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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Film review – Blind Date (Blake Edwards, 1987)

What do you get if you cross the director of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther, one of the sexiest women of a generation, the film debut of one of the most bankable actors of all time and a soundtrack by one of the most celebrated film composers in film history?

A steaming pile of cinematic turd, that’s what.

It’s a rare occurrence to find a film with a run time of just 95 minutes that somehow feels like it drags on. But Blake Edwards has managed it with ‘Blind Date’, a turgid effort if ever you’ve seen one.

Bruce Willis does his best as an ambitious and hardworking career man named Walter Davis. Walter must attend an important dinner with his colleagues, boss and the Managing Director of an important business partner from Japan. However, Mr Yakamoto has very traditional values and Walter is advised to take a date to the meal. In desperation, he calls up his friend Ted (Phil Hartman), who recommends he takes his wife’s cousin Nadia, played by the usually irresistible Kim Basinger.

It’s unusual that a rom-com tries to put a shocking twist or genre-challenging break to the norm. Blind Date doesn’t even attempt to change this. The humour derives from the fact that Nadia can’t take her drink and Walter is advised not to let her have even a sip of alcohol. Of course, Walter forgets this and Nadia instantly becomes wild, causing absolute mayhem at the dinner and leading to Walter losing his job.

By the end of the night they are being pursued by Nadia’s maniacal ex-boyfriend and Walter ends up in prison. It feels like a spoiler but the entire plot is played out in the tag line on many of the posters. Plus it is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year so it’s hardly new news.

One of the most remarkable choices is to recolour Basinger’s hair brown and cover up her eyes with a dreadful fringe. This is one of the pin-ups of the 1980s, known for her beautiful blonde hair and striking blue eyes. Here, she loses one and has the other covered up, with no obvious reason for either choice.

Bruce Willis, here billed second to Basinger, is clearly still finding his feet as he made the transition from American sitcom Moonlighters – and that dreadful pop career – to Hollywood A-lister. It’s hard to imagine that by the time this film was released he was already filming Die Hard. Noticeably, Fox Plaza, tbe building that starred as the Nakatomi Towers in that film, can be seen half-built in the background of a scene at Walter’s office.

Remarkably, Madonna was originally cast to star as Nadia in the film. She turned it down because director Blake Edwards refused to accommodate her wish to cast Sean Penn, at the time Madonna’s husband, as Walter. Of the incident, she said, “I was supposed to have approval of… the leading man, but they didn’t tell me they’d already hired Bruce Willis.” In my opinion, this film would have been even worse had the pair been involved, and viewers need only seek out 1986’s ‘Shanghai Surprise’ for evidence of exactly how bad it could have been.

Even Henry Mancini’s score feels bland and half-hearted, which is disappointing from the man who brought us ‘The Pink Panther Theme’ and ‘Moon River’. I do note that a better film could have made me see the score differently.

Fans of The Simpsons will take great pleasure in hearing Phil Hartman produce his best Troy McClure voice when he’s describing Nadia over the phone to Walter. It’s unmistakable and one of the few positives that helped me get through the ordeal.

It’s a film that has been largely forgotten by everyone who saw it and everyone involved with the film. Forgetting it is something I’ll be trying to do too, as quickly as