Wednesday 6 April 2016

Movie Review: Arabesque (1966)

A hopelessly muddled romantic thriller, Arabesque tries to recapture the spirit of Charade but falls hopelessly short.

After the murder of another academic, Oxford University hieroglyphics expert Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is hired by the extremely wealthy shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and his henchman Sloane (John Merivale) to decipher a coded message. Pollock accepts the assignment at the urging of Hassan Jena (Carl Duering), the well-regarded Prime Minister of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Jena wants Pollock's help to know what Beshraavi is up to.

At Beshraavi's lavish London estate, Pollock soon meets the stunningly beautiful Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), who is either Beshraavi's accomplice or his prisoner. Pollock realizes that he has inadvertently gotten involved in a dangerous plot involving criminal acts related to a forthcoming international trade treaty. He does not know whether or not Yasmin can be trusted, and soon he finds himself on the run with dead bodies piling up all around.

Directed by Stanley Donen, Arabesque is borderline inept. While the star power on display and the London locations maintain a bare minimum of interest, the adaptation of the Gordon Cutler book The Cypher suffers from an incomprehensible plot, obvious set-pieces, and derivative execution. It does not take long for the film to get lost in an overload of ill-defined characters pursuing undefined objectives, and Donen walks well past the edge of constructing an engaging mystery and wades into a morass of double and triple crosses that serve no purpose other than to intentionally confuse.

Yasmin switches sides or invents a new side with every other scene, very quickly shattering plausibility into irrelevant fragments. Within 30 minutes it becomes painfully obvious that no one involved in the production believed in the story, and Arabesque defaults to a silly sequence of chase scenes involving as many distractions as possible. Loren's many outfits are stunning, there is a side-trip to the London zoo, and an unfunny interlude in truth serum territory, all intended to take the focus away from the wobbling narrative.

Peck and Loren exchange dialogue that aims for sharp but often hits inane instead, and no one pauses to ask why with so many killers chasing a single piece of paper, seemingly intelligent men like Sloan and Beshraavi never think of making a copy for safe keeping.

The hieroglyphic message itself is the worst kind of MacGuffin, and once the hidden message is revealed, the plot makes even less sense. It all ends with a few more late-to-the-party twists, Donen barely bothering to explain the most basic elements of the conspiracy as a boring helicopter-and-horses chase scene confirms the general lack of original ideas. Arabesque is neither an exciting thriller nor a persuasive romance, just an awkward collection of symbols trying hard to be important but actually signifying nothing.

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