“The streets were dark with something more than night.”; a quote from the late, great novelist Raymond Chandler and one of the founders of hard-boiled detective fiction. A man who helped to create many of the archetypes for film noir through both his Phillip Marlowe series of books and the screenplays that he worked on.
The Nile Hilton Incident , written and directed by Tarek Saleh, follows a classic noir told through the prism of the Arab Spring; the series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa which started in earnest during 2010 with the Tunisian Revolution and, sadly, didn’t result in much change across the region.
After a Sudanese maid witnesses a murder at an upscale hotel in Cairo, police detective Noredin (Fares Fares) is called in to solve the case. Initially going through the motions of protocol, and attempting to collect a few extra bribes, he begins to seriously investigate as it becomes increasingly clear that there are nefarious and important individuals who don’t want this case to be resolved.
We are given a tour through the bustling city of Cairo; where greed and corruption run rampant and everyone is working their own hustle, and spend time in the cramped backstreets of the city. The rundown tenements are where the Sudanese immigrants live, extorted by an overlord, self-proclaimed “Mayor” Clinton, drifting into the surface glamour of seedy nightspot the Solitaire Club, where the beautiful 'songbirds' are expected to do more than just sing. We also visit the heavily armed compound of the suburbs, where Government officials live in a spacious paradise with manicured gardens and convenient golf courses. This serves to highlight the wealth disparity, which is both a growing symbol of the unjust world we live in and the impetus for the protests and riots that would soon sweep the area.
Fares is convincing and suitably dishevelled as the detrective at the centre of the film; the constantly smoking, seemingly amoral protagonist of the story. Whilst living a solitary life his biggest concerns at the start of the film are getting his TV fixed and joining Facebook, while he looks after his ailing father with dirty money, prompting his father to tell him “You can’t buy dignity son”. As with classic noirs, he starts to become obsessed with both the victim of the crime, Lalena, and her friend Gina, who shares the same plight, especially after being told to drop the case as it’s ruled a suicide. As a lover of noir, nothing will guarantee a thorough investigation more than telling the detective to leave it alone.
A sad indictment of the world we live in, the women here are seen as commodities to those who control their lives, with one male character reflecting “She was worth more dead than alive” as various blackmail schemes are hatched by a multitude of characters, with everyone wanting their cut. This is a world where each new person we encounter is on the take, from taxi drivers to state officials, where everybody wants a piece of the pie whether they deserve it or not.
Whilst it doesn’t do anything new with the genre, it is interesting to see it transplanted to this part of the world and it held my attention easily. I did find it occasionally predictable, though this could come from my familiarity with the tropes of a genre I love, but reasonably well executed and well played by all involved, though it won’t change your life.
As the ever masterful Raymond Chandler once remarked, “A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”