Thursday, November 21, 2013

In short: Sphinx (1981)

Egyptologist Erica Baron (Lesley-Anne Down) is on her first trip to Egypt to keep contact with shady antiques dealer Abdu-Hamdi (Very Egyptian John Gielgud) for her boss, and do a serious amount of sight-seeing.

Abdu-Hamdi has something quite interesting to show her: a hitherto unknown statue carrying the names of Tuthankamun and Seti I., as well as that of Erica's special person of interest, Seti's architect Menephtah (in random flashbacks of dubious use to the film to be played by Behrouz Vossoughi). Unfortunately, Abdu-Hamdi is murdered before he can disclose the history and provenance of the statue. Erica's interest is more than a little piqued, and, despite her temperamentally really not being cut out for the adventuring life, she starts to poke around after Abdu-Hamdi's business and the statue. This, after all, could lead her to the archaeological find of a lifetime.

Soon the same people who killed the antiques dealer are after Erica too, as well as a black market dealer (the inevitable John Rhys-Davies) and a guy with a gun who may or may not belong to either of the factions. Rather more helpful to Erica are charming (it's an assumed trait, for he is French and this is that sort of movie) journalist Yvon Mageot (Maurice Ronet) and Egyptian department of antiquities investigator Akmed Khazzan (Even More Egyptian Frank Langella). If only Erica knew whom to trust!

Franklin J. Schaffner's Sphinx's main attraction is that not little of it was shot in Egypt itself, leading to large amounts of high quality tourist picture postcard shots. In fact, Schaffner uses so much of this admittedly very pretty footage that it more than once gets in the way of the film's actual plot of "exotic" intrigue and Victoria-Holt-style romance. Again and again, said plot is put on hold for another round of Lesley-Anne Down posing in front of prettily shot tourist attractions.

It's not as if the "Visit beautiful Egypt!" parts weren't well done, or as if the film never used them to enhance its plot, but for long stretches of the running time it becomes rather doubtful if you're watching an ad for holidays in Egypt or a movie about the adventures of an Egyptologist (who, by the way, hasn't bothered to learn a single word of Arabic). When the movie decides to be a movie, it is very old-fashioned, quite silly, yet also effective if you're like me and like rather old-fashioned adventure movies. There's even a minor thematic thread doubting the moral correctness of the European and US plundering of Egypt's cultural treasures, though the film is too distracted by gawping at Egypt to make much of it.

Despite these shortcomings I mostly enjoyed my time with Sphinx, for if it often is more of a tourism ad than a movie, it is a very attractive tourism ad which, when it gets around to it, just happens to feature some competently staged scenes of mild adventure.

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