(Aka: Arabeske, Arabeska, Arabeski – Colour – 1966)
When American director Stanley Donen decided to cast debonair actor Cary Grant (born Archibald Alexander Leach – 1904-86), his co-partner of Grandon Productions, in the romantic comedy-thriller “Charade” (1963), Donen sought a helping hand from its leading actress Audrey Hepburn to rope in Grant since he was a bit conscious of his 25 years age difference with Hepburn. Although Grant had long wanted to work with Hepburn, it would be only after certain modifications were effected in the original script of Peter Stone from his own novel, that Grant would be suitably convinced to accept the role. The film would be his third collaboration with Donen, seventieth movie and 30th anniversary of his entry into movies. Grant’s 59th birthday also fell during the filming and he had a new love in actress Dyan Cannon.
Set in Paris, Peter Joshua’s (Grant) help is sought by Reggie Lampert (Hepburn) to locate $250,000 in gold stashed away by her murdered husband while three sinister men are also on the look out to recover it. In the process, Joshua and Lampert fall in love. When the audience saw Hepburn’s doe-like eyes gazing at Grant, the age suddenly ceased to matter.
Donen had directed Hepburn in “Funny Face” back in 1957 which featured a plot notably different from that of its Broadway musical version. Hepburn had acted in that with 58 year old Fred Astaire, 30 years her senior whom she had expressly insisted to cast as her leading man by using it as a precondition to her participation in that movie.
Casting men of higher age with Hepburn would become a regular case in her career, being one of the reasons Grant originally refused to act with her in “Charade”. Anyhow, “Funny Face” brought Donen nomination for “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures” by the Directors Guild of America and for a “Golden Palm” at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
“Charade” was fervently made by Donen in tune with his close friend Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”, one of his favourite movies and when it was released in December 1963, two weeks after the assassination of President J. F Kennedy, it turned out to be a huge financial success. The film also spawned a series of stylish thrillers, that even in 2002, director Jonathan Demme remade it under the title “The Truth About Charlie”.
The film’s success inspired Donen to make yet another breezy, romantic thriller in 1966 titled “Arabesque” with Cary Grant in the leading role. Understandably, Grant flatly refused the role, well aware that he was of the tender age of 62 by then. He wouldn’t have minded acting with Loren, lined up for the movie, even though their brief affair during the 16 weeks they were in Spain in 1956 filming director Stanley Kramer’s “The Pride and the Passion”, according to a biography of Grant, didn’t lead to the altar. The search for a leading man ended when Grant himself recommended the casting of 50 year old, 6’ 3” Gregory Peck in the role of Oxford professor of languages with Italian siren Sophia Loren as the leading lady.
Gregory Peck (more details ref. my review of “StarChoice 14: The Million Pound Note”) had completed his performance as David Stillwell, a New York accountant suffering from amnesia in director Edward Dmytryk’s black and white suspense thriller “Mirage” (1965), and was available for the filming of “Arabesque”. “Mirage” was based on the novel “Fallen Angel” by Walter Ericson (aka. Howard Fast who wrote “Spartacus”). The script of “Mirage” written brilliantly by Peter Stone as a follow-up to “Charade”, helped the casting of Peck in “Arabesque” easier for Donen.
Unlike in “Mirage” in which Peck with his distinctive low-pitched voice was trying to figure out his past, in “Arabesque” which is shot in Technicolor, Peck would appear as Professor David Pollock, a man on a clock trying to decipher a secret inscription.
Produced by Donen under the banner of Stanley Donen Enterprises, Ltd and presented through Universal Pictures, “Arabesque” opens with the arrival of Professor Ragheeb to keep up with his appointment with Mr. Saeed for an eye check up. Ragheeb was surprised to learn from Sloane that Saeed has taken to flu and Sloane is looking after his appointments. Even though Ragheeb’s eyes were found to be in good order, Sloane went ahead to put drops into his eyes to dilate the pupils. Moments later, Ragheeb was dead. Sloane extracts a piece of paper hidden inside one of the temples of his spectacles which had a series of signs inscribed on it.
Cut to: a class room at the Oxford University. David Pollack, the visiting American professor, was explaining about Hieroglyphics from a display sign that could be from the reign of the great Pharaoh Ramses II. In the dark room, we could make out the figure of Sloane watching the professor conclude his lecture and inform the class that Professor Ragheeb will be back tomorrow.
Sloane introduces himself to Pollack as “Major Sylvester Pennington Sloane of Her Majesty’s 42 Highland Fusiliers”. Now retired, he is the private secretary to Mr. Nejim Beshraavi – yes, “The Nejim Beshraavi” of the shipping lines, who would like to meet Pollack in London for which a car is now waiting.
Having refused to go with Sloane for keeping up with the routine of his Wednesdays, Pollack was later jogging through the park when he was forcibly pulled into a mysterious black Rolls Royce inside which he meets up with His Excellency, Mr. Hassan Jena, the Prime Minister of a Middle Eastern country whom Pollack admired. Apart from the driver, the other passenger who made the introductions was Mohammed Lufti, Jena’s Ambassador to Great Britain.
Necessary apologies were offered to Pollack by Jena for having used unorthodox method for making his acquaintance. He had two requests for Pollack. Officially, Jena is not supposed to be in England and has not seen Pollack. His visit is to be kept a secret. Jena believes that his fellow countryman, Nejim Beshraavi, the richest and the most powerful citizen, has reasons to approach Pollack with a business proposition. Pollack confirms this and adds that he had already turned him down. Having established that, Jena confirms that Pollack’s association with Beshraavi could be valuable to the cause of freedom since Beshraavi is opposed to Jena’s programmes and could create violent oppositions to it in the near future. As for his second request, Jena would like Pollack to re-establish contact with Beshraavi to find out what his intentions are and when he intends to act. Since the assignment carries a certain amount of risk; Beshraavi respects no one’s life but his own, Pollack was offered the choice to simply walk away from this proposal. However, Pollack elects to shoulder the job for Jena.
Pollack meets up with Beshraavi in the library of a house in London near the Zoological Gardens where Beshraavi also introduces to Pollack his “excessively loyal” Peregrine falcon called Hassan, named after his beloved Prime Minister Hassan Jena since Jena and the falcon share so many sterling qualities.
Producing the piece of paper he had obtained belligerently through Sloane from Professor Ragheeb, he asks Pollack to decipher it. At a glance, Pollack expresses his opinion that it is a copy of a Hittite inscription dating back to the Second Millennium.
Pollack being an expert in deciphering messages written in Egyptian hieroglyphics (ancient languages), Beshraavi is prepared to pay $30,000 to him to stay in his house and decipher it by 8 pm. When Pollack was attempting to decipher the inscription while enjoying the famous Quality Street twist wrap sweets, he meets up with the exotic Yasmin Azir, the mistress of Beshraavi who is a captive in her own house.
Yasmin’s attempt to lead the conversation to the cipher was shortlived. Still in a sociable frame of mind, her further conversation was cut short by the arrival of Beshraavi who asserts to Pollack his proprietary interest in Yasmin.
During dinner that night with Pollack, Beshraavi, and his friend, the banker Beauchamp, Yasmin, in an adventurous mood, secretly slipped a note into Pollack’s hand which was discovered by all, due to the sloppiness of Pollack.
Explaining to Beshraavi with a cool exterior that it’s just a prescription, he manages to retire to his room. Once Yasmin had also left the dining room, Beauchamp shares a gossip with Beshraavi which he had heard at the Exchange that when Prime Minister Jena arrives in London the day after tomorrow, he will sign a treaty which specifies Anglo-American finance in return for a promise that Jena’s country uses only English and American tankers.
Meanwhile, David finds that Yasmin had slipped into his hand not one, but two papers: one was a newspaper clipping about Professor Ragheeb’s death due to “fall from eighth floor window”, while the other was a handwritten note directing him to meet up with her at the “first room top of the stairs.”
When Pollack finally meets up with her, having disposed of the papers, Yasmin informs him that Ragheeb was murdered by Beshraavi’s men and they would kill him too if he didn’t keep out of this. Once again, their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Beshraavi.
With Beshraavi inside the bedroom, Yasmin was forced to take a shower despite the masculine compliments of Pollack who was hiding behind her.
Soon a chase was on to locate the missing Pollack during which Pollack escapes with Yasmin on the pretext that he had kidnapped her. They were chased by Beshraavi’s thug Mustafa to the Zoological Gardens, down the Monkey House, past the caged animals into the aquarium wing where a fight eventually ensues between Pollack and Mustafa. Pollack was saved by the timely intervention of a man in trench coat and hat who later identifies himself as Inspector Webster, CID whose department had been watching Yasmin’s house since Beshraavi started staying there. Then again, when a zoo official demands to see his identity card, Webster shoots him with a silenced gun. Pollack’s mind always travelling, was now perplexed: Whose side is Webster on? He is not with the authorities, or with Beshraavi. He can’t be with Prime Minister Jena. Then Webster clarifies that he is with Yasmin and they all want the cipher. The chase is on……
Loosely based on the novel “The Cipher” by Gordon Cotler and screenplay by Julian Mitchell, Pierre Marton (Peter Stone) and Stanley Price, ”Arabesque” would provide Stanley Donen with his second box office success in a row. Before Donen diversified into chic comedies and thrillers when musical films lost popularity by the end of the 1950s, Donen was a dancer/choreographer. Once hailed as “the King of the Hollywood musicals”, he had tried to create a direct continuation from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. During the course of an illustrious career, he would co-direct “On the Town”, “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly, helm sole directorship of movies such as “Royal Wedding”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “Funny Face”, “The Pajama Game”, “The Grass is Greener”, etc. The last surviving reputable film director from Hollywood’s Golden Era, Donen had shifted his home base from America to England after the production of “Indiscreet” in 1958, where he will remain until the early 1970s.
With Peck’s talent in “Arabesque”, Donen was able to bring out good characterization of the protagonist Pollack and used the antagonists and the plot to challenge Pollack at a greater pace, even though Peck falls short from the comic charisma of Cary Grant. In shooting action scenes, mainly during the run through the cornstalk field, Peck also had difficulty due to an old leg injury from a horseriding accident.
Donen has expertly dealt with the shower scene limiting the frames showing Peck staring at Loren’s body parts too long that would create the risk of Pollack crossing the line of decency and become interpreted as a pervert. Peck also seems to know that casual glances are more sexy than staring.
In 1966 when “Arabesque” came out, having been elected the National Chairman of American Cancer Society, Peck would take a three year break from acting to devote his time on humanitarian causes. His next appearance would be in director J. Lee Thompson’s “Mackennas’s Gold” in 1968, a role reportedly offered to Clint Eastwood who turned it down to make his “Hang ‘Em’ High”, co-produced by Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions.
Apart from Sophia Loren, this rollicking adventure film also stars Alan Badel, Kieron Moore and George Coulouris. British stage/screen actor Alan Badel of “Salome”, “Magic Fire”, “Children of the Damned”, stars as the sinister Beshraavi.
Born in Rusholme, near Manchester in September 1923, Badel had graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1939 winning a Bancroft Gold Medal. Moore began his stage career with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin were he displayed his ability to speak Gaelic. His portrayal of Romeo to Claire Bloom’s Juliet at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 1952-53 was well noted. Badel’s performance as the sinister Negim Beshraavi in this film conveys the perfect subdued menace the role calls for.
Once described as “handsome in a slightly eccentric fashion”, Irish stage and television actor Kieron Moore (Kieron O’Hanrahan – 1924-2007) of “Anna Karenina”, “David and Bathsheba”, “The Green Scarf”, “The Thin Red Line”, with his dark Latin looks and brawny build, stars as Yussef Kasim. He was discovered by Sir Alexander Korda who whisked him out of the cast of Sean O’Casey’s Irish play “Red Roses for Me” in London.
While acting in American films from 1930 to 50, British character actor George Coulouris (1903-89) was often cast in explosive roles. He had gained his training in acting at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama along with fellow students Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft.
Having performed in movies such as “Hotel Berlin”, “King of Kings”, it would be after his performance in “The Skull” that he would be cast in “Arabesque”, in the role of Professor Ragheeb. Coulouris won a National Board of Review “Best Actor” award in 1941 for his performance in “Citizen Kane”.
The other supporting actors are: John Merivale (Major Sloane), Duncan Lamont (Webster), Carl Duering (Prime Minister Hassan Jena), Ernest Clark (Beauchamp), Harold Kasket (Lufti), Gordon Griffin (Fanshaw), Larry Taylor (Mustafa), etc.
The film is photographed in Panavision by Kensington born Christopher (George Joseph) Challis (1919-2012), a good friend of Donen who would use Challis on six of his films during Donen’s British period in the 1960s. Challis was a technician on early British colour movies such as “The Drum”, “The Four Feathers”, before he became second unit cameraman on “The Thief of Bagdad”. He owes his knowledge in cinematography mainly to Georges Périnal and Jack Cardiff and would later become an essential member of the Archers production company of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger which enabled him to experiment with creative cinematography. Although Challis received several nominations for BAFTA award for Best British Cinematographer, including for “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965), he finally won it in 1967 for “Arabesque”.
To heighten the mystery of this thriller Challis’s camera work is full of dazzling styles that played with focus and disorienting camera angles, especially during the scenes when Pollack was in a drugged stupor. Very often images are shown through reflections on the body of the Rolls Royce, on glass of the low table, on the round side panel, through the aquarium glass, etc.
Apparently, Challis’ camera angles consistently favoured Sophia Loren, focusing attention on her chiseled facial features and statuesque figure looking luscious in gorgeous outfits of tailored cuts and rich materials.
While the Art direction is done by (George) Reece Pemberton (1914-77) who specialized on TV series; make-up for the movie is carried out by British make up artist William (Bill/Billy) T. Partleton (1911-75) of “Christopher Columbus”, “The Prisoner”, “Sink the Bismarck!” fame. The film is edited by Frederick Wilson (“The Prisoner”, “Sword of Lancelot”). You may note the replica of a golden palm on Beshraavi’s desk – which could have acted as a perfect model for one of the prosthetic hands of the evil drug-lord Han of Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon”.
American composer and songwriter Henry Mancini (Enrico Mancini – 1924-94) who had provided music for Donan’s “Charade” repeats his stylish music in this movie, as well. Educated at the Juilliard School of Music, Mancini was the arranger and pianist with the post-war Glenn Miller Band before coming over to Universal in 1952. He had composed music for “Touch of Evil”, “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Hatari”, “The Pink Panther”, “A Shot in the Dark”, “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”, etc. Audrey Hepburn’s song “Moon River” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was composed by Mancini to the lyrics of Johnny Mercer which won the Oscar for Best Song.
For the opening music of this movie, Mancini has provided a continuous procession of tones in a time honoured way laced with Middle Eastern tones to the stylish James Bond-ish title theme. There are several other themes, one of them is a powerful dotted rhythm, and another full of graceful charm, including the rapid running passages of the solo violin notes during the chase scenes to the Zoological Gardens, which are quite noteworthy.
During the 1960s, Italian screen goddess Sophia Loren (Sofia Villani Scicolone) was basking in international stardom for sometime. She was avidly sought after by film makers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Levine, even, Arthur Miller, to the intense promotion by Carlo Ponti (1912-2007), her romance in blossom. Prior to her appearance in “Arabesque”, Loren had appeared in director Michael Anderson’s “Operation Crossbow” (aka: The Great Spy Mission – 1965), Daniel Mann’s “Judith” and Peter Ustinov’s “Lady L” (both in 1966) and was slated to appear with Marlon Brando in Charles Chaplin’s “A Countess from Hong Kong”. Chaplin had seen Loren in “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and was enthralled by her.
Even though, both “Judith” based on an unpublished (later published) novel by Lawrence Durrell modified according to Loren’s suggestions, in which she acted as an Austrian Jewess Judith Roth who, after surviving Nazi concentration camps, visits Israel in 1948 to track down her Nazi husband who had betrayed her; as well as, “Lady L”, in which she acted with Paul Newman and David Niven, both had fizzled out at the box office. However, for movie audiences, the statuesque Italian leading lady Loren whom writer Lawrence Durrell once described as “A sweet creature, great dignity and style”, symbolized Latin female sexuality.
Although the 5 foot 8.5 inches tall Loren is one of the most beloved and recognizable actresses of the movie world who had worked with a long string of reputed directors and actors. But naturally, there is a small catch.
Actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, found the “Italy’s sensuous beauty” as their competitor. According to biographies of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, being scared of “Miss-what’s-her-name” acting with Burton in “The V.I.P.s”, Elizabeth had pulled strings to have herself cast in the role. On another occasion, when Burton told Liz Taylor that Loren might take a role in “The Comedians” which offered a few numbers of love scenes with him, that picture was released with Liz in the role intended for Loren. Liz had even agreed to act in it, her seventh film with Burton, for half of her customary salary of $1 million thus enabling Burton to receive more salary than Liz for the first time, i.e. $750,000. In 1959,
Peter Sellers had fallen head over heels in love with Loren when they acted in “The Millionaires” though Loren’s fundamental choice was Carlo Ponti, her keeper of the flame.
When Donen approached Loren for “Arabesque” which scheduled to start production in England by the end of April, 1965, he did not have a script ready to show her. However, Loren was well aware of the works of Donen and furthermore, she always wanted the opportunity to work with Gregory Peck.
Besides, Loren would be available in London after finishing her work in her second film for M.G.M “Lady L” by late April. For Loren and Ponti, January 1965 had brought fresh happiness when the French Premier Georges (Jean Raymond) Pompidou (1911-74) granted them with French citizenship which automatically enabled Ponti’s then estranged wife Giuliana to sue for divorce under French Law after six months of being a French citizen. Measuring up to the new citizenship, the 31 year old Loren was only happy to star as Lady Louise Lendale in “Lady L” shot in Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo with some scenes in Switzerland and England under the direction of Ustinov with whom Loren had worked as an uncredited extra in director Mervyn LeRoy’s epic film “Quo Vadis” (1951) starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr.
Following the completion of “Lady L”, Loren was put up in a Georgian country house in Berkshire near Ascot for the shooting period from May to August in order that she has easy access to the locations at Ascot, Oxford, Pinewood Studios in London and other locations in the English countryside including at the Crumlin Viaduct, Caerphilly in South Wales while it was being dismantled. Caerphilly is, of course, amongst other things, famous for its cheese.
Sophia Loren has carried off the role of Beshraavi’s mistress Yasmin Azir with a quite charm and verve as Yasmin plays all the sides against each other, while her real loyalties will be revealed only at the end of the movie.
One time driving a Mercedes-Benz 230SL, she breezes through the movie as a Femme Fatale with her breath-taking beauty and stunningly alluring body elegantly attired exclusively by Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan who prepared a stylish wardrobe and related footwear (all of which would add to Loren’s personal wardrobe after the filming) on generous funding from Universal. In 1961 Marc (Roger Maurice Louis) Bohan had succeeded Yves Saint Laurent, who was called up for military service, at Dior where he would continue till May 1989 when he was replaced by Italian Gianfranco Ferrè setting stage for Ferrè to parade his exquisite flair for fashion.
With Sophia Loren’s taste usually excellent, if a bit expensive, Bohan wouldn’t have found a more willing patron than Loren who knew what it takes for star build up.
While Cinematographer Challis was very much impressed by the professionalism of Sophia Loren, she can also be game for fun. One of her biographies related an incident during the shooting of the shower scene when Peck had to hide next to her while she took the shower.
To put her at ease, Peck had told her not to feel embarrassed, that it’s all in the game. With her unflinching beautiful hazel eyes, Loren asked him what makes him think she would be embarrassed, then readily took the shower naked to Peck’s regal silence.
Ironically, both “Arabesque” and “Lady L” were released in May 1966 while Loren’s “Judith” was still in its release screening. Serious moviegoers found “Arabesque” a bit imperfect, and Loren was at the receiving end of resentment for adverse characterization of the Arabs in the movie.
Nevertheless, with the presence of an impressive star cast consisting of Peck, Loren, Badel and production crew of Donen, Challis, Mancini and of course, James Bond title designer Maurice Binder’s psychedelic visuals gracing the main titles, “Arabesque” is still fun to watch. Put your feet up and enjoy. Until next time, Ciao, Jo
(Text: © JS/Manningtree Archive)