johnlink ranks BAB EL HADID (CAIRO STATION) (1958)

IMDB lists this film as THE IRON GATE. I watched it on TCM under the title CAIRO STATION. The original Egyptian title is BAB EL HADID. Whatever you want to call it, this is a movie I was introduced to when I watched the STORY OF FILM documentary several months ago. It has sat on my DVR for awhile, and I finally got around to seeing it. This is considered one of the great gems of Egyptian cinema. So how is it?


I watched BAB EL HADID (CAIRO STATION) (1958) on 1.29.14. It was my first viewing of the film.

Youssef Chahine was Egyptian born, California trained, and wonderfully talented. He is considered one of the great directors in the history of Egyptian cinema, and BAB AL HADID is thought of as one of his masterpieces. Made in 1958, it draws on the Italian Neo-Realism movement while also being very much a product of Hollywood acting styles and Egyptian sensibilities.

In addition to directing, Chahine plays the lead role of Qinawi. The film opens with a shop owner finding the gimpy Qinawi on the street. The shop owner offers Qinawi a job selling newspapers and a shack to live in. The busy station at which they are employed provides a tight setting. Qinawi quickly falls in love with Hannouma (Hind Rostom) a surprisingly sexual woman who illegally sells cold drinks to the train passengers. Hannouma is engaged to a porter named Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi), who is spending most of his time trying to motivate the multitude of station workers to form a union.

Trying hard not to spoil what happens, we eventually learn that a murder had taken place somewhere close by and that one of the characters may be involved. That this film becomes a wonderful tension filled suspense movie in its second half is surprising, because the first half foreshadows a nice love story. When that love story proves unfruitful, though, things fall apart quickly for some of the major characters.

This is Qinawi’s film in that his character is the major catalyst for what happens. The climax figures him in greatly. Until we get there, however, this is very much about the sexuality of Hannouma. That she comes to be in danger could be thought of as a cautionary tale save for her undeniable strength. Rostom plays Hannouma in a way that Hollywood might have been uncomfortable with in 1958. She flaunts her cleavage, winks at the camera, twirls her clothes, and invites everyone to look. When her fiancee beats her, she wins him over with joy and sex. She does this in an unashamed and natural way. Chahine does not direct this as a sacrifice or a duty, but as a preference. In fact, the only tragedy in the scene is Qinawi’s, as he listens outside the door as the fight turns from violent to pleasurable.


Also impressive is Shawqi as the third part of the triangle, Abu Siri. He is a large, muscular man who looks like an odd cross between Vin Diesel and Vincent D’Onofrio. He exudes both compassion and violence. He wants to unionize the workplace for the good of all, yet he can’t control his anger when his fiancee makes him look foolish. His acting is restrained, powerful. Perhaps Chahine’s greatest achievement is how well balanced the film is in terms of acting.

A small subplot involves a girl who wants to see her love get on a train. We see Qinawi listening to her story at multiple points (in fact, we often see Qinawi in the background, listening, as other things happen in this movie). This young girl seems to be the one true innocent in the whole film. The movie ends with her watching what is happening. Is she standing in for Qinawi? Is she going to become like him? Is she just a pretty sympathetic face to end on? Who knows. I believe there is a meaning, I just can’t derive it.

I have to plead some ignorance on how progressive Cairo was in the late 1950s. Some of this, perhaps, comes from Chahine’s Los Angeles exposure, but there is a high level of sexuality, promiscuity, and a strong sense of the power of women. This is noted in the movie, with an older man expressing disdain at the youth in the station, and with another man blaming his wife for not covering her face when she accuses Qinawi of staring at her. It is clear, however, that Chahine views these men as old fashioned and outmoded. He absolutely embraces the more forward character of Hannouma. Perhaps that is why Egypt banned the film after a short successful run.

Through the first half of this film I thought I was watching an important film with less tangible entertainment value. As the film moves on, both value improve. The film becomes more as the characters begin to conflict. The enjoyability of the movie improves as the tension builds. Half way through I would have just recommended this as an important piece of world cinema, and a wonderful contemporaneous look at Egypt in the late 1950s. Thanks to the second half of the film, I am happy to recommend it on its entertainment merits as well.



8+7+8+7+0= 30



~ by johnlink00 on January 30, 2014.

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