Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on September 20, 2012
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.
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