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, albeit kissable, 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 for presenting such amazing, unenhanced vistas of Egypt. Shots of this breathtaking location are frequently accompanied by overly-majestic swells of music, but there is much to swoon over in the scenery, artifacts and travelogue footage. Even if you hate the film and choose to watch it on fast-forward with the sound muted, I'd wholeheartedly recommend Sphinx for its outstanding travelogue visuals. And on a side note, I know this is a film and many of the people on display are paid extras; but there still is an alarming difference in the size of the average American tourist, circa 1980, when compared with 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

30 comments:

  1. Fun read Ken, though not sure I'll take the plunge on this one.

    I was thrown a bit by the photos of Frank Langella, he looked so much like Lou Diamond Phillips.

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    1. Thanks very much, Cathy
      Wow...considering how long I looked at these screencaps, it amazes me I never once saw the resemblance to Lou Diamond Phillips...now that's ALL I see! It's so pronounced!

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    2. It slapped me, I had to keep checking to see if you had the names right :) It was striking.

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  2. My family saw Frank Langella as Dracula on Broadway, set design by Edward Gorey (!), and I suppose he must have been pretty good because we followed that up with this (which I could tell even as a 10-year-old was pretty bad) and before that, his filmed Dracula (which I could tell, even as a 9-year-old, was dreadful).

    John Rhys-Davies was everywhere those days. Shogun, I Clavdivs, Victor Victoria... of course my children only know him as Gimli.

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    1. Hi Allen
      That's wonderful your family saw the stage production of Dracula! I recall the Gorey collaboration was quite the publicity point. Sounds like you had more Langella in your childhood than is considered healthy.
      And yes, sort of amazing that Rhys-Davies is as known to kids today as he was in your childhood! Who would have guessed that he would have been the one with the most onscreen staying power in this film?

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  3. I always liked Lesley well enough, remember that gorgeous Life mag cover of Downe, in a white fur hat, ala Liz Taylor in The VIPs? Unfortunately, she lacked ET's spark. I most remember Lesley-Anne Downe in North and South, which was a mini-series smash at the time. She was reunited with Liz in this, too. Downe played a beleaguered southern belle with a past, not unlike Taylor's cracked belle in Raintree County. And Liz played the madam who reveals the secrets of Downe's character's past.
    Not sure I would check out Sphinx, but you've stoked my curiousity about Downe!

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    1. Hi Rico
      I had to Google that LIFE magazine cover you spoke about, I didn't remember it at all. She does look very Taylor-ish! She's certainly a beautiful woman, but you're right, for all of her talent and beauty she does seem to lack a certain intangible something that sets good actresses apart from stars.
      I recall "North and South" but never saw it. Although I only saw it once, I remember being very impressed with her in the TV-movie "The One and Only Phyllis Dixie" in which she played the famed British stripper. Screened it once on PBS I think, then never saw it again.
      Thanks for jogging my memory about my short-lived infatuation with Down!

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  4. I miss movies like this. Not great works of art, not "for the ages," but still with elements of fun and some flashy production values. This one reminds me in some ways of 1980's The Awakening (not to be confused with adaptation of Kate Chopin's novel of the same name). Charlton Heston plays an archeologist who begins to suspect his daughter is possessed by the spirit of an ancient Egyptian queen. There are lots of gruesome deaths and some questionable archeological activities, but it's entertaining and Heston, playing somewhat against type, as an unfaithful husband and neglectful father. Another movie at the tail-end of Tut-mania.

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    1. Hi Deb
      Yes, these kind of escapist, purely for entertainment movies can be a great deal of fun. I find I don't mind so much when a movie that tries to be smart inadvertently turns out to silly. My problem with so many films today is that the blanket term "popcorn movie" has given filmmakers a license to be as intentionally stupid and nonsensical as possible, provided things "blow up real good" (I'm speaking of Michael Bay, here).

      Byt he way, I thoroughly forgot about "The Awakening"! I actually saw it when it came out but (has this ever happened to you?) I have absolutely no retention of a single frame of it. I saw it on the strength of Susannah York's participation and overcame my aversion to all things Heston, but I honestly can't remember any of it. Maybe I fell asleep.

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  5. Well, you sold me on Sphinx. How I missed this when it came out I don’t know. Also, you might get a kick out of this: Amazon’s list of “customers who bought Sphinx also bought” includes Coma, Night Watch, The uninvited, The Carpetbaggers, The Prize, and Burn Witch Burn. So something sounds very right about all this. Oh, and they also bought Good morning miss Dove.

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    1. Hi Max
      Ha! A man after my own heart...that Amazon list of movies is not all over the map, but reads like a TCM "Wish List" with my name on it.
      For those with a certain kind of taste and a appreciation for women's roles written by men who don't understand women very well, "Sphinx" can be a very enjoyable movie, indeed. I hope you like it!

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  6. Hello Ken, I saw this film on video probably a year after it was released. It seemed promising and exciting what with a lady in distress in Egypt. But I thought it dull and implausible. I wanted to like it more. Lesley looked like a red-haired Lady Di. I always got her mixed up with Lesley Anne Warren who was in films in the same period.
    Your review of the film is spot on. Thank you!
    Wille

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    1. hi Wille
      You always surprise me with the scope of movies you've seen. All over the map. no wonder my schizophrenic tastes often match with yours.
      I like the red-headed Lady Di comment (it's on the nose, especially with that mullet look), and I know what you mean about the disappointment factor.
      After Coma and Alien, there appeared to be hope for strong women's roles in atypical genres. I had hoped "Sphinx" would be one to add to that roster. In the end I wound up enjoying it for what it was, putting aside what I had hoped it would be.
      Had I not been so taken with Lesley-Anne Down, I wonder if I would have tolerated the film at all (I envision Lindsay Wagner in it and I wouldn't have lasted 20 minutes). Thanks, Wille!

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  7. Lesley-Anne Down & Genevieve Bujold are 2 of my all-time favourite female actors & I think that had they been born earlier, say, 30 years before they were, then they would have been long-term, major, Hollywood-stars. ( Timing is everything. ) They evoked a different era to the 1970s & 1980s. Rhys-Davies could be brilliant when allowed a great role ( he & Sabrina Lloyd saved the telly show Sliders during the initial 2-year run, only to be thrown out of the show by a terrible new producer in the next year of the show's run ) . Your comment re Langella reminds me of the 1st thing I said after leaving the cinema, ' That stony-faced guy [ Langella ] looked like a ventriloquist whose dummy was off-screen. ' I chuckle to read at Wackopedia that the NY Times critic described him as having ' all the charm of a room clerk at the Nile Hilton ' . The script & the director are both to be criticised, for there was no excuse for that ugly, bloody, & meandering intro set back in ancient Egypt, & much of the cast were superb ( eg, Down of ' Upstairs, Downstairs ' , where I 1st stumbled across her ; Rhys-Davies ; Gielgud : the talent was there ) , but a good script is a prerequisite for even a tolerably good film.

    But, notwithstanding the squandering of this opportunity, it's a tolerable film which I happily picked up a copy of about a year and a half ago. I'll hold it up to the screen for you & the others to see. There you are. ( Also caught it from time to time on late-night telly. ) The locations are beautiful, & I can more easily see & appreciate some of the objects than I could discern some of the objets d'art when I was at the museum's Tut exhibition rushing through. & Down is quite stunningly beautiful. ( aren't all archaeologists beautiful Nancy-Drew types or their Hardy-Boys male equivalents ? please don't disillusion me ! ) I'd rank it with some nostalgic affection as a golden turkey. It's not horrible, but it could have been so much more. I concur & agree with your spot-on commentary.

    We now pause for station identification. This is Pearl. Remember, kids, Smokey The Bear reminds you that only you can prevent forest bears ! Ciao !

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    1. King Tut, la, la, la, la, born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, he gave his life for tourism !

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    2. Hi Pearl
      Just love that description of Langella's "acting" as being like a ventriloquist with an offscreen dummy! He is sooo mummified in this film. I can't believe he was a happy man at the time.
      America's track record with actresses with British accents is not very good. We seem unable to know how to include them in American narratives. Their accents scare us, it would appear, for we are forever casting them as villains, nannies, or sexpots in need of defrosting.
      I'm with you in finding the script of "Sphinx" particularly weak and the primary sabotager of the actors and the film's potential. Too bad.
      But I'm glad however that, like me, you are able to find the film to be a painless diversion with more than a film things to recommend it. As you say, it's not as if they assembled an untalented cast.
      Golden Turkey is a perfect description, i think. Also, it's nice to hear from someone who likes Lesley-Anne Down, an actress a friend of mine harbored a girlhood crush on for years.

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    3. I recall that several men engaged in wolf-whistles on several occasions when Down appeared on screen at the cinema. She at times seemed to be in a commercial for perfume, Cleopatra's perfume, Cleo ? didn't Julius ' Caesar ' ? Cleo, she always wore scandals on her feet !

      I always liked the pre-? 1990s ? British accent or standard international or trans-Atlantic or Received Pronunciation they used to employ -- it was easier for me to comprehend than some slurred American accents for me ( English is a 3d language for me : my 1st was an American Indian language of my mum from the far Northeast of the US ; my 2d was French of my mum ; my 3d, upon starting school, was English, which I learnt from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes & Gibbons' Decline & Fall Of the Roman Empire -- nerdette alert ! -- & from my father, a native Anglophone of a different Indian nation. I was startled by the change in British English I encountered after the turn of the century, but I was relieved when I read Roger Moore's complaint that his daughter could not get British work because she did not speak the new ' Estuary ' English, a slurred accent which apparently has become de rigueur in contemporary British films and/or telly. Relieved, for I had begun to wonder if I had lost some linguistic skills. --Pearl

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    4. Hi Pearl
      Those Cleopatra/Caesar puns of yours remind me of TV variety show skits from my youth. And I think the image of Down looking as if she is in a perfume commercial is so spot on as to be uncanny. Were the film even remotely popular, some YouTube kid could whip up a parody commercial from the film's footage in no time.
      That accent you spea of hit me in the face the other day when watching "Now Voyager". I don't recall where Bette Davis and her aunt (mother?) live, but they have the most amazingly posh British accents.
      An afternoon watching TCM and I'm reminded how I grew up thinking Yanks like Rosalind Russell were British.
      I don't think I was aware that the accents have changed over the years. You must have a wonderful accent. Don't lose it!

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  8. You really should do a write-up of "Bloodline!" (I thought I was the only one who ever saw it.) I remember "Bloodline" mostly because it gave me the chance to see a real Hollywood legend at the local theater for only a buck. Audrey was great, of course, but the rest of the movie was a real mess-everything from the Ghetto (the 19th Century Eastern European type,) to pharmaceutical factories, to snuff films (!)

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    1. Hi Maynard's Dad (great name)
      I have "Bloodline" on my Amazon wish list. Isn't it the most amazing mess? i saw it the Friday evening it opened at Grauman's Chinese theater and sat through it two times. As you note, it has everything. And you just keep wondering what Hepburn possibly saw in it.
      I spent considerably more than a buck to see it that night. I should have waited. Nice to hear someone else out there saw it II always remember the title sequence with those overlapping titles and the way the orchestral music gets VERY dark. I loved it, but boy is it an odd film.Hope you stop back time to time to see if i ever pick up that DVD.

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  9. I'm catching up on all my reading the past couple of weeks, and I have to make an observation about Sphinx and about archaeology films - which is that I always thought of archaeology as basically spending hours digging in the hot sun, and then spending more hours carefully brushing dirt off bits of pottery. I had NO idea it was a profession akin to the Perils of Pauline! ;) I wonder if Sphinx and films of its ilk increase enrollment in archaeology college classes? I also fell apart when I read Frank Langella's film character's name, which sounds like something you'd see headlining a vaudeville magician act. There's always something a little creepy about Langella onscreen; I get the impression he's watching himself in a mirror no matter what he's supposed to be doing. He never made it to major film star status, in spite of being cast in heartthrob roles in 70s movies. Maybe it was all that wavy hair, it was just too distracting (I like him better now that he's bald).

    I admit, I prefer my Egyptian antiquity movies with a mummy or two stomping around, but Sphinx looks like it has action aplenty to make up for such a loss!

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    1. Your comment about Langella's name in this film caught me off-guard and i couldn't help but laugh aloud! That is of course because you're so spot-on in that description.
      Like you, I often find it amusing how fascinating, but essentially workaday jobs can be made to appear just short of 007-level employment. The straining of credibility works in camp films about mummies and the like, but in a dead-serious suspense film, it can lead to the characters leading absurdly adventurous lives.
      I think I did read about the whole King Tut phenomenon causing a boost in those seeking degrees in archaeology, but I wonder if they found the real thing to be a comedown after seeing movies such as "Sphinx".
      I never got Langella's appeal. I always assumed he perhaps come off better onstage. He holds so much in reserve onscreen. I think the loosest I ever saw him was in "Those Lips, Those Eyes" (1980) but I haven't seen that since it was released. I too like him better now....he seems less intoxicated by his own looks.
      Thank you for using your spare reading time to catch up with posts on my blog. I always get such a huge kick out of your comments!

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  10. I remember hearing about this movie, but this is the first time that I've ever been able to see anything in depth about it. The difference between this and RAIDERS is probably that one is a silly movie made by people with a sense of humour, whilst the other is a silly movie made by people who wouldn't know a joke if it hit them in the face. Looking at the movies made by Langella at this point in his career, you do get the feeling of someone deeply and profoundly in love with himself. The impression I got from a book that he wrote recently is that he isn't really the most loveable person in the world, but he certainly does seem to have become a much better actor since old age came and kicked him in the face (I really like his performance in FROST/NIXON). Down has always struck me as someone who was often badly cast, as she is essentially a very good light comedy actress. In THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY she is wonderful as the female lead, not least because she is a sexy actress playing the part of a sexy actress, and she manages the difficult task of playing someone who is acting, without simply being herself (if you see what I mean...) Fascinating to see Gielgud in the cast. Around the same time as this he was giving excellent serious performances in stuff like THE ELEPHANT MAN or CHARIOTS OF FIRE, comedy turns in ARTHUR, charming cameos in Agatha Christie adaptions, and tripe like this. Some actors are so, so good that they are essentially bullet proof (I'm reminded of an interview that Olivier did whilst on the set of BRIDESHEAD REVISITED--when asked what he was doing next he replied "Neil Diamond's Jewish father in THE JAZZ SINGER, God help me!")

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    1. "One is a silly movie made by people with a sense of humour, whilst the other is a silly movie made by people who wouldn't know a joke if it hit them in the face."
      Perfect!
      And indeed, "Sphinx" is very silly but doesn't know it, and thus the audience is put in the position of being one-up on a mystery before the mysteries even begin to pile up.
      Langella has admitted to a certain amount of self-enchantment in his youth, and given that he also comes off as having the personality of a Gila-monster, I can only imagine he wasn't the most emotive of players when he was young. But he does seem to have seasoned into a very good actor once he she the burden of all that odd beauty (In an interview, and perhaps even in his book, he makes reference to his male/female look at the time "People would look and say it's either Frank Langella or Ava Gardner").
      Love your observations about Down's particular strengths (a point of view I tend to agree with) and the resiliency of Gielgud.
      Of course, i'm mad about the Olivier quote...oh, my memories of seeing "The Jazz Singer" God help me, indeed. Thanks for a wonderfully fulsome comment!

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    2. To be honest, the only part of "Chariots of Fire" that I really liked was John Gielgud's anti-semitic Oxford Don.

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  11. It takes a lot to make me laugh out loud, but your comment re: mullets and shoulder pads did the trick. :)

    FWIW, the mention of North and South incited a bit of fangirl flailery on my part, because I watched it several years back and adored what a trashy, glorious mess it was. Though Patrick Swayze was the nominal star, I emerged with a giant crush on James Read, who--like Ms. Down--has now experienced a career revival on soap operas (Days of Our Lives, in his case). He's aged quite nicely, too.

    Moreover, Philip Casnoff as sad-sack OTT villain Elkanah Bent made me ridiculously happy, as I already harbored a giant girl-boner for him as Nikolai Stanislofsky on Oz (I was going through a Russian phase in the late 90's), and to see him so much younger--in a character I still think of as ¡Huge Fluffy Mullet Man!--makes me smile right now as I'm typing this.

    Long story short: if you can stomach how offensive North and South is on some levels (don't get me started on how appallingly racist it is--on a par with most 80's television, alas), it's a lot of fun, and Ms. Down is great in it. With what a giant costume soap opera it is--like Upstairs, Downstairs, but American 'n trashy!--no wonder she did so well on The Bold and the Beautiful!

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    1. One of the more pleasurable side attractions of pop culture - film/TV in particular, is harboring so deep a crush on a performer that it removes all suffering from otherwise insufferable entertainment. The best thing about it is that, in hindsight, it seems to place us so precisely at a particular point and time in our lives.
      So much so that even if we no longer harbor the crush, the nostalgia for the feelings remain strong.

      I always enjoy hearing about how swoony people can get over a certain actor/actress. It always feels like part of the whole magic of movies.
      I love soap-type trash, so maybe if North & South is on YouTube or Netflix I can give it a look. You certainly make it sound like a lot of camp fun.

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    2. I just checked, and Netflix *does* have "The Complete Collection" of North and South available on DVD, but I would recommend skipping Book III with its recasting and retcons galore (along with Patrick Swayze's character being conveniently killed offscreen). Even though Philip Casnoff and James Read were in it, I didn't find it an enjoyable sort of stinker. The first two installments are a lot of fun, though.

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