2 May 2008 | Bunuel1976
SPHINX (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1981) **
Rather foolish attempt at a Hitchcock-type mystery-thriller, improbably exchanging espionage for archaeology and based on the Robin Cook novel; incidentally, I’ve recently acquired another adaptation of his work – COMA (1978) – in honor of the late Richard Widmark. For the record, director Schaffner had just made THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978) – a similarly fanciful but much more engrossing suspenser and, unfortunately, SPHINX was a false step from which his so-far impressive career would not recover.
Despite its scope and reasonably decent cast, however, this one proved a critical and commercial flop – mainly because the narrative just isn’t very thrilling: in fact, it’s quite dreary (feeble attempts at horror – the archaeologist heroine having to put up with entombment, rotting corpses galore, and even an attack by a flurry of bats – notwithstanding). Lesley Anne-Down is the lovely leading lady, stumbling upon a lost treasure – it’s actually been hidden away by a local sect to prevent it from falling into the hands of foreigners, who have appropriated much of the country’s heritage (under the pretext of culture) for far too long. Sir John Gielgud turns up in a thankless bit early on as the antique dealer who puts Down on the way of the loot, and pays for this ‘act of treason’ with his life.
Typically, it transpires that some characters are the opposite of what they claim to be – so that apparent allies (such as Maurice Ronet) are eventually exposed as villains, while an ambiguous figure (Frank Langella, whom I saw at London in early 2007 in a West End performance of “Frost/Nixon”, which has now been turned into a film) goes from Down’s antagonist to her lover and back again, as he determines to keep the wealth belonging to Egyptian high priest Menephta a national treasure.