Sunday 9 February 2020

Movie Review: Action In Arabia (1944)

A low budget World War Two adventure, Action In Arabia has enough ideas to maintain interest, but not enough budget nor talent to deliver on its ambition.

American newspaperman Michael Gordon (George Sanders) and fellow reporter Chalmers (Robert Anderson) arrive in Damascus, a hotbed of World War Two intrigue and espionage. At the airport Chalmers is smitten by Mounirah al-Rashid (Lenore Aubert), the daughter of an influential tribal chief. She is greeting shadowy French spy Leroux (AndrĂ© Charlot). Chalmers decides to snoop around Leroux's business and receives a fatal knife in the back for his troubles.

Meanwhile Gordon bumps into hotelier and Nazi sympathizer Eric Latimer (Alan Napier), American agent Matthew Reed (Robert Armstrong), professional information merchant Josef Danesco (Gene Lockhart) and the alluring Yvonne (Virginia Bruce). They all insist he leave town immediately, but Gordon senses something big is about to happen, with both sides of the war eager to win al-Rashid's backing.

An RKO production produced at the height of the war, Action In Arabia reaches for a Casablanca-style vibe but falls well short. The script by Philip MacDonald and Herbert J. Biberman is rich with potentially compelling characters harbouring competing secrets and pursuing clashing agendas. And notwithstanding a few too many camels, the RKO backlot disguise as a Middle Eastern locale is decent.

But otherwise, the execution, exposition and narrative flow expose limited resources all around the camera. At 75 minutes the film features too much scheming and not enough time, and despite George Sanders' best efforts to convince, his white suit remains stubbornly spotless as he ventures in and out of teaming bazaars and greasy planes, tangling with sweaty assassins along the way.

Meanwhile, the seemingly pivotal character of al-Rashid is introduced about 10 minutes from the end, and barely gets any lines of dialogue. Another conniving tribal chief is even less defined, and overall the plot and conspiracy elements are botched. The romance and infatuation interludes featuring the exotic Mounirah and Yvonne are laughably juvenile.

Least convincing are rudimentary surveillance and action scenes, director Leonide Moguy unable to construct anything resembling rational sequencing, editing or tension. At one point Gordon takes off in a small plane in the middle of the desert with no clue in which direction to fly, but is anyway soon spotting all the important tribal movements and encampments down below (actually footage filmed for a whole other unreleased movie).

Action In Arabia cannot be faulted for aspiration, but is ultimately betrayed by insurmountable inadequacies.

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