‘Ultra Mod! Ultra Mad! Ultra Mystery!’ screamed the poster of Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian 1966 thriller starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. Following on from the director’s entry into the thriller genre two years earlier with the sublime Charade, was Donen aping not just Hitch’s visual élan, but also his mid-Sixties creative malaise?
In its defence, Arabesque is a hugely enjoyable film that rattles along in a way Hitchcock’s efforts that fell either side of it- the ponderous Marnie and the sluggish Torn Curtain- couldn’t manage. Arabesque is in the vein of his ‘wrong man’ thrillers of yore: Gregory Peck is David Pollock, an Oxford don tasked by an Arab businessman to decrypt a message in hieroglyphics retrieved from the body of a fellow academic. Soon, Pollock is ‘invited’ to work on the message from the home of the mysterious Yasmin (Sophia Loren), whose part in proceedings is unclear. It transpires that there is a plot to assassinate a visiting head of state, Jena, but whose side is Yasmin on?
Whether you prefer Arabesque to Charade will probably come down to which one you saw first. They are similar in their witty interplay and reliance on corkscrewing plot twists. Viewed sequentially, Arabesque is more of the same and will depend on how much you enjoyed your first serving. Gregory Peck apologised that he was ‘no Cary Grant’ but does himself a great disservice in saying so: he displays a light comic touch and has great chemistry with Loren. Indeed, they look to be having such fun that the proceedings get a real fillip from their energy.
Arabesque steps out of its predecessor’s shadow with its visuals. Two years have passed and the Sixties are well and truly swinging: Donen is shooting through pop-art sculptures, into mirrors and under glass tables to get striking angles on the action. If there is any padding, it comes in the sequence where a drugged Pollock ‘bullfights’ oncoming traffic- Donen is clearly having fun with his filters there. It’s only a minor criticism, though: Oxford, London and Ascot all look amazing (Universal, like all the big studios, capitalised on the ‘British explosion’ of the time), with dreaming spires, red phone boxes and top hats to the fore. Trafalgar Square makes the kind of appearance the congestion charge has consigned to history before the action transfers to the countryside for the climax, as Pollock, Yasmin and Jena are hunted through a cornfield by all manner of farm machinery, parodying North by Northwest.
From that point-of-view, Arabesque isn’t redolent of Hitchcock’s creative cul-de-sac: it’s an antidote to it. People wanting the trademark plot twists, wit and visual quirks can find them here. Arabesque can be seen as Donen’s pastiche or cover version, albeit an accomplished one by a director whose career was maybe ultimately more diverse and prolific than the Master’s.