Arabesque (1965)

Directed by Stanley Donen
Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel, John Merivale, Kieron Moore
Music by Henry Mancini
Based on the novel, The Cypher by Gordon Cotler

Arabesque is one of my favourite spy films from the sixties. It is flawed, but still a great thrill ride from go to whoa. Director Stanley Donen had just scored a box office hit with Charade and followed it up with this, another glossy thriller in the same vein. In fact, the role of Professor David Pollack was written for Cary Grant. Somehow the deal must have fallen through. Instead we get Gregory Peck as Pollack, an American Professor of languages at Oxford University in London. Peck is very good in the role, but the dialogue was clearly written for Grant.

After one of his colleagues is killed, Pollack is approached by the malevolent Major Sylvester Pennington Sloane (John Merivale), a henchman for the villainous Nagim Beshraavi (Alan Badel). They want Pollack to use his knowledge of ancient languages to decode a tiny piece of paper with an ancient inscription on it. Pollack refuses and walks off, but is soon plucked off the street by a speeding Rolls Royce. Inside is the President of Egypt, Hussan Jena (Carl Duering), who asks Pollack to reconsider the offer, as it is a matter of great international importance to find out what Beshraavi is up to.

Jena is a respected man, so Pollack accepts the ‘mission’ and ends up at the mansion where Beshraavi is staying. For his trouble, Pollack is locked in a room and forced to try and decode the inscription, which proves difficult. The mansion happens to belong to Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), who is as much a captive in her own home as Pollack is.

After a comedic interlude, where Pollack hides in Yasmin’s shower, she warns him that Beshraavi killed his colleague and will kill him too, once he has deciphered the transcription. Pollack hides the code in a chocolate wrapper and escapes, using Yasmin as a willing hostage. One of Beshraavi’s henchmen follows and captures Pollack and Yasmin in an aquarium. The henchman ends up being overpowered at the last minute by a man claiming to be a Police officer, but in fact works for Yussef Kasim (Kieron Moore) the original owner of the coded transcription.

Things turn from bad to worse when it turns out Yasmin is also working for Yussef Kasim. They drug Pollack with a hallucinogen hoping he’ll reveal the whereabouts of the code he has hidden. In a way he does, but due to the drugs, no-one understands his gibberish. Pollack somehow manages to escape, and despite being ‘out of his brain’, manages to cycle to freedom.

As I mentioned at the top, Peck is fine as Pollack, and Sophia Loren is excellent as the Femme Fatale, playing all the sides and all the men off against each other. Although sex is only hinted at, it is clear she has slept with all three main protagonists. It is only at the end, that where her real loyalties lay is revealed. She also gets to showcase a very flashy wardrobe.

Alan Badel is very good as the villain Beshraavi, with a cool line in understated menace. In contrast to your modern day psychopathic villain, Badel doesn’t have to rant and rave to be feared. He is calm, and his words have weight, and he is all the more menacing because of it.

Arabesque has all the right elements for a successful swingin’ sixties spy film. At the top there’s Maurice Binder’s multicoloured, swirling title credits, coupled with another great score by Henry Mancini. The visual style too, is impressive. It’s a quasi psychedelic trip, shots framed in the reflections of a grille of a Rolls Royce, or through a chandelier, or even fish tanks at an aquarium. The distorted opening at an optometrists lets you know the type of ride you are in for, and it doesn’t let up. Special mention should go to the humorous drug induced bike ride that Pollack makes to escape from his captors. This is one swinging slice of psychedelic film-making, but one that, thankfully, still keeps the story intact.

This review is based on the Universal Pictures UK DVD.

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