Sunday, March 2, 2014


ARABESQUE (1966) (which I watched the other day), is one of those 1960s spy films that was influenced by both the then concurrent James Bond films and the works of Alfred Hitchcock. It's not as good as any Connery Bond film and it has far too much humor to justly compare to Hitchcock but the elements of each are there.

To begin with, the title sequence was designed by Maurice Binder, who did the credit sequences for the Bond films. The swirling, brightly colored geometric patterns and shapes along with the Henry Mancini title track practically scream mid '60s spy fare. Director Stanley Donen had scored box-office gold with his previous film, CHARADE (1963) and much of what worked in that film is put to use again in ARABESQUE.

CHARADE had two beautiful leads in Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. ARABESQUE gives us Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. CHARADE was set in Paris, ARABESQUE in London. Both films have scores by Mancini and both films have plots propelled by McGuffins in the form of searches for something valuable that has gone missing (in CHARADE it's money, in ARABESQUE it's information).

ARABESQUE opens with a sequence set in an optometrist's office in which every shot  looks like it was lifted from the BATMAN television series. Everything is slanted this way and that and we don't get a normally composed and framed shot until after this sequence is over. But even then, Donen doesn't let up with his visual tricks and gimmicks. Throughout the rest of the film, he constantly uses mirrors, lenses, glass tanks, chandeliers, television screens, and other reflecting and refracting surfaces to frame his action either on or through.

The story concerns an Oxford don, David Pollock (Peck) who is recruited by the prime minister of a middle eastern country (which is never specified) to infiltrate the organization of an Arab shipping magnate named Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and learn just what he's up to. Beshraavi (who wears dark sunglasses at all times) looks like the love child of Peter Sellers and Roy Orbison. Beshraavi wants Pollock to translate an ancient scrap of hieroglyphics under the belief that it contains important information (important enough to kill for as seen in the cock-eyed opening scene). Pollock finds that the house where Beshraavi lives is really owned by Yasmin Azir (the criminally beautiful Sophia Loren) who may or may not be everything she tells Pollock she is.

There are other factions that want the cypher and a mad chase ensues to get and keep the piece of paper, decipher it and figure out what it all means. Of course, Peck and Loren are forced to team up and go on the run together and there are multiple plot twists and turns before they discover the secret of the cypher. Hint: it has something to do with a piece of 1960s high tech called a "micro-dot" and an assassination plot against the aforementioned middle eastern prime minister.

Donen keeps thing moving and the plot is engaging enough. The screenplay by Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price is based on the novel THE CYPHER by Gordon Cotler and it insists on giving Peck a series of one-liners that just sound wrong coming from his mouth. Gregory Peck was an extremely accomplished actor but he wasn't good in light comedies. His whole demeanor was just too dignified and drenched in gravitas for him to believably lob one bon mot after another as he does here. The dialogue would have been much better suited to an actor better known for light comedy, such as Cary Grant. But since Grant had starred in CHARADE for Donen a few years previously, Peck (who had starred in another mid-1960s spy film, MIRAGE in 1965) was the choice. He's not terrible (how could he be, he's Gregory Peck!) but ARABESQUE isn't his best work.

But who cares about Peck's lame jokes when you've got the stunning Sophia Loren (in clothes by Christian Dior) to look at? ARABESQUE is pure eye candy, a relic of the swinging sixties that's worth seeing at least once.

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