Cairo Station (Bab el hadid, Egypt 1958)

Youssef Chahine as Qinawi, the news vendor

Cairo Station was the 11th film directed by Youssef Chahine. He was still only 32 and he also played the central character in the film. Although he was established and had already shown films at Cannes, it was this film that announced him as a major director in global cinema. He managed to cram a great deal into 77 minutes and to make a film both thoroughly Egyptian but also remarkably contemporary in an international setting.

The film’s plot involves a recognisable romantic triangle but its presentation of characters and location, already dramatic, is further enhanced by Chahine’s performance as Qinawi the lame man with a dangerous obsession. I showed the film recently as part of an event on Egyptian Cinema and one colleague remarked that the rapid dialogue was reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. Someone else noted the neo-realist aspects and other suggestions linked the film to work by Fellini and Sergio Leone and to film noir melodramas of the late 1940s and early 1950s from the US or UK (the latter invoked particularly by the railway scenes).

The ‘love triangle’ with Abu Ser (Farid Chawki) asserting his status over Qinawi in respect of Hanouma (Hind Rostom)

As the title suggests, the setting is Egypt’s main railway station built in the late 19th century on the site of the first station in Africa dating from 1856. Over the opening images of the station some narration gives us an impression of the large numbers of trains arriving and departing the station. The narrator turns out to be the operator of the newspaper stand on the station who has taken pity on Qinawi, offering him a job as a news vendor and finding him a shack by the railway tracks in which to live. Qinawi’s background remains a mystery, although like most Cairenes he has a village to go back to. We soon learn that he is obsessed with images of attractive women which he cuts from pin-up magazines and pastes on the walls of his shack. He has further become obsessed with Hamouna (Hind Rostom), one of a number of women who (illegally) carry buckets with bottles of soft drinks down the tracks, selling them to thirsty passengers (angering the official supplier on the station concourse). But Hamouna is expected to marry Abu Seri (Farid Chawki) the would-be leader of the railway porters who is attempting to form a trade union. Added to this by scriptwriters Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hai Adib (both seemingly writing their first feature) is a third narrative strand about a young couple. A young woman (only a teenager?) waits around the station for her lover – who can’t acknowledge her in public because he knows his parents won’t approve of their liaison.

The drinks sellers swarm over the trains to reach passengers. Here Hind Rostom adopts an audacious pose – claiming ownership over a carriage?

I got the feeling that the film starts like a neo-realist melodrama – something like a de Sica film – but as director Chahine gets into his stride, we tend to lose a little of the sense of the ‘everyday’ in a busy railway station and the narrative slides into film noir thriller territory. Chahine was that interesting combination of an Egyptian committed to the socialism of Nasser, but also an international film artist. In Cairo Station, the political issue does get sidelined but in Chahine’s later films different ‘national’ political stories are prominent. In this film Chahine worked with two of the biggest stars of Egypt’s ‘Golden Age’ of studio production. Hind Rostom was sometimes called the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the East’ and Farid Chawki was dubbed the ‘John Wayne’ or ‘Anthony Quinn’ of Egyptian cinema (he certainly has the physical presence). Both are very good in their roles, but, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that the popular audience in Egypt at the time didn’t respond to seeing their heroes playing ‘harder’ roles than they might do in popular comedies, melodramas or action films.

The strengths of this film are partly in the photography and editing and the action by the railway tracks with the dangers associated with so many moving trains. The action in the narrative is compressed into a single day and in the last section, as night falls, the noirish elements begin to dominate, not just with the dark shadows and single light sources, but also the mise en scène of windows, doorways and other ways of disturbing the balance of the compositions. Without spoiling the narrative too much, the closing scenes offer a chase across the tracks. The photography is by ‘Alvise’ (Alevise) Orfanelli a film veteran who also wrote and directed films. His start was in 1919 and Cairo Station was his penultimate film. He died aged 59 in 1961. Orfanelli was part of the Italian community in Alexandria and was an important mentor and guide for Chahine in the late 1940s/early 1950s (see the excellent website of the Alexandria Cinema website http://www.bibalex.org/AlexCinema/cinematographers/Alvise_Orfanelli.html). The film’s music by Fouad El-Zahry is equally effective and carries motifs that remind me of American studio pictures – another trait associated with Chahine’s later films.

The unnamed young woman in the film’s closing shot

There are several interesting social observations in the film. After our screening we noted that only one woman in the whole film wore a headscarf (and this became a short comedy sequence when her husband tried to stop someone looking at her). Two rather supercilious men are identified as religious observers tut-tutting young people in Western clothes, but otherwise Cairo appears to be a secular city, at least on the surface. How different to modern filmic representations. The sub-plot of the two young lovers is particularly interesting. The young woman is a passive character whose life involves a great deal of waiting. At one point she asks Qinawi for a telephone token and on receiving it she says “Merci” rather than “Shukran”. She may be a character representing Chahine’s own biography. He grew up in a tri-lingual household speaking French (like many Alexandrines) and married a French-Egyptian woman. Some of his later films became much more auto-biographical.

Realist (and potentially dangerous shots) on a working railway

The general critical response to Cairo Station saw the film as presenting the marginalisation of Cairo’s poorer characters and how this sense of exclusion in this case pushed Qinawi into sexual violence and a tragic ending. What is just as important is the social realism and humanism of the film in which characters are equally likely to help each other as well as to display prejudice towards one another (so Qinawi is mocked because his limp makes him less likely to marry the girl of his dreams.

I enjoyed Cairo Station very much and I was very impressed by Chahine’s handling of his actors and the choreography of action in the film. The film is thrilling and visually inventive and as others have noted, there is plenty of evidence that Chahine had learned from other directors, but also that he probably influenced many others. And the film felt so contemporary for 1958. When the hip young people of Cairo board the train and an impromptu session from ‘Mike and the Skyrockets’ starts, as my colleague suggested, it was almost like Expresso Bongo (UK 1959).

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