Sunday, June 1, 2014

Arabesque: Burnoose Notice

This post has been revised and republished as part of the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Spies, hosted by Fritzi Kramer!  The Blogathon will run from June 1st through June 3rd, 2014. (Quick, what’s the password?)

The ever-versatile choreographer-turned-director Stanley Donen began his entertainment career with tuneful, urbane, inventive musicals including hits like On the Town (1949); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers  (1954); Funny Face (1957).  Like 1963’s comedy-thriller Charade (Fun Fact: that’s the year I was born!), Arabesque is another fabulous Universal romantic thriller in the grand stylish comedy-thriller tradition, including some of the same personnel!

After Stanley Donen’s Hitchcockian romantic comedy-thriller Charade (1963) became a smash hit, Donen had a decision to make:

  1. Should he play it safe and make another film just like Charade? Keep in mind that this was in the days before filmmakers sequel’ed hit films to death, often lazily giving them titles like, say,  Hit Movie Part 2. 
  2.  Should Our Man Stan go boldly go where he hadn’t gone before in his film career?

Well, Donen finally opted for a little of both with Arabesque (1966), and why not?  Don’t we all deserve more of the finer things in life, including entertaining suspense movies?  But I digress!  Arabesque has just about everything a moviegoer could want in a fun escapist comedy-thriller: spine-tingling suspense; international intrigue; sexy romance between Oscar-winning movie stars, albeit not both for Arabesque; you see, star Gregory Peck won his Best Actor Oscar for To Kill A Mockingbird, (1962), while Sophia Loren won her Best Actress Oscar for the searing Italian drama Two Women (1960).
Loren and Peck make a wonderful match with their delightful onscreen chemistry, accompanied by the great Henry Mancini (Charade; Hatari; Breakfast at Tiffany’s;Two for the Road).

I love screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade; Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe and collaborators, including Peter Stone) smart and snappy dialogue brimming with memorable lines; eye-catching English locations; jazzy Henry Mancini music infused with such exotic Middle Eastern touches as zithers and mandolas; inventive visuals with a pop art vibe; and the beguiling Sophia Loren in glam shoes, courtesy of foot-fetishist sugar daddy Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal), and Christian Dior clothes! What’s not to love?

The eyes have it, and Prof. Ragheed's gonna get it!
 If Charade was Alfred Hitchcock Lite, then Arabesque is Hitchcock Lite after taking a few classes in James Bond 101, including an opening title sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did the honors for Charade and most of the James Bond movies. Gregory Peck plays David Pollack, a hieroglyphics expert Yank professor at Oxford who finds himself embroiled in Middle Eastern intrigue while decoding the cipher (which also happens to be the title of the Gordon Cotler novel which inspired the film, adapted by Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price and Pierre Marton. More about Marton in a moment) which serves as Arabesque’s MacGuffin.

 Our hero finds himself up against four Arabs who want to know what’s on the hieroglyphic-like cipher:

  • Prime Minister Jena (pronounced “Yay-na” and played by Carl Duering of A Clockwork Orange), who’s in England on a hush-hush mission; 
  • Nejim Beshraavi (Badel), the suave-bordering-on-unctuous shipping magnate whose ships may be laid up for good if Jena signs a treaty promising to use English and American tankers; 
  • Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore of Crack in the World fame, among others), whose penchant for then-hip lingo a la Edd “Kookie” Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip belies his ruthlessness; and...
  • In any language, nobody can resist Yasmin!
  • Beshraavi’s beautiful, unpredictable lover Yasmin Azir, played by the dazzling, hazel-eyed Loren. She’s sharp, witty, and alluring as all get out in her fabulous Dior wardrobe, including a beaded golden burnoose, plus Sophia rides horses convincingly! 

John Merivale of The List of Adrian Messenger fame is memorable as Sloane, Beshraavi’s put-upon henchman, who gets a memorably tense opening scene in a doctor’s office, and is treated as a combination lackey and punching bag for the rest of the film. I almost—only almost—felt sorry for the guy. Anyway, some of David’s new associates have no qualms about stooping to murder, and soon the chase is on, with suspenseful scenes at the Hyde Park Zoo and Ascot. Our man David is subjected to truth serum and knockouts, and I’m not just talking about Loren: “Every time I listen to you, someone either hits me over the head or tries to vaccinate me.” Poor David doesn’t know where to turn, especially since he can never be sure whether or not he can trust the mercurial Yasmin.

Kieron Moore attempts to kill Peck and Loren with a construction site.

Kieron Moore reads the Arabesque script:
"I talk like Kookie 
and get knocked off how?!"
The usual ever-so-slightly wooden note in Gregory Peck’s delivery is oddly effective as he tries to loosen up and deliver witticisms in the breezy style of Cary Grant, Donen’s business partner and original choice to play David Pollack. Word has it that Grant and Loren had a steamy real-life romance while filming Houseboat, and things got complicated on account of Loren still being married to producer Carlo Ponti. In any case, it helps that those witticisms were written by none other than Charade alumnus Peter Stone under the nom de plume “Pierre Marton,” and Stanley Price as well as Julian Mitchell. Peck may not be Mr. Glib, but he’s so inherently likable (he won his Oscar for playing Atticus Finch, after all! (Ask my husband Vinnie to do his Gregory-Peck-Impersonating-Cary-Grant impersonation sometime; it’s delightful!).

If the shoe fits, Beshraavi will have Yasmin wear it!
 Peck seems so delighted to get an opportunity to deliver bon mots after all his serious roles that he’s downright endearing, like a child trying out new words for the first time.  Besides, the bewitching Loren can make any guy look suave and sexy!  Co-star Alan Badel (The Day of the Jackal) looks like a swarthy, polished version of Peter Sellers wearing cool shades; he virtually steals his scenes as the suave-bordering-on-unctuous villain with a foot fetish. Shoe lovers will swoon over the scene with Badel outfitting Loren with a roomful of fancy footwear and a comically/suggestively long shoehorn. Speaking of things of beauty, Director of Photography  Christopher Challis (The Red Shoes; Sink the Bismarck) is utterly dazzling and inventive; no wonder he won  a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of the Oscars), and Christian Dior got a BAFTA nomination for Loren’s elegant costumes!

Giddy-up, giddy-up, let's go! Let's vanquish a foe!
The only thing that disappoints me about Arabesque is that director/producer Donen didn’t seem to like this sparkling, twist-filled adventure as much as our family and so many other movie lovers do. Specifically, he felt the script needed work. In Stephen M. Silverman’s book about Donen’s films, Dancing on the Ceiling, Donen is quoted as saying about Arabesque, “We have to make it so interesting visually that no one will think about it.” Boy, did they ever! In an article about Arabesque on the TCM Web site, Stone had said that Donen “shot it better than he ever shot any picture. Everything was shot as though it were a reflection in a Rolls-Royce headlamp.” I don’t think Donen gave himself or the movie enough credit, though. If you ask me, Arabesque is a perfect example of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known quotes: “Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake.” Now that Arabesque is finally available on DVD (my own copy is part of Universal’s Gregory Peck Film Collection, a seven-disc DVD set that Vin bought me for Christmas 2011), I wish someone would get Donen and Loren together to do the kind of entertaining, informative commentary Donen did with the late Stone for Criterion’s special-edition Charade DVD, while they’re both still alive and well enough to swap stories, or perhaps even put out a whole new deluxe edition of the film!
Our heroes saddle up for action! Nice horsies!
At Ascot, that's the ticket - to frame our man David Pollock for murder!

Reflections in two sexy spies! (Great F/X work!)
Odd, I don’t usually get hieroglyphics in my fortune cookies!
Double-cross Beshraavi, and you’re in for a date with the falcon—
and we don’t mean George Sanders!
Now that's what I call breakfast in bed!


  1. This response has been revised and republished as part of the WHATTAYA WANT: BLOOD FROM A STONE? Unblogathon.

    (Born in 1963, Dorian? Hmph! Infant. I, on the other hand, was born in 1956: the year of such grand movies as X THE UNKNOWN, RODAN, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS . . . the good version . . . GODZILLA, FORBIDDEN PLANET, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS and lesser, more forgettable fare such as THE SEARCHERS, THE KING AND I, AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.)

    Nothing much to change my original opinion (yes, folks, I'm THAT lazy). As much as I admire Gregory Peck as an actor, ARABESQUE turns out to be one of those rare moments when he should've stayed at home. Whereas Peck is in fine form strolling across a RAF airfield, or working a courtroom full of Southern crackers, he is not the type of actor I'd automatically pick to do the Cary Grant/William Powell sort of light-hearted, fast-paced adventure film (or, putting it another way, imagine Peck instead of Grant in TO CATCH A THIEF, or NOTORIOUS, or FATHER GOOSE). Donen tried hard, but ARABESQUE is, for me, steak without the sizzle.

    (And yet I liked Peck in THE CHAIRMAN. Explain that, Uncle Mikey. Huh? Huh?)

    The look of the film certainly can't be faulted (although I missed spotting the shoes, alas).

    (And, in the times since the first post, when re-watching ARABESQUE, I still don't notice the furshlugginer shoes. I have no future as a hero in a Stanley Donen movie. Or as a shoe salesman.)

    The presence of Sophia Loren can't help but up the ante in regards to the movie's attractions (le rowr! rowr!), and she could probably turn laying railroad ties while wearing a burlap sack into a scene of intense glamor. Time has been extraordinarily gentle with her and, under Donen's hands back then, her appearance made her worthy of a place within the Louvre.

    (Talks real purty, don't he?)

    (And Lordy, I'm a long-winded shmoe. Maybe I should reconsider selling shoes.)

    1. Michael, my friend, you DO talk real purty, by golly! True, Gregory Peck may not make anyone Cary Grant forget, but it seemed to me that he was having fun, and having the glorious Sophia Loren as his co-star is certainly a swell consolation prize, no? FUN FACT: Peck and Loren first got together the night Peck won his Oscar for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and as Greg and Sophia left the podium, Sophia playfully asked, "So when will you and I be in another film together?" Who could say no? Thanks for dropping by for fun and chat about ARABESQUE, my friend; you're always good company even when we cheerfully agree to disagree! :-D

  2. Sounds like a real blast! A slice of cake, indeed. Thank you so much for coming on board the event.

    Is it just me or is Cary Grant the most imitated actor? Everyone from Tony Curtis to Goober Pyle had a go. Now that's what I call fame!

    1. Fritzi, thanks and you're welcome! :-) Your Snoopathon is delightful, with so many swell movie spies to enjoy. I totally agree with you about Cary Grant being quite possibly the most imitated actor; besides, his line readings are always so funny and charming! For the record, if I had to pick one actor to do the best Cary imitation, I'd pick Tony Curtis in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Great fame, indeed! We of Team Bartilucci HQ thank you for your great Snoopathon and for letting us play in your garden! :-D

  3. I think Arabesque always seemed to suffer in everyone's mind for not being Charade-level quality; there's too many setpieces, and it always seems too dark (lighting-wise at least) and drawn out.

    But I agree that Peck's performance is great because he seems just so delighted to be able to let loose and be a charming action hero for once. And Loren is... well, let's just say that the shower scene is the most memorable scene in the movie for me. :)

    Excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Danny, I understand your pros and cons about ARABESQUE; granted, I tend to be forgiving when it comes to playful comedy-thrillers! :-) In any case, I'm very pleased indeed that we're in agreement about enjoying Peck's performance as much as we of Team Bartilucci did! :-D

  4. Believe it or not, I STILL haven't seen this film! Even so, I was surprised to learn that director Donen wasn't that thrilled with it. Everyone seems to rave about this film.

    Has Sophia Loren ever looked lovelier? I think not. And Gregory Peck sounds like a lot of fun here.

    Great review, Dor, as always. :)

    1. Ruth, I do hope you'll be able to watch and enjoy ARABESQUE sometime, because you and I are in total agreement about Stanley Donen 's exciting suspense romp :-) It's playful yet, a feast for the eyes, and as you said, our gal Sophia has indeed never looked lovelier (high praise from a gal like her, and by all accounts, she's a swell gal, too, except in the scene where our heroes are running away from a threshing machine; Sophia was running too fast as Greg tried to catch up, but she was most apologetic afterword; it's hard out there for actors doing stunts; I guess Hollywood isn't always glamorous! Thanks for your swell comments, my friend, as always! :-D

  5. "Burnoose Notice" -- that's brilliant. I agree that Gregory Peck appeared to be having a blast and I'll watch any movie with Sophia Loren. Thank you for writing about this one. I haven't seen it for a while.

    1. Joe, you're a gent of excellent taste in suspenseful, sexy comedy-thrillers! Thanks for your kind kudos for my ARABESQUE blog post! Also, here's more good news about ARABESQUE to rejoice about: I just found out it'll be on TCM this summer on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 at 12:15 p.m.! (Perhaps it'll be on Summer Under the Stars?) Mark your calendars, gang! :-D

  6. I am ashamed to say that I haven't seen this movie, but you've convinced me to move it up my list! Your review is delightful and if the movie is half as much fun, I know I will enjoy it! -Cameron

    1. Cameron, no need for shame -- instead, rejoice that now you can enjoy ARABESQUE and the fabulous world of director/producer Stanley Donen, especially now that we've just learned it'll be airing on TCM on the afternoon of 12:15 A.M.! We hope you'll enjoy it as much as we do! Thanks for dropping by, Cameron and mark your calendar for fun and adventure! :-D

  7. I only recently watched Charade and Arabesque was the next Donen on my list. I do love Gregory Peck, and I agree with the comments that compare him to Cary Grant but in my mind he has a sophistication that's all his own. It must have been so hard to work in an industry that was dominated by Hitchcock, but it sounds like Donen made a good attempt to forge his own path. Can't wait to watch this!

    1. Girls Do Film, we're delighted that you're enjoying ARABESQUE! Cary Grant is a tough act to follow, but I wholeheartedly agree with you that Peck has his very own kind of charm that makes him endearing and fun to watch, as you pointed out so charmingly! We can't all be Cary Grant or even Gregory Peck, but we don't have to; Peck and Loren have star power all their own. Thanks for dropping by to talk ARABESQUE, Girls; we hope you'll enjoy is as much as we did!! :-D Check it out in August on TCM and enjoy!

  8. We're huge comedy/spy film fans, and Arabesque is a film we've seen several times over, but I never thought it was up to the entertainment level of Charade. Not that the two should be compared however, Arabesque has a lot of great moments of its own that Charade lacked....but it failed in terms of a simple plot. There were some loose ends that never did tie up by the time the finale came round. I just loved Gregory Peck's performance though! He did a swell job in Mirage too, another great spy caper. Anyway, thanks for an entertaining review and I love the screenshots you featured!

    1. I was delighted to see The Metzinger Sisters here at Tales of the Easily Distracted, having read and enjoyed other posts of yours! We of Team Bartilucci won't deny that ARABESQUE isn't perfect, but hey, some of our favorite movies are more A-minus than all A's; for us that's part of its loopy charm. And yes, we love MIRAGE, too! We're glad you got a kick out of our screenshots, too! Thanks a million for dropping by to talk ARABESQUE, gals; drop by anytime!

      P.S.:Here's our MIRAGE post, if you like!

  9. Great post (as always), Dorian!
    This film is very beautiful to look at, especially because of the gorgeous leads, but also for great shots like the ones with the many reflections... And it is also thrilling and entertaining!
    Oh, the wrecking ball gif is hilarious!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  10. Le, I'm delighted that you chose ARABESQUE for the Snoopathon! You're right, it's beautiful and stylish to watch; it's like a feast for the eyes, especially with Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck, including Christopher Challis' Director of Cinematography. Glad you got a kick out of our GIFs, too! :-) I'm about to post about your post about NOTORIOUS now! :-D

  11. I haven't seen this one either, but I was a senior in high school when it came out (how's that for dating myself? You and Michael W are both a couple of toddlers!), and many of my classmates said it was the one to see. You make it sound awfully attractive; maybe it's time I checked it out myself.

    I gather that Peter Stone didn't think much more of the finished product than Donen did: "Pierre Marton" was a name he tended to use when he didn't like changes that were made in his script. He also used it on the 1976 TV movie One of My Wives Is Missing and 1971's Skin Game with James Garner and Lou Gossett (I never understood what Stone's problem was with that one; it's great).

    1. Jim, I think you'd enjoy ARABESQUE, even if Peter Stone and Stanley Donen might not be as impressed as you and I are! :-) By the way, I remember very much enjoying ONE OF MY WIVES ARE MISSING, and I'd love to see it again, if it can be found! There was a remake with Margot Kidder, and it was watchable, but I'd love to see the original again!

      By the way, please forgive me for not catching up with your Shirley Temple series! I've liked what I've seen so far, but I've been busier than I expected! I'll catch up, for sure!