Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
After the truly wonderful Hitchcock 'tribute' that was Charade (1963), one would
have imagined that filming another comedy thriller, with an all-star cast, and in cool
Britannia, would have been a piece of cake for the talented Stanley Donen. And there is
a great deal to like about this film. Unfortunately, despite the presence of Gregory Peck,
who the previous year had made the thriller Mirage with Edward Dymtryk, and the truly
gorgeous Sophia Loren, a star both in Hollywood and in Europe, the film struggles to grip
either as a thriller or as a comedy.
Comparisons with Charade are inevitable and Arabesque does come off worst. Despite the 25-year age difference, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in the earlier film managed to convince as potential lovers kept apart by the possibility that Grant is a sociopathic killer. In Arabesque, Loren is as beautiful as Hepburn, and has a lot more to get hold of, but her and Peck bumble along like coy teenagers. Similarly, with a fantastic supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy, Charade's thrills are genuinely thrilling; in Arabesque Alan Badel, with bad makeup, is too suave to be convincingly threatening, and while John Merivale and Duncan Lamont (The Evil Of Frankenstein, Quatermass And The Pit) scowl and sneer to their utmost as opposing henchmen, they can't inject sufficient tension on their own.
That's not to say this is a bad film. Gregory Peck plays David Pollock, an expert in hieroglyphics asked to translate an inscription by Alan Badel's Beshraavi, a shipping magnate from an unnamed middle-eastern country. Pollock refuses but when contacted by Hassan Jena, the prime minister of the aforesaid country, who believes Beshraavi is plotting to prevent the signing of a treaty with Britain and the USA, he enters the lion's den. As Beshraavi's guest, Pollock meets the beautiful Yasmin Azir (Loren) who convinces him his life is in danger. The pair escape and are rescued from one of Beshraavi's henchmen by Webster (Lamont) who, with Yasmin, is working for another faction led by would-be jive-talking hepcat Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore). Pollock escapes again but continues to be befuddled by the apparently double-crossing allegiances of the lovely Yasmin.
Peck breezes through the film completely unfazed by the threat of imminent death and spouting execrable wisecracking dialogue. Some set pieces work, although they are very 1960s, like the chase through the zoological gardens and Pollock's drugged perambulations through late-night traffic, while a confrontation at Royal Ascot is a less convincing parody of English society than the one in My Fair Lady. Donen composes too many shots with clever-clever reflections and distortions, and there are plenty of twists, but none of the leads take the film seriously enough for it to convince. Having met his end at the sharp end of a swordstick as the cruel Webster, Lamont seems to pop up later to play a uniformed policeman. The helicopter chase in the finale singularly fails to rack up a moment's tension or fear for the survival of the heroes.
Despite the shortcomings listed above, the film whiles away a pleasant hour and a half; it is reasonably fast-paced and is bright and cheerful. It is just that like the English version of foreign cuisine, having consumed it one is left feeling less than satisfied.