20 October 2016

Arabesque (1966)

Directed by: Stanley Donen
Music: Henry Mancini
Starring: Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, 
Harold Kasket, John Merivale, 
Keiron Moore, Carl Duering
Stanley Donen (Charade, Two For The Road) is one of my favourite directors. Gregory Peck, one of the Hollywood triad (others being Cary Grant and James Stewart) whom I like very much. So, when I saw Arabesque online, it seemed serendipitous. Especially since I'd just reviewed a Cary Grant movie last week, and this film, like Roman Holiday, had been written especially for Grant. [Like Charade, Grant had refused Arabesque as well, citing the same reason – he was too old. Unlike Charade, where he was persuaded to take on the role opposite Audrey Hepburn, Stanley Donen couldn't persuade him to star opposite Sophia Loren.] I'd watched the re-run of Arabesque in Lido in Bangalore when I was a child, and it had thrilled my masala-loving heart. From the opening credits (Maurice Binder), blindingly psychedelic, and complemented by spooky music (Henry Mancini) it had me hooked. I wanted to see if the film could still hold my interest. 

Well, it begins promisingly enough with a murder in an ophthalmologist's office. The victim is a Professor Ragheeb (George Couloris), and he's poisoned by wait for it eye lotion. The reason for the murder is a secret message hidden in his spectacles. Alas, the message is encrypted. 
It turns out that Prof. Ragheeb, a professor at Oxford University, is  was an expert on ancient hieroglyphics. Enter visiting professor David Pollack (Gregory Peck, who if not equally expert, is definitely more attractive than poor Prof. Ragheeb), who takes Prof. Ragheeb's class, expecting the latter to take over the next day. 
At the end of class, the professor has a visitor. Major Sylvester Pennington Sloane (John Merivale) has come to inform David that his boss, Nejim Beshraavi, would like to meet him. The shipping magnate is no doubt accustomed to getting what he wants when he wants it, so Major Sloane would be obliged if David followed him to the waiting car. The good professor is amused: not on Wednesdays. He has other things to do. (Sensible guy; people have a crazy way of dying in the Major's company.)  

While Major Sloane wonders what can persuade David to agree, the professor goes jogging (which is one of the things he does on Wednesdays). Only to be rudely picked up and thrown into the back of a luxurious Rolls Royce Phantom IV. David's initial indignation at being treated like a sack of potatoes dissipates when he realises who is in the backseat of the car with him – Prime Minister [of some Middle Eastern country that remains nameless] Hassan Jena (Carl Duering). Also in the car is the country's ambassador to Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket). 
His Excellency begs David's pardon for the unorthodox manner in which he chose to make the latter's acquaintance, but he's not in England, and David has not met him. What the...? He explains to a bewildered David that for diplomatic and political reasons, his visit must be kept secret. Also, he thinks his countryman Nejim Beshraavi would like to make a business proposition to David. When David informs the prime minister that he had already refused Beshraavi's offer, the statesman tells him that Beshraavi is the richest and most powerful man in their country. He's planning something extremely violent, but they do not know what, and when. He would like David to reconsider Beshraavi's offer of employment. He does have a word of caution, however. Beshraavi respects no life except his own, and if David would prefer not to accept the assignment, the prime minister would understand. Intrigued by the thought of shaping the future, David decides to accept.

So David goes to meet Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel). He also gets to meet Hassan (named after the prime minister), Beshraavi's peregrine falcon.
Beshraavi cuts to the chase: he wants David to translate a hieroglyph. The price? $25,000.  David is flabbergasted, and Beshraavi misreads his confusion. He raises the offer. The catch is that he wants the answer by 8 o'clock that evening. What if David is unable to meet that deadline? Well, David would find Beshraavi's house very comfortable to stay in – however long it takes. The threat is subtle, and implicit. 

David, ensconced in the stately library, eats candy after candy while trying to decipher the cipher. He is interrupted by a vision in black – Yasmin Azhir (Sophia Loren). 
While she seems to have no compunction flirting with him (and David flirts right back), their conversation is interrupted by Beshraavi, who's not too pleased to see Yasmin with his 'guest'. This time, the threat is explicit: 'Some Bedouins are in the habit of saying to their guests: 'All that I possess is yours.' I'm not one of them.'

Later, at the dinner table, Yasmin clumsily upsets a dish on David so she can pass a note to him under cover of cleaning up the spill. Beshraavi is no fool; he puts David on the spot by pretending to chaff him about the note, but David gets the better of the exchange – this time. He leaves the room on pretext of wanting to get back to work, and Yasmin follows, leaving Beshraavi alone with his other guest, a Mr Beauchamp, who makes it clear that Beshraavi is on the brink of ruin.

Back in his room, David opens the note
Yasmin fills him on the details and warns David that once he deciphers the hieroglyphics, he will also be killed. Their conversation is interrupted by Beshraavi's arrival. While Yasmin tries to head Beshraavi off the inconvenient topic of the note at dinner, David stays hidden. 
He's not prepared for what happens next, though he finds great amusement in Yasmin's plight. (She gets her own back at him, however.) Yasmin's conversation with Beshraavi is cut short by Sloane's phone call he cannot find David. Or the cipher. Behind the curtains, David quickly hides the cipher.
Beshraavi suborns Yasmin's butler, who informs them that David had come here, to Yasmin's room. David, forced to show himself, comes out of the bathroom. 
Once outside the room (which he has Yasmin lock), David and Yasmin make a quick getaway. Beshraavi sends his henchman, Mustafa, after them, with orders to 'get Pollack'. Mustafa follows the runaway pair to the Zoological Gardens where, a thrilling chase through the animal exhibits and a violent struggle later, poor Mustafa is drowned – by a man who introduces himself as Inspector Webster, C.I.D. David is just breathing a sigh of relief when Webster shoots the guard who comes to check on the ruckus. ‘Swell’, breathes David resignedly (when he learns that Webster is working with Yasmin), just before he's knocked unconscious himself. 

When he comes to, it is to find himself in a moving van accompanied by Yasmin, Webster and a new man, who appears to be Yasmin's boyfriendYousef Kassim (Keiran Moore).
David, who has spotted his bag of candies in the van, prevaricates when asked where the cipher is, and says he left it behind at Beshraavi's; after all, it belonged to him. Yasmin doesn't believe him, and Webster is inclined to violence, but Kassim has other ideas. ('You watch too much television,' remarks David.)
The truth serum causes David to sing like a canary, but since all his mumblings are about No. 9, they finally believe he's telling the truth. Throwing him out of the van, Kassim asks Yasmin to return to Beshraavi to see what she can find out. 

Yasmin returns to her home, where Beshraavi assures her that he's so incredibly happy to have her back. The ensuing conversation is the most civilised, but there's no mistaking the menace in Beshraavi's manner as he strives to find out how it was that David was in Yasmin's bathroom.
He's as sleek as a wild cat, and as menacing, but she's not giving anything away. It is clear that he doesn't believe her story, but equally clear that he can't disprove it. She's non-committal too, both about Yousef and about David. So when Beshraavi decides that it would be much better to send Yasmin to deal with David than Sloane, she makes a token protest, which she knows he will expect.

Meanwhile, a battered David is having second thoughts about all these shenanigans. When Prime Minister Jena calls, David confesses that he knew it was going to be dangerous, but he hadn't bargained for the case to turn into something so lethal. He has neither the cipher nor the translation; and he has no wish to go searching for either. But when the prime minister indulges in a bit of emotional blackmailing, David gives in. ('Where would you like me to be murdered this time, sir?) Time is of the essence, the prime minister reminds him; they need the cipher and they need it translated as soon as possible. 

Just then, Yasmin rushes in; she claims she has come to warn David; Beshraavi's men are coming to get the cipher. 'Oh, go away,' groans David, as he pulls the sheets over his head. 'Every time I listen to you, someone either tries to hit me over the head or vaccinate me.' Yasmin insists that she loathes Yousef, and is in fact, only cultivating Beshraavi because Yousef asked her to his boss, General Ali Ben Ali, has her mother and sisters hostage in the old country. David scoffs – he's seen that film as well, but he's not impervious to her pleas. 

David assumes she has the cipher; Yasmin is sure David does. Comparing notes, it is clear that the cipher has to be in the van in which they had abducted him the previous day. Yousef runs a construction business where the van will be parked, and David and Yasmin make their way there. Before they can pick the candy up, Webster gets his hand on the bag.
Unfortunately for Yasmin, who had signalled to Webster without David noticing, Webster has traded sides. They now have no option but for Yasmin to go back to Beshraavi, after fixing to rendezvous at the Ascot where Webster plans to meet Beshraavi in the afternoon, if they want to reclaim the cipher. 

Cue another violent death, in which David is implicated, but he succeeds in getting the cipher back. This time, he makes sure that he makes copies, and mails one to himself, just in case. 

Then, before going to meet Yasmin, he decides to go meet Prof. Ragheeb's widow, not only to offer his condolences over his colleague's demise, but to know who gave the late professor the cipher, and what it means. What he learns there, shocks him to the core. 
In a tale that is punctuated by murder, double cross, deceit and lies, who is David to believe any more? How is he going to get that cipher translated, prove his innocence the prime minister has made it clear that, for security concerns, neither he nor his ambassador will recognise David, much less admit that they've met him – stay one step ahead of Beshraavi and the trigger-happy Sloane and the rest of the bad guys, and stop an assassination plot More importantly, who are the good guys?  

The fate of an Arab kingdom and international diplomacy lies in these answers.

Throw in international spies, truth serum, imposters, incredible chases on horses and in helicopters, decoys, psychedelic trips (brilliant staging Christopher Challis won a well-deserved BAFTA for the cinematography), and mood music that elevates the scenes and ramps up the tension, and fluff-plot or not, Arabesque is one hell of a thrilling ride. 

When Charade released to become a hit, Donen was faced with the inevitable: what next? That film has been described as ‘the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made’. Donen's next had to be as good, if not better. Adapted from The Cipher [Gordon Cutler; while the basic plot remained the same, everything else was changed – from the location to the lead character’s physicality and profession to many characters being dropped and new ones pencilled in], Donen stated that he made the film after Grant refused to star in it only because Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren insisted. So did the studio which wanted to cash in on their pairing.

Arabesque may have a more convoluted plot than Charade, but Donen ensures that one doesn’t get the time to think too much about the trite screenplay. In Dancing on the Ceiling – Stanley Donen and his movies, Donen’s cinematographer Christopher Challis is quoted as saying that the more the script was rewritten (three screenwriters), ‘the worse it got’. Therefore, Donen had no other choice but to make the film an interesting visual experience. In this, he was certainly helped by his two leads, singularly attractive people, both. [As Shalini, one of my readers, said about Two For the Roadthere’s plenty of pretty on display’ – well, it is very apt here as well.]
Loren’s indisputable beauty was both a boon and a bane: very few directors saw past her glamour and allure to give her a role she could sink her teeth into; it is inconceivable that she gets to really ‘act’ in a film that is more like a high-voltage fashion show. Yet, Loren fitted the part impeccably, and her ‘beautiful spy’ role was definitely box-office magnet. Like Audrey Hepburn’s character in Charade, Sophia Loren’s Yasmin Aziz is also glamorous and beautifully clad. [Givenchy for Hepburn, Dior for Loren.] Unlike Regina Lampert, however, Yasmin has both gumption and pizzazz, and doesn’t need a man to rescue her. She is tough as nails, and plays one side against the other in the most professional manner.  

Gregory Peck was in pretty much the same boat – seen as the quintessentially handsome leading man, but not especially noted for his histrionic ability. This despite the fact that he had been nominated five times for the Academy Award, and had won the coveted statuette for To Kill A Mocking Bird, just a couple of years previously. Here, he was quite good as the ordinary man flung inadvertently into a game of blind man's bluff, though he didn't seem quite as comfortable in the pure physical comedy of the drugged out scene. I kept wondering how Grant would have played it, and I think he wouldn't have been quite so stiff. 

Nor did the repartee between Peck and Loren sparkle with that soup├žon of droll mischief that Cary Grant inevitably brought into his dialogues. Romantic thrillers and May-December romances both (Hepburn's 34 to Grant's 59, Loren's 32 to Peck's 50), Arabesque is more sexually-charged than Charade, but the thrust and parry of the rapier is missing in the altercations between the two leads. Part of what made Charade such a joy to watch was that wicked banter between Hepburn and Grant, made even more delightful by that element we call 'chemistry' between the two.
Alan Badel did quite a decent job as the suave, soft-spoken Beshraavi. His threats are quietly uttered, and are chilling in their implication. Nothing is overt, but one knows what he means. He's aided, not very ably by Major Sloane, the only impressive part of whom is his name. [While both Badel and Claude Duering as Hassan Jena did quite a commendable job, it was quite disconcerting to watch white actors in dark makeup play Arabs]. I have no idea what Keiran Moore (Yousef) thought he was doing, but his lines were so stereotypically American gangster, and he said them with all the animation of a wooden puppet.

Despite all this, and the holes in the plot, if you want to spend a couple of hours to just watch Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren romance each other in a fast-paced thriller as they stay one step ahead of the bad guys while foiling a plot to assassinate a world leader, I would highly recommend Arabesque. 

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