Cairo Station follows three principal characters. Abu Sireh (Farid Shawqi) is an ambitious porter trying to organize a union; he needs 50 men to sign up before the government will aid them in negotiating with an oppressive boss. Shawqi is an Anthony Quinn type, big, boisterous and sometimes brutal. He's the jealous lover of Hanouma (Hind Rostom), a wildcat beverage vendor working the station illicitly. She's also the idol of Qinawi (Chahine), a lame misfit news hawker who lives in a shack where he's papered the walls with pin-up art. Chahine directs himself as a Chaneyish pathetic grotesque, playing for sympathy when children stone him but also presenting his character as a dangerous deviant. Sexualized violence threatens Hanouma from both directions, since Abu Sireh isn't above hitting her if he thinks she's cheating on him -- though they can playfully spray each other with soda bottles moments later -- while jealous Qinawi seethes with rage when she laughingly rejects his own pathetic proposals, and takes inspiration from news reports of a serial killer who mutilates women.
Hanouma, Abu Sireh and Qinawi all admire the female form -- each in his or her own fashion.
Over 76 minutes, Chahine efficiently builds up the three leads and assembles an atmospheric picture of the Bab el hadid as a crossroads of classes and cultures. Rock n' roll has already hit Egypt, in the form of Mike and His Skyrockets, who perform an exuberant number for Hanouma to dance to. Traditional religious types look on with scorn. Most women wear modern dress, or else their more traditional costumes wouldn't pass muster by current Islamist standards. Chahine's attitude toward it all is appropriately ambivalent. Has a sensationalist, sexualized popular culture inflamed Qinawi to a dangerous extent, or does his misfit status doom him to pathological obsessions and increasingly violent impulses? An ideologue has to choose one answer; an artist doesn't. It suffices that Qinawi is part of the human landscape and, as Warner Bros. might say, a problem we all must solve.
The Pepsi Generation
Cairo Station builds to a galloping climax as the three storylines intertwine more tightly. Qinawi schemes to kill Hanouma and frame Abu Sireh, which serves the interests of the boss porter who'd like to get the big troublemaker out of the way. Complications involving the mistaken identity of persons and props keep the wheels turning so that Qinawi gets a second chance to get his way. As a maestro of melodrama, Chahine is not above literally putting his heroine on the railroad tracks with an engine approaching, but he pulls it off without cynicism or campiness. For a viewer familiar with Hollywood cliches, the exotic setting and Chahine's guileless conviction give the cliches new life. The actors -- including Chahine himself, of course -- help put it over with energetic yet grounded performances. While it's probably fair to acknowledge both neorealist and noir influences over the picture, it's a vital, animal spirit akin to Pre-Code that makes Cairo Station a foreign classic that's fun to watch.
I'll send you home with the sounds of Mike and His Skyrockets. Greg Noiz uploaded this clip from Cairo Station to YouTube.