December 01, 2006

Finally on DVD: ARABESQUE (1966) sixties spy chic

(1966, USA)

Back when all action films had helicopter chase scenes
I got very used to watching this on Saturday Night at the Movies on TV in the seventies. It's a lively Hitchcockian riff - an innocent man finds himself in the middle of an undercover spy feud.

Rather, this is filmed like Hitchcock informed by psychedelic cinema, which means that the camera shoots through spectacles and glass tables, and looks in mirrors wherever possible. Hitch himself would do this for a reason - to emphasise drama or psychological states – rather than simply messing around with the image. But hey, style over substance is exactly what this piece of fluff deserves. It's a big summer action spy movie - big stars, big stunts.

One chase scene goes as far as to paraphrase the cropduster scene from North by Northwest, (for some reason a Holy Grail of action cinema for many years). It also predates a scene from Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut (1972) where very similar farm machinery is also used to menace Lee Marvin and a young Sissy Spacek as they get cornered in a cornfield.

Highlights include an night-time fight staged behind the scenes in London Zoo, there's snooping and sniping at Ascot horse races, and a horse and helicopter chase finale.

But the cast are the real reason to watch - Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in their prime. Loren exudes glamorous star quality every time she's onscreen. Both stars' witty performances compensate for the sometimes trite dialogue and the overly convoluted plot. As in Modesty Blaise, the startling designer costumes still look striking today.
Alan Badel plays a suitably sinister baddie, hiding behind a pair of severe sunglasses, though he only just manages to convince us that he's at all interested in Loren sexually. He played another ambivalent character as a schoolteacher trying to control the Children of the Damned.

His faithful henchman is played by John Merivale, the star of Italian monster movie Caltiki the Immortal Monster. There's some interesting trivia on this British actor over on IMDB - with a story of his relationship with Vivien Leigh after her divorce from Laurence Olivier. I'm surprised that this is listed as his last film role.

Kieron Moore is the only sore thumb in the cast, who fails to convince us why on earth he's talking like a beatnik, daddi-o. Moore's fierce acting style was in demand in lower-budget movies at the time. He had leading parts in Crack in the World, Doctor Blood's Coffin and Day of the Triffids.

The Arabic Prime Minister that everyone is trying to assassinate is played by German actor Carl Duering - though for decades I have watched this thinking it was Donald Pleasence! It looks just like him.

Director Stanley Donen made his name with classic fifties musicals Singing in the Rain and On the Town, but my favourites of his are Arabesque and the original Bedazzled. In both films he successfully captured the sixties London vibe.

The master of James Bond title sequences, Maurice Binder, designed the opening credits, using vivid colours and electronic video feedback. Wild!

So, if you can get past all the Arabs being played by European actors wearing tan make-up, Kieron Moore’s daft dialogue and a couple of unnecessarily violent murders, this could be for you. Don’t bother trying to follow the plot, or work out which double-agents are working for who - it’ll make your head hurt. Just enjoy the company, the fashion and the ride.

For the first time on DVD, the 2.35 widescreen cinematography looks splendid, (presented anamorphically) and the crisp mono soundtrack showcases Henry Mancini's lush, catchy soundtrack, which is also available on CD.


  1. this is one of my favourite movies. Another favourite in the same vein is Masquerade with Cliff Robertson

  2. I haven't heard of MASQUERADE but I'll check it out for Cliff Robertson...

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