sphinx should come as quite a nice surprise.
Scenery-10, Chemistry - 0

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As a non-fan of the video game feel and look of CGI, Sphinx gets points simply by presenting such amazing, unenhanced vistas of Egypt. Accompanied by sometimes overly-majestic swells of music, there is much to swoon over in the scenery, artifacts and travelogue footage. Even if you hate the film and want to watch it on fast forward with the sound down, I'd recommend Sphinx for its outstanding visuals. And on a side note, I know this is a film and many of the people are paid extras; there still is an alarming difference in the size of the average American tourist back in 1980 when compared to today.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I don't really know if they make movies like Sphinx anymore (most likely they're on Lifetime if they do), but just watching it again recently made me all nostalgic for the days when one could count on at least one glossy, overproduced Hollywood trifle like this a year. It mattered not whether it came from the pen of Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, or Sidney Sheldon, there was just the assurance that the result would be entertainingly escapist trash or a disaster of transplendent awfulness. It was a win-win situation.
Sphinx is too serous in approach and lacking in outrageously off-kilter casting to be a great camp classic (they would have had to cast Pia Zadora for that), but while it still hits all the necessary points for me to qualify it as an enjoyably "bad" movie, Sphinx has an appealingly old-fashioned feel to it that gets me where I live, nostalgically speaking. And by that I mean I occasionally appreciate movies that stumble and fall flat on their faces simply because they take me back to a time when movies actually looked like they were trying.

BONUS MATERIAL
Sphinx is available in its entirety on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson