Thursday, September 11, 2014

Arabesque (1966)

Stanley Donen had a huge hit in 1963 with the comedy/romance/thriller Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The obvious move would have been to repeat the formula with the same stars. By 1966 however when Donen was ready to make Arabesque Cary Grant had decided to call it a day and Audrey Hepburn was unavailable so it was decided that Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren would be the next best thing. Loren was obviously ideal for this sort of romp but Peck was a less obvious choice. Nonetheless they proved to be a very successful team and Arabesque works very well.

Peck plays Oxford professor David Pollock, a bookish kind of guy who is the last person in the world who would be expected to become involved in international intrigue or spy capers. Pollock does however happen to be an expert in ancient Middle eastern languages so he is an obvious choice for anyone who needs to have an ancient Hittite inscription translated. 

It seems that quite a few people want that inscription translated. They include the prime minister of a Middle Eastern country, a general from the same country and a wealthy shipping magnate. Unfortunately for David Pollock quite a few of these people are prepared to kill in order to get that translation. And pretty soon they are trying to kill him.

Yasmin Azir, the wife of the shipping magnate, also wants the translation. It’s not at all clear whether she’s working for herself or for one of the other interested parties. Pollock is not a complete fool and he pretty soon realises that almost nothing she says can be believed but by this time he is well and truly involved in the whole mess, and he is also well and truly involved with her, for better or for worse.

The inscription is actually a cypher of some sort but what it means doesn’t matter a bit. It’s what Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin, something that only matters insofar as everyone wants to get hold of it. 

Pollock is not only caught between murderous rivals seeking the secret, he is soon on the run from the police as well, the prime suspect in a murder. That neatly solves the classic thriller problem of why the hero doesn’t simply go to the police.

Arabesque is an effective and entertaining blend of mystery, adventure, romance and light comedy. As far as content is concerned it’s very much in the tradition of Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest, with an innocent bystander caught up in terrifying events with seemingly everybody intent on killing him. Stylistically it combines the influence of Hitchcock with that of the Bond movies. The producers even got Maurice Binder to do the opening titles, Binder being the man who performed that rôle for so many of the Bond movies. The combination of influences works superbly. If Hitchcock had made a Bond movie it would have looked like this.

The chief villain, Beshraavi (Alan Badel), could have stepped straight out of a Bond movie. He has the perfect mix of perverse menace and megalomaniacal obsessiveness and he has a whole suite of sinister mannerisms. Kieron Moore is totally unconvincing as the Arab fanatic Yussef Kasim but he’s unconvincing in an amusing way.

Gregory Peck seems to relish the opportunity to play a light-hearted rôle as the somewhat bumbling and very unlikely hero. He proves quite adept with the wisecracks and his earnestness, which could so often be irritating, is played very effectively here for comic effect.

Loren is perfectly cast as the beautiful, exotic but totally untrustworthy heroine. We can understand why Pollock is prepared to throw in his lot with her even when he knows he can’t trust her an inch. Loren was superb at comedy but here she makes a thoroughly convincing schemer as well. Peck and Loren quickly establish the right chemistry, obviously an essential ingredient in a comedy thriller romp.

Stanley Donen pulls out all the stops. He uses every camera trick known and he invents a few new ones. This sort of thing can be annoying but in this type of movie it works perfectly. The scene shot through the reflection of a TV screen is a very nice touch and its typical of the manic inventiveness of the movie’s visuals. Donen made his name directing musicals in the 50s but in the 60s he proved himself to have a remarkable talent for spectacular light-hearted action romps. 

Arabesque lacks the gadgetry of the Bond movies but Donen pulls off some fine and very witty action set-pieces. The fight at the zoo and the attempted murder by crane are highlights.

Univeral’s Region 2/Region 4 DVD is barebones but it’s a lovely anamorphic transfer with the colours looking gorgeously vivid. Arabesque was shot in Technicolor and the visuals make most movies of today look embarrassingly drab and dull. 

Arabesque has all the right ingredients combined to perfection. It’s impossible not to have a wonderful time watching this movie. Highly recommended. 

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