Arabesque (1966)


(director: Stanley Donen; screenwriters: from the novel “The Cipher” by Gordon Cotler/Stanley Price/Julian Mitchel/Peter Stone; cinematographer: Christopher G. Challis; editor: Frederick Wilson; music: Henry Mancini; cast: Gregory Peck (David Pollock), Sophia Loren (Yasmin Azir), Alan Badel (Nejim Beshraavi), Kieron Moore (Yussef Kassim), Carl Duering (Hassan Jena), John Merivale (Sloane), Duncan Lamont (Webster), George Coulouris (Ragheeb); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Donen; Universal; 1966-UK/USA)

“If you don’t mind that the plot not only doesn’t matter but doesn’t make much sense, you will be rewarded with a very entertaining film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stanley Donen, the director of Charade (1963), follows that thriller with this flashy kaleidoscope tongue-in-cheek espionage thriller, which holds together but only as inferior vehicles of Charade, Hitchcock and Bond (those with Sean Connery). If you don’t mind that the plot not only doesn’t matter but doesn’t make much sense, you will be rewarded with a very entertaining film. Gregory Peck takes the role tailor-made for Cary Grant and despite his inability to handle the role’s physicality and some of the snappy dialogue, acquits himself rather decently as an action hero. Sophia Loren proves she can act when challenged and is not all eye candy, though every scene (except the scene with her in the shower naked with only a fancy towel wrapped around her head) has her dressed-up to such lengths as if she’s entered in a fashion show.

Nice guy David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is an American teaching a course in Arabic hieroglyphics at Oxford University in England. His routine college life is upset when he’s hired for a staggering fee of $30,000 by a mysterious wealthy Arab businessman, Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), to help translate a puzzling Hitite inscription. What he doesn’t know yet is that the inscription was stolen from Professor Ragheeb when he was brutally murdered by one of Nejim’s nasty henchman (John Merivale). Pollock was encouraged to take this gig by Hassan Jena, a prime minister of an undisclosed Arab country, who wants it kept secret that he’s in England to sign a treaty and wants the admiring prof to work as a spy.

While working in Nejim’s luxury mansion to decode the inscription, Pollock finds out the fancy place belongs to his sultry mistress Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren). She’s the duplicitous lady, whose loyalties are in doubt, but who helps Pollock escape when he learns he’s being kept as a prisoner and will be executed when his duties are done. Yasmin leads him into the hands of her other boyfriend, Yussef Kassim, who wants to steal the inscription. But the ever resourceful Pollock flees from all the sinister Arabs and is not sure if he’s being helped or made a sucker by Yasmin, who always seems to end up by his side with a different explanation for why she couldn’t better help him at the time. Pollock decides to trust her, despite his doubts, and the two team up to save the good prime minister from an assassination and to round-up all those Arab baddies.

The mystery tale spins out of control as it motors around mod England, though it still retains a visually pleasing style. It results in an airy thriller that hardly matters; yet, even if it never completely satisfies it also doesn’t completely disappoint.