I was trying to recall if the actual word “arabesque” was ever uttered in the movie. Granted, in a narrative like this, it’s just as easy for something to fly over your head. There’s comparable lingo bandied about pertaining to ciphers and hieroglyphs, mentioned in the context of coded messages and bits of secret information. You can hardly have an international spy thriller without such prerequisites, and yet this isn’t the fun of it.
Nor is it a foreign prime minister’s plight or the dubious intentions of a peregrine falcon-loving mastermind who holds a ravishingly beautiful woman in house arrest (in all cases Middle Easterners are played by Westerners). Because for any such story, the lasting enjoyment comes in the road traveled and the people we get to follow along with through every twist and turn.
It’s the saving grace of Arabesque, a movie with an overhauled and doctored script tinkered on by many hands including Peter Stone (writer of the similar Charade and Mirage). All this work produced a simultaneously mind-boggling and messy plotline. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the particulars barely add up.
All that must be know is Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) finds himself on the run from any number of villains, all with their own selfish, nefarious schemes to employ. At the center of this sinister web of mayhem is an alluring spy (Sophia Loren) who is constantly switching and shape-shifting under every given circumstance. Our protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do with her.
One might note Arabesque has another memorable shower scene after Charade’s. However, this rendition is decidedly more awkward and tense as Pollock finds himself under the hospitality of a sinister man, and Yasmin Azir (Loren) is under his watchful gaze as well. They wind up playing footsies with the soap in an effort not to raise suspicion.
Arabesque tries to make it extremely evident all this peril is being thrust upon our heroes as they travel through the heart of Britain. It can be little more than a nod to The Master of Suspense to have our characters running through first a zoo and then a local aquarium, recalling the museum pieces in Blackmail (1929). There’s even an overt nod to North by Northwest, complete with cornfields, this time patrolled by deadly threshers instead of a crop duster.
Stanley Donen’s solution to the so-so storyline is to do just about anything he can to mix things up with kaleidoscope prism shots, angles through glass tables, reflections, unique framing, and on and on. In one sense, it is inventive, but there’s no unified purpose to it. It feels precisely like he’s trying to do whatever he can to distract from the material when it gets dull. Of course, the fact that this is the 1960s doesn’t hurt the aesthetic with enough drugs and hallucinations to pass the decade’s quotas.
In one particularly otherworldly vision, Peck becomes a hallucinogenic bullfighter on the motorways causing a major traffic jam. It adds little to the plot, but it certainly creates an impression. Still, I’m not sure if the merits of form over substance apply in this situation, even if Donen is ceaselessly creative. It gets to be almost too much. It could easily verge on out-and-out camp — considering the ludicrous nature of scenes — though it knuckles down when it matters most. An assassination plot must be averted, and it does offer a decent payoff in the thrills department.
Peck admittedly feels a bit miscast, although this could just as easily be my subconscious speaking since Cary Grant was earmarked for the role. Because one can imagine, even with his advanced years, Cary could have pulled off the wit marvelously. God love him, but Peck is almost too regal, and he has too much presence if that can possibly be an impediment. Sometimes it’s difficult to take him lightly. He does make an admirable go of it and the hint of Indy, an educator by trade, does not hurt his image.
Sophia Loren is absolutely scintillating carrying scenes with her usual poise owning every line and effortlessly building the needed chemistry with Peck, even as she sends him bouncing all over the place. He needs her for this picture to work, and she delivers.
When it ends, there’s some amount of contentment. Not because we saw a perfect movie by any means or even anything quite on par with Hitchcock or Sean Connery’s Bond, but we got to spend some quality time full of mayhem with two sublime personalities. It is all worthwhile because Peck and Loren are together.
After all, who wouldn’t want to swim in Oxfordshire with them? Maybe the days haven’t quite left us entirely, but I do crave more pictures that could coast on the charisma of their stars. Without question, Arabesque overrides its flaws through sheer star power.