#327. Cairo Station (1958)

Cairo Station is beautiful, wonderful, smart—and blessedly simple. The kinda movie that rings my personal bell because I think it’s basically as condensed and versatile, as funny and sexy and dark, as a great story oughta be if it really cares about its audience, if it isn’t pretentious, if it’s just trying to get you in, entertain you, communicate a point, and letcha go.

            And in that respect it feels a lot like some of the good, simple, efficient low-budget filmmaking that’s kinda been bursting out of America all throughout the 1950s—about which I’ve been a little too hard, I think, because those simpler stories can feel like tin-made TV entertainment at times, things that seem almost meant to be forgotten (I still feel this way about Phenix City Story), but then there’s stuff like Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist, or Silver Lode or The Day the Earth Stood Still, movies that are small in budget and scope, they flaunt no pretense, they play out their political message or Big Idea without sacrificing the natural intrigues of drama, of genre—and it’s clearly the wave that signaled young indie filmmakers of the 1960s, The American new Wave, to get some bare bits of equipment together and go out and tell their simple stories.

            But this isn’t about America!

That’s Hind Rostom on the right–about whom there’s much to be said below.

            Cairo Station is an Egyptian film, naturally, and it grabbed me immediately with its opening shots of people milling through a train station and voiceover from a guy who sells newspapers there (or is he a journalist too?) telling us about how this train station is a crossroads where thousands of lives meet every day, passing one another without a thought, and right away you can feel the brain of the movie, the heart of it, as we’re allowed a moment to just look at the teeming masses of people, dressed in all their many styles and walking in every direction, and to contemplate the endlessness of those lives, of their nuance and pain and joy and intrigue, with the same sort of vacant wonder as we might otherwise just stare at the ocean surf, rolling up and retreating endlessly, and contemplate even just the amount of human activity going on at sea right now, the fact that somebody is almost certainly drowning out there right now, or discovering something revelatory, or getting laid, or eating an omelette.

            And but then we cut away from that and turn toward: our story.

            Which is simple, and easy to understand, but difficult to recount. As much as it’s a story about railway workers unionizing against a heartless employer, and about that unionizer, Abu (Farid Shawqi), pulling his movement together on the eve of his wedding while the bride-to-bee taunts a disabled young man who’s in love with her (who manages to be pathetic at first, and to arouse sympathy, while also devolving into textbook psychopathic incel–with yet one more flourish of humanity at the end that manages to arouse compassion), Cairo Station is mostly about the culture of that train station. The official beverage vendor quarrels with the unofficial vendors, the conversations at the news stand, the tensions and biases among workers. The whole thing unfolds over the course of a single day and it’s very much a day-in-the-life sort of movie. A portrait of a whole community. And the way that such a nondescript place, an institution that literally runs like clockwork day after day after day, is at the same time so rich with personality and romance and humor and conflict feels so true—I see it here on 8th street in Little Havana, where I live, and where the homeless have a certain spectrum of rapport with one another, as well as with vendors at various windows, and with cops, and with the scores of car salesmen and construction workers. I see it at the college where I work. Certain custodians appear to be more than friendly with one another while others clearly have tensions; certain custodians hold up the line in conversation with cashiers at the cafeteria while certain booksellers love and/or despise their student-customers and everyone stops in their tracks to watch, hypnotized, as the student-divers launch from diving boards into the Olympic-sized swimming pool at the center of campus.

            Exactly that depth of culture is reflected here, in Cairo Station, a 75-minute thriller with worlds of nuance.

            And the last ten minutes are as tense and suspenseful as anything Alfred Hitchcock ever made (the comparison comes pointedly to mind since Hitchcock has at this point put pivotal scenes in North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes and 39 Steps).

            I’m inclined to say that the heart of the story is about Qinawi (Youssef Chahine), who’s “lame” with a club foot and clearly suffers some sort of mental illness, who’s also young and sexually frustrated and works for his adoptive father, the aforementioned news vendor who intros the movie and is apparently telling this whole story. He falls for Hannuma (Hind Rostom), the gorgeous and flippant and flirtatious heroine who’s actually not all that likable, because it’s obvious that what’s-his-name is developmentally disabled, lovelorn, sexually frustrated—and she taunts him. Flirts and then insults. Tries to lure presents away from him.

            She’s kind of despicable, actually.

That’s Hind Rostom on the right, who was referred to as the Marilyn Monroe of the east–and what little I can find about her in the way of biography is pretty interesting, particularly the fact that–if my facts are right–she only accepted one award in her life, of the many that were pushed her way, because it was the only one she deemed sincere. When, in the final decade of her life, a sort of lifetime achievement award was offered, she turned it down on grounds that, apart from not being that sincere, she was one of only a handful of major women in her industry back then, and she didn’t really feel there was any chance of her being forgotten (hence, I guess, why she didn’t need the award). Seems like an edgy personality. Retreated from cinema in the 1970s, with one exception in 1979, focused on philanthropy and family, etc. I’d like to read more if you can point me toward it.

            And as her fiancé tells him: this guy has the mind of a child, he’s easily wounded, and because he’s got the strength and cunning of a grown man, there’s no telling what he might do in retaliation if his pride is wounded; and, like a child, he’s easily won over with a kind word, a kind gesture.

            Qinawi gets jealous and buys a knife off of the…off of the knife vendor who hands out at the train station. The guy who wheels around a cart of knives that dangle on strings from their handles.

(As much a sign of a different culture as a sign of a different time.) So the latter half of the movie is the real “thriller” part, where he starts taking action with that knife, with his eyes on a certain prize.

            Anyway: it’s free on YouTube, it’s brief, and it tells a simple story while there’s a lot going on. I highly recommend it.

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