Film review – Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966)

“Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. This damning statement by director Stanley Donan about the film ‘Arabesque’, as recalled by cinematographer Christopher Challis in his 1995 memoirs ‘Are They Really So Awful?‘, explains quite a lot about the final product. It had reportedly already cost $400,000 to have the script rewritten several times, partly due to the casting of Gregory Peck instead of the preferred choice of Cary Grant in the lead role. The result is a film that is almost the definition of style over substance, with a feeling of a real missed opportunity to something truly special.

The confused and therefore confusing script centres around Professor David Pollack (Grant), an expert in ancient hieroglyphics. He is approached aggressively by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena (Carl During) and his ambassador to Great Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket), who offer him £20,000 to solve a hieroglyph-based riddle, the answer to which is highly urgent. Pollack is forced to work inside the mansion of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), where he also meets the infinitely distracting Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), though he quickly realises that he will be killed once he has solved the riddle and decides to escape, with Yasmin in tow, triggering a chase across the brilliantly-captured 1960s London.

Stanley Donen had risen in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s following a prolonged successful run of musical films, primarily with MGM. Having made his name as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he helmed such classics as On The Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957) and The Pajama Game (1957). He was, by the end of the 1950s, regarded as one of the great directors from the golden era of Hollywood.

Donen then set his base in London, a move that coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to Marion Marshall. This film is one of a handful that were produced during Donen’s British period, which defined a decade of his career throughout the 1960s. The period was a fruitful one, yielding such films as 1960 ‘Once More, with Feeling!‘ and ‘Surprise Package’ (both 1960), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘Two for the Road and ‘Bedazzled (both 1967) and the now-hard-to-find camp comedy ‘Staircase‘ (1969).

Arabesque‘ could be seen as Donen’s attempt to make a film in the style of Hitchcock, with the feeling of a political suspense mirror reminiscent of ‘Torn Curtain‘, which had been released in 1966. If it was, it was a failure, with any feeling of suspense being lost amongst a clumsy plot that is tricky to follow.

For all the failings of the plot, the sheer beauty of Sophia Loren cannot be escaped. Dressed in the exquisite fashion of Christian Dior, she is the perfect example of elegance in film. Indeed, it is a point the studio and director were clearly keen to underline, with a special note during the opening credits that reads “Miss Sophia Loren’s wardrobe specially created by Christian Dior”. One can’t help but contrast this with the epic failure of Donen’s final box-office release ‘Blame it on Rio’, which feels comparatively devoid of any artistic merit and relies on smut and nudity to progress the plot.

To begin to enjoy this film, one must suspend the entirely noticeable fact that there are a handful of Arabic characters that feature in the film, none of whom are of Arabic descent. It’s something that simply isn’t commonplace in 2017, which may be jarring to the modern viewer, though cinephiles will surely have to cope with much worse as they explore further back into the history of cinema.

Whilst the first two acts plod from plot twist to excruciating plot twist at a terrifying rate that feels both too fast and too slow to elicit any kind of positive response, the same cannot be said of the final act. It is here that we are finally rewarded for sticking with the film and are rewarded with a chase scene across some famous landmarks that feels as spectacular as any of Donen’s dance routines of his early career.

The question remains whether or not the audience should be made to work for around 90 minutes for such a pay-off, but regardless of this fact there is enough going on here to warrant a viewing. It’s not so much style-over-substance and style-then-substance. If you’re happy for this imbalance as the two factors are tragically compartmentalised, then you’ll find a fairly decent piece of cinema awaits you.

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