Producer-director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone made a game attempt to mirror the comedy, romance, mystery, and thrills from their brilliant 1963 movie Charade in their 1966 follow-up Arabesque, but they didn’t quite manage to match those qualities in their new effort.
The Production: 3/5
Producer-director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone made a game attempt to mirror the comedy, romance, mystery, and thrills from their brilliant 1963 movie Charade in their 1966 follow-up Arabesque, but they didn’t quite manage to match those qualities in their new effort. Arabesque has some great things going for it: two talented above-the-title stars, memorable British locations, and a twisty story that holds one’s attention, but these various qualities never quite mesh into a stunning product the way Charade did. It’s fun, but it’s not terrific.
David Pollock (Gregory Peck), a visiting professor of ancient languages at Oxford University, is recruited to help expose a scheme involving an important Middle Eastern politician (Carl Duering) by using his expertise to translate a message seemingly coded in hieroglyphics. The sadistic Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and the hipster Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore) are on opposing sides in the race to get the message decoded, and the mysterious Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren) seems to be using her allure with both men in an effort to gain the information for herself. With corpses dropping on a regular basis and the message changing hands at an ever-quickening tempo, Pollock finds himself and Yasmin in one dangerous situation after another.
Adapted from the novel The Cipher by Gordon Cotler, the screenplay was cobbled together from a collection of writers with Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price, and Pierre Marton (a pen name of Oscar-winning writer Peter Stone who was brought in during production to smooth out the storytelling) receiving final screen credit. The narrative is a sometimes muddled affair (both sides deciding to kill their translator before he’s decoded the message for some reason), but it’s clear that the roles from Charade have been reversed: it’s now the naïve male of the relationship who holds a key piece of the mystery while the woman in the duo seems to keep switching sides and making herself untrustworthy, and the solution of the mystery of the message is in their possession all the time just as in Charade. In order to up the ante from the previous thriller, there are more chases here (a run through an aquarium and a zoo ending in a murder, a sequence of playing dodgeball with a wrecking ball at a construction site – the film’s best set piece –, a conflict at Ascot, and the three-staged finale chase where our heroes are beset in an alfalfa field by threshers, attacked on horseback, and inevitably used for target practice by gunners in a helicopter, a bit of overkill (no pun intended) when we’re long past the point of exhaustion. Director Stanley Donen and his cameraman Christopher Challis have pulled out all the mod stops to give the film a unique look; in between optical effects aplenty reflected off faces, mirrors, glass table tops, and sunglasses and some skewed camera angles, we also get a hallucinogenic sequence where a drugged Pollock dodges cars on a busy highway in trying to escape being murdered.
Gregory Peck makes perfect casting sense as a visiting professor, but he never quite manages to convey the horrors of the perpetual state of imminent death that seems to await him around every corner, and there are no romantic sparks unleashed with Sophia Loren despite their final clinch. Loren herself does just fine as the enigmatic woman of mystery whose side one is never sure she’s on, but she wears the dazzling array of Christian Dior gowns quite magnificently. Alan Badel plays the soft-spoken sadist Beshraavi with his pet flesh-craving falcon intelligently low key, allowing his henchmen like John Merivale’s Sloane to do his dirty work. Kieron Moore and Duncan Lamont play more obvious villains with great relish.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully rendered in 1080p using the AVC codec. Not owning the previous bare bones Blu-ray release, I have no idea if the transfer is the same or not, but with there being no special mention in the liner notes, one suspects it’s the same transfer. It’s a solid one: detailed, colorful, and with excellent contrast. Black levels are also quite rich and deep. The movie has been divided into 9 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is adept but a little underwhelming. Sound effects don’t have quite the impact they should though dialogue has been professionally recorded and has been mixed with Henry Mancini’s driving score quite nicely. There are no problems with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson swap opinions amiably about the film and its uniqueness, but Berger tends to babble on dominating the conversation, and many of the cast get ignored in the commentary.
Music by Mancini (9:33, HD): newspaper columnist Leonard Feather interviews composer Henry Mancini about his work on the film sharing several sequences while allowing Mancini to explain his approach to the music at those particular moments.
Animated Poster Gallery (2:31, HD)
TV Spots and Trailers (HD): five TV spot ads (1:52) and a trailer (1:05)
Theatrical Teaser Trailer (1:23, HD)
Theatrical Trailer (3:30, HD)
Kino Trailers: Night People, Mirage, Boy on a Dolphin, Five Miles to Midnight
Stanley Donen’s Arabesque offers a mid-1960s mod look at a comic thriller with some effective moments but a bit less satisfying than his previous thriller Charade. Kino’s new special edition Blu-ray release offers a commentary and some other nice bonuses to complement the excellent picture and sound of the film transfer.
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