"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 film which, provided it hasn't put you to sleep with its sluggish pacing, is a great deal of fun in its being almost wholly untethered to reality. 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, never-a-dull-moment world of Egyptology. Right.
That the novel would ultimately 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 rousing effect the screenwriter planned—Down must also assist an ambitious French Journalist (Ronet) and fall in love with a mysterious Egyptian official (Langella).
For her trouble, she is thrown down a flight of stairs, imprisoned, chased, terrorized, shot at, assaulted, entombed, bitten by an old woman(!), nearly beheaded, run off the road, and attacked by old bats (the flying type, this time, not the aforementioned little old lady). It's action, it's adventure, it's romance...it's Sphinx.
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 were 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 to $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 Coma 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."
British actress Lesley-Anne Down copped the plumb female lead in Sphinx's nearly all-male cast. An alumnus of Upstairs Downstairs (the Downton Abbey of the '70s), 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.
Alas, 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 currently 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 that regards character as something to be hastily dispensed with in order to get on with 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 you 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.
|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.
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.
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 though 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 movie 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.
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 very 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 serious in approach and lacking in outrageously off-kilter casting to be a great camp classic (they would have had to cast Pia Zadora in the lead 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.