Spy Games: Stanley Donen’s ARABESQUE (1966)

Today is Sophia Loren’s 77th birthday and I decided to celebrate by focusing this month’s installment of Spy Games on one my favorite Loren films, Stanley Donen’s ARABESQUE. But before you start reading you might want to take a moment to turn on TCM because they’re airing a batch of great Sophia Loren films today in honor of the event.

* Warning: Spoilers on the road ahead! *

In the ‘60s Stanley Donen explored the fascinating world of international espionage with two entertaining films, CHARADE (1963) and ARABESQUE (1966). Both films were box office hits but CHARADE was also adored by critics and over the years it’s been widely recognized as one of Donen’s best films. And CHARADE is a great movie. It’s a slick and darkly funny Hitchcockian thriller with a tight script and a terrific cast that includes Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy. But for my money ARABESQUE is the better film.

ARABESQUE stars Gregory Peck as a hieroglyphics professor working at Oxford University. When he’s contacted by conflicting sources and asked to decipher a difficult hieroglyphic he’s plunged into a complex mystery involving an Arab business man with a foot fetish (Alan Badel), a respected Middle Eastern political leader (Carl Duering) and a beautiful spy (Sophia Loren). Unlike CHARADE, which seemed to borrow its entire look and plot from Hitchcock, ARABESQUE takes its cues from a variety of sources including Terence Young’s James Bond films and stylish British espionage thrillers such as Sidney J. Furie’s THE IPCRESS FILE (1965). It also contains plenty of Hitchcock inspired twists and turns but ARABESQUE plays fast and loose with genre conventions and its free-form approach appeals to me.

Gregory Peck is often criticized for being somewhat wooden but in ARABESQUE he gives one of his most relaxed performances as Professor David Pollock. The role was originally written with Cary Grant in mind but he turned it down because he thought he was too old for the part. I think Grant would have been an interesting choice but Peck is well suited to play a somewhat dull and bewildered scholar who puts his students to sleep with his teaching methods. He avoids violence and tends to think the best of people, which gets him into all kinds of trouble but it also makes him appear vulnerable. When Peck is suddenly forced to outwit spies and outrun assassins he has a charming everyman quality that’s very attractive.

Peck also has good chemistry with Sophia Loren and the two seem to enjoy bouncing jokes off of one another. The humor in ARABESQUE is more tongue-in-cheek than in CHARADE but it’s also more adult and full of sly double entendres. In one of the film’s best scenes Peck is forced to hide in Loren’s shower as she’s bathing and he gets an eyeful of the beautiful Italian actress. Throughout the rest of the film he cheekily keeps referring to their bathroom encounter. Even after the two would-be lovebirds end up in bed together Peck continues to act like a schoolboy with a bad crush. And who can blame him? Sophia Loren is stunning as the Arab spy Yasmin Azir and commands the screen whenever she appears.

Unlike Audrey Hepburn who played a naïve and childlike young woman in CHARADE that had no idea what was happening to her and was forced to rely on her male costars, Sophia Loren is in control of much of the action in ARABESQUE and that’s one of the reasons why I find the film so much more engaging. Loren is a great screen beauty and her looks often overshadowed her acting abilities. But when given the right script and a good director who knew how to play up her strengths, Loren could be absolutely brilliant. In Stanley Donen’s hands Loren gets to show off her comedic abilities, athletic prowess and sex appeal while wearing an incredible array of eye-catching costumes designed by Christian Dior. But her best moments in ARABESQUE are when she’s forced to get tough and outwit her male costars. In one particularly effective scene she teams up with fellow spies (Kieron Moore and Duncan Lamont) who resemble the group of oddball characters that Cary Grant was working with in CHARADE. Loren, along with these bumbling ne’er-do-wells, kidnap Gregory Peck and start questioning him in the back of a van. Loren’s quick transformation from a vulnerable sex kitten into a dangerous black widow spider that’s a threat to Peck’s life is startling. As her almond shaped eyes narrow and her graceful jaw locks up you quickly suspect that she’s capable of anything. It makes me wish Loren had been given more roles that allowed her to subvert her femininity.

Sophia Loren modeling many of the Christian Dior costumes she wears in the film.

Films with simple plots and cookie cutter narratives rarely hold my interest and although I can understand why ARABESQUE is often criticized for its convoluted script and erratic editing, these things don’t bother me. When I go to the movies I want to be knocked out by the visuals and in that regard ARABESQUE is a much more arresting film than CHARADE. Stanley Donen along with cinematographer Christopher Challis pulled out all the stops when they were making ARABESQUE and their everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach works for me.

In Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies, Donen expressed his frustration with the script and is quoted as saying, “We had to make it so interesting visually that no one will think about it.” And scriptwriter Peter Stone, added that Donen, “shot it better than he ever shot any picture. Everything was shot as though it were a reflection in a Rolls-Royce headlamp.” Gregory Peck also added, “If you look at the picture, we were always moving, because Stanley just wanted to keep the ball in the air the entire time, and he used every camera trick you could think of.”

Stanely Donen’s creative tactics turned ARABESQUE into a pop art extravaganza loaded with memorable images and mod flourishes. The director’s camera moves under tables, glides through the air and takes aim at any reflective surface that’s handy. He also plays with light and shadows giving the film a completely artificial atmosphere at times that only adds to the comic book look of the movie.

One of the other aspects of the film that’s so appealing is the simple fact that the Middle Eastern characters are not all thugs, killers and criminals. Besides Sophia Loren who plays an elegant and utterly modern Arab spy, Carl Duering is also surprisingly effective as a regal Arab leader who longs for a peaceful solution to his country’s problems. In fact the entire plot of ARABESQUE, which contains references to oil and political unrest, gives the film a much more contemporary feel than many of its ‘60s counterparts that typically used the cold war as a backdrop and featured hero’s fending off Russian spies.




Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the films impeccable score by Henry Mancini. Mancini was one the ‘60s most productive composers and he worked with Stanley Donen on CHARADE as well as ARABESQUE. Both scores are terrific but I particularly admire the way Manacini was able to infuse the soundtrack for ARABESQUE with a Middle Eastern flair that gives the film an exotic and unique sound.

Your own appreciation of ARABESQUE will vary but like any good fantasy it relies on your ability to suspend disbelief. If the idea of watching Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren dash around London looking fabulous while they fall in love and pass the time cracking jokes doesn’t sound exciting, the film probably won’t do much to convince you otherwise. ARABESQUE isn’t just a great way to waste a couple of hours; it’s also a state of mind. If you want to enjoy the movie you’ll have to set aside expectations and just go along for the crazy ride Stanley Donen and his cast take you on.

Further Reading:
- Fellow Morlock Jeff Stafford’s review of ARABESQUE for TCM
- Mark Hodgson’s review of ARABESQUE at Black Hole Reviews
- ARABESQUE and CHARADE at Spyvide
- The Gunslinger Guide to Sophia Loren
- The Loren Archives

0 Response Spy Games: Stanley Donen’s ARABESQUE (1966)
Posted By AL : September 20, 2012 5:42 pm

Sohia Loren and Audrey Hepburn in their Prime==who could ask for anything more…

Posted By AL : September 20, 2012 5:42 pm

Sohia Loren and Audrey Hepburn in their Prime==who could ask for anything more…

Posted By tdraicer : September 20, 2012 6:07 pm

>Gregory Peck is often criticized for being somewhat wooden

Pretty much always unfairly imo.

As it turns out my dvd of Arabesque (which I last saw about 25 years ago) has only recently arrived. Time to watch it!

Posted By tdraicer : September 20, 2012 6:07 pm

>Gregory Peck is often criticized for being somewhat wooden

Pretty much always unfairly imo.

As it turns out my dvd of Arabesque (which I last saw about 25 years ago) has only recently arrived. Time to watch it!

Posted By Klara : September 20, 2012 6:41 pm

What was always so confusing for me about ‘Arabesque’ is that I’d think the actor playing Loren’s husband, Alan Badel, was actually Peter Sellers in dark makeup! I kept expecting him to be funny until I finally accepted that it wasn’t him. Uncanny resemblance.

Funny how Cary Grant and Gregory Peck seem like the two actors considered for these Peter Stone films… Have you ever seen Peter Stone’s other one starring Gregory Peck? It’s definitely the lesser known of the three — ‘Mirage’. It has some very solid merits of its own (I personally love that film) and I wrote about it some time ago. My main objection to ‘Mirage’ is Diane Baker as the leading lady. Hepburn and Loren are SO much better in their respective roles… and Baker’s attempt at performing her role like Hepburn makes her inauthentic and therefore a distraction, altogether: http://retroactivecritique.blogspot.com/2009/05/mirage-1965.html

Posted By Klara : September 20, 2012 6:41 pm

What was always so confusing for me about ‘Arabesque’ is that I’d think the actor playing Loren’s husband, Alan Badel, was actually Peter Sellers in dark makeup! I kept expecting him to be funny until I finally accepted that it wasn’t him. Uncanny resemblance.

Funny how Cary Grant and Gregory Peck seem like the two actors considered for these Peter Stone films… Have you ever seen Peter Stone’s other one starring Gregory Peck? It’s definitely the lesser known of the three — ‘Mirage’. It has some very solid merits of its own (I personally love that film) and I wrote about it some time ago. My main objection to ‘Mirage’ is Diane Baker as the leading lady. Hepburn and Loren are SO much better in their respective roles… and Baker’s attempt at performing her role like Hepburn makes her inauthentic and therefore a distraction, altogether: http://retroactivecritique.blogspot.com/2009/05/mirage-1965.html

Posted By swac44 : September 20, 2012 6:50 pm

I remember trying to watch it for the first time on some local TV midday matinee show, and the combination of commercial breaks and terrible pan & scan framing made it a convoluted bore (it was probably cut for time as well, which doesn’t help). It wasn’t until I saw Arabesque more recently on the widescreen DVD that it finally came to life for me, and you’re right, the visuals make up for the lapses in plotting, along with the charisma of its cast.

Posted By swac44 : September 20, 2012 6:50 pm

I remember trying to watch it for the first time on some local TV midday matinee show, and the combination of commercial breaks and terrible pan & scan framing made it a convoluted bore (it was probably cut for time as well, which doesn’t help). It wasn’t until I saw Arabesque more recently on the widescreen DVD that it finally came to life for me, and you’re right, the visuals make up for the lapses in plotting, along with the charisma of its cast.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:47 pm

AL – Donen really knew how to shoot them too. Both leading ladies look amazing in his films and I love the fact that he got the studio to fork over big bucks so his stars had incredible wardrobes as well.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:47 pm

AL – Donen really knew how to shoot them too. Both leading ladies look amazing in his films and I love the fact that he got the studio to fork over big bucks so his stars had incredible wardrobes as well.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:48 pm

tdracier – I agree with you. I love Peck and I think his acting style suited him and the roles he too. Although I can understand why others might not find him as charming as I do.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:48 pm

tdracier – I agree with you. I love Peck and I think his acting style suited him and the roles he too. Although I can understand why others might not find him as charming as I do.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:53 pm

Klara – Alan Badel (playing Loren’s sugar daddy/lover) does look a lot like Sellers in ARABESQUE! I first saw the film when I was a teen sometime in the ’80s and for years afterward I was sure it was him. I really like MIRAGE a lot too although like you, I’m not all that fond of Diane Baker and she’s rather dull in the movie. Peck & Walter Matthau (another Peter Stone regular) are terrific in it though.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:53 pm

Klara – Alan Badel (playing Loren’s sugar daddy/lover) does look a lot like Sellers in ARABESQUE! I first saw the film when I was a teen sometime in the ’80s and for years afterward I was sure it was him. I really like MIRAGE a lot too although like you, I’m not all that fond of Diane Baker and she’s rather dull in the movie. Peck & Walter Matthau (another Peter Stone regular) are terrific in it though.

Posted By Cary Watson : September 20, 2012 7:56 pm

Have to disagree. Charade still holds up thanks to a clever script and one of the best supporting casts of all time. The problem with Arabesque is that it’s trying too hard to be “mod.” It practically sweats with the effort of it. Peck and Loren are more old Hollywood than mod Hollywood. Klara is bang on about Mirage: it’s a much better film and is unfairly neglected. For my money the most mod spy film came out one year later, Billion Dollar Brain with Michael Caine. I’ve got a piece on it here:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/06/film-review-billion-dollar-brain-1967.html

Posted By Cary Watson : September 20, 2012 7:56 pm

Have to disagree. Charade still holds up thanks to a clever script and one of the best supporting casts of all time. The problem with Arabesque is that it’s trying too hard to be “mod.” It practically sweats with the effort of it. Peck and Loren are more old Hollywood than mod Hollywood. Klara is bang on about Mirage: it’s a much better film and is unfairly neglected. For my money the most mod spy film came out one year later, Billion Dollar Brain with Michael Caine. I’ve got a piece on it here:

http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/06/film-review-billion-dollar-brain-1967.html

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:57 pm

swac44 – ARABESQUE really is a film that deserves to be seen in widescreen. I can understand how it might be difficult to appreciate the movie if you’re forced to watch it any other way. I always liked the film a lot but when I saw it widescreen for the first time it was a revelation! I tend to agree with Peter Stone, who thought it was one of Donen’s best looking films.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 7:57 pm

swac44 – ARABESQUE really is a film that deserves to be seen in widescreen. I can understand how it might be difficult to appreciate the movie if you’re forced to watch it any other way. I always liked the film a lot but when I saw it widescreen for the first time it was a revelation! I tend to agree with Peter Stone, who thought it was one of Donen’s best looking films.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 8:06 pm

Cary – I made my case for ARABESQUE so don’t feel the need to keep defending it but what you see as “trying too hard” I see as creative genius. As for MIRAGE and Ken Russell’s BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, I like them both a lot but there were literally hundreds of great stylish spy films (many of which I’ve already written about for “Spy Games) so picking favorites is really difficult for me. I do like all the Harry Palmer films though.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 20, 2012 8:06 pm

Cary – I made my case for ARABESQUE so don’t feel the need to keep defending it but what you see as “trying too hard” I see as creative genius. As for MIRAGE and Ken Russell’s BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, I like them both a lot but there were literally hundreds of great stylish spy films (many of which I’ve already written about for “Spy Games) so picking favorites is really difficult for me. I do like all the Harry Palmer films though.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 20, 2012 8:19 pm

Ok,where do I begin? First of all, I have loved this movie for years! I watched it for the first time ages ago with my Mom and twin sister. I have always found it to be similiar to Hitchcock and “Charade” and a dash of James Bond too! I never did quite like what I feel is “an acid trip” sequence when Peck is drugged and almost gets killed in traffic. I know that’s just the Hippie in me talking. Sorry,I really love this film! Please pretty please write about “Charade” as much as you can! It’s one of my all time favorite movies!(Especially because James Coburn is so wonderful as the bad guy!) Back to “Arabesque”,love the shoe scene! Always have,me being a woman and all. Shoes!!

Posted By Juana Maria : September 20, 2012 8:19 pm

Ok,where do I begin? First of all, I have loved this movie for years! I watched it for the first time ages ago with my Mom and twin sister. I have always found it to be similiar to Hitchcock and “Charade” and a dash of James Bond too! I never did quite like what I feel is “an acid trip” sequence when Peck is drugged and almost gets killed in traffic. I know that’s just the Hippie in me talking. Sorry,I really love this film! Please pretty please write about “Charade” as much as you can! It’s one of my all time favorite movies!(Especially because James Coburn is so wonderful as the bad guy!) Back to “Arabesque”,love the shoe scene! Always have,me being a woman and all. Shoes!!

Posted By Klara : September 20, 2012 8:26 pm

I do love Mirage, and believe it would have had a better chance at being an iconic film without Diane Baker/& with Technicolor. I LOVE your take on Arabesque, Kimberly, it’s always been fascinating one for me visually, as well. And like I’ve said, I absolutely worship Stanley Donen, who can do NO wrong in my eyes. Your inclusion of those great images reminds us of how pretty a film it is… Cary, I will also need to check out Billion Dollar Brain!

Posted By Klara : September 20, 2012 8:26 pm

I do love Mirage, and believe it would have had a better chance at being an iconic film without Diane Baker/& with Technicolor. I LOVE your take on Arabesque, Kimberly, it’s always been fascinating one for me visually, as well. And like I’ve said, I absolutely worship Stanley Donen, who can do NO wrong in my eyes. Your inclusion of those great images reminds us of how pretty a film it is… Cary, I will also need to check out Billion Dollar Brain!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 20, 2012 10:27 pm

I love both of Donen’s sixties thrillers, both among my favorites. There was a copy of Arabesque showing on Netflix Instant for a few months that has been mercifully removed. I tried to watch it a couple of times but it was an awful pan and scan edit, like the kind swac saw and I stopped each time. I just wanted to revisit it and now I just have to accept that if I want to see it again properly, I’m going to have get the DVD. Great write-up of a favorite film, Kimberly.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 20, 2012 10:27 pm

I love both of Donen’s sixties thrillers, both among my favorites. There was a copy of Arabesque showing on Netflix Instant for a few months that has been mercifully removed. I tried to watch it a couple of times but it was an awful pan and scan edit, like the kind swac saw and I stopped each time. I just wanted to revisit it and now I just have to accept that if I want to see it again properly, I’m going to have get the DVD. Great write-up of a favorite film, Kimberly.

Posted By Lamar : September 21, 2012 9:22 am

If you have Comcast on Demand you can find Arabesque in HD (not sure if it’s true HD or just upconverted) in the Movieplex section which is in the Premium Channels section. SD version is also on demand.
Available until April 15, 2013.

Posted By Lamar : September 21, 2012 9:22 am

If you have Comcast on Demand you can find Arabesque in HD (not sure if it’s true HD or just upconverted) in the Movieplex section which is in the Premium Channels section. SD version is also on demand.
Available until April 15, 2013.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 21, 2012 11:23 pm

Kimberly:I know how you love James Bond and spy films. So I was wondering if you have or purchased the magazine with 50 yrs. of James Bond,with Sean Connery on the cover? I know my twin would have to buy that in a heratbeat!

Posted By Juana Maria : September 21, 2012 11:23 pm

Kimberly:I know how you love James Bond and spy films. So I was wondering if you have or purchased the magazine with 50 yrs. of James Bond,with Sean Connery on the cover? I know my twin would have to buy that in a heratbeat!

Posted By SergioM : September 26, 2012 12:27 pm

I definitely have to agree with Kimberly. Charade is an all right film, but Arabesque is far superior. And Loren against Hepburn? Are you kidding? No comparison!

Posted By SergioM : September 26, 2012 12:27 pm

I definitely have to agree with Kimberly. Charade is an all right film, but Arabesque is far superior. And Loren against Hepburn? Are you kidding? No comparison!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 27, 2012 1:22 pm

Thanks again for all the great comments, folks. I’m glad I’m not alone in my appreciation for ARABESQUE. And Juana Maria, I hadn’t heard about that James Bond magazine so thanks for the heads-up!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 27, 2012 1:22 pm

Thanks again for all the great comments, folks. I’m glad I’m not alone in my appreciation for ARABESQUE. And Juana Maria, I hadn’t heard about that James Bond magazine so thanks for the heads-up!

Posted By swac44 : September 27, 2012 2:42 pm

BTW, that’s LIFE Magazine, with the 50 Years of Bond cover, although I’m sure there are probably more memorials out there. I saw a copy at my local pharmacy, so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

As luck would have it, I was at my local cool used record store, and someone had recently sold (or, I believe, his widow had sold) a large collection of jazz, easy listening and soundtrack LPs and CDs, and the Henry Mancini section was swollen to bursting with great CDs, including the Arabesque soundtrack for a measly $10. There was also a disc for GUNN which I didn’t grab, but I suspect I may have to make another trip down there very soon.

BTW, that’s TAZ Records in Halifax, check them out online!

Posted By swac44 : September 27, 2012 2:42 pm

BTW, that’s LIFE Magazine, with the 50 Years of Bond cover, although I’m sure there are probably more memorials out there. I saw a copy at my local pharmacy, so it shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

As luck would have it, I was at my local cool used record store, and someone had recently sold (or, I believe, his widow had sold) a large collection of jazz, easy listening and soundtrack LPs and CDs, and the Henry Mancini section was swollen to bursting with great CDs, including the Arabesque soundtrack for a measly $10. There was also a disc for GUNN which I didn’t grab, but I suspect I may have to make another trip down there very soon.

BTW, that’s TAZ Records in Halifax, check them out online!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 27, 2012 7:27 pm

Thanks for the info about the magazine! I need a copy of the ARABESQUE soundtrack myself so I’m going to have to track that down too.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 27, 2012 7:27 pm

Thanks for the info about the magazine! I need a copy of the ARABESQUE soundtrack myself so I’m going to have to track that down too.

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