ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Clinton Rawls is an instructor at the Lamar Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on the humanities, art history, and film appreciation. As a labor of love, he translates foreign language and unofficial James Bond comics into English for the first time on his website, Comics Royale. Drop him a line and enjoy more 007 adventures!
Note: You can see also read’s Sam’s take which was posted on September 6, 2021.
Hitchcock. Even today the name looms large. An auteur so iconic the label “Hitchcockian” still carries weight. Many filmmakers have created their own riffs on the Master of Suspense: Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, The Key to Reserva), Brian De Palma (Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double), even Mel Brooks (High Anxiety), but few have been as successful as the great Stanley Donen with back-to-back films Charade and Arabesque. While Charade is more highly regarded, Arabesque (1966) is a sumptuous visual feast which remixes Hitchcock’s tropes with a nod to the sixties spy craze and an eye toward the future.
Hitchcock rarely concerned himself with plot, preferring instead thematic tensions and cinematic devices, but his films can easily be summed up in a sentence. “The wrong man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, goes on the run to prove his innocence,” could apply to The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Frenzy, and of course, North by Northwest. So little was Hitchcock preoccupied with the specifics of plot that he used the term “MacGuffin” as a catch-all for whatever moves the story along. Would a heist film be any different if the money were diamonds instead? Would it matter if the villain in a superhero movie wanted a bioweapon or nukes? Not really.
However, a Hitchcock film still makes sense and the same cannot quite be said about Arabesque, though it hardly matters. From the beginning, Donen and cinematographer Christopher Challis show us a man subjected to an eye exam where the lighting and camera angles shift so wildly it assaults the viewers’ senses. Just like the random letters one recites to an optometrist, the words in this film are meaningless. Donen makes his game plan clear when Gregory Peck, lecturing on Egyptian hieroglyphics to apathetic university students, awakens them by shouting, “Sex!” Strap yourself in, adjust your eyes, ignore the plot, and if you get bored… Sophia Loren!
Donen began his career as a dancer and choreographer, and those skills aid him well here. The performers hit their marks, allowing dozens of marvelous visual compositions to dazzle the eye. Like a stage performer, Loren moves gracefully through the scenery, framed within hypnotic designs and illuminated by a spotlight. Characters are distorted in reflections, and the filmmakers give us frames within frames to the point that a simple two-shot or close-up might seem base if not for the star power of Peck and Loren. Challis’s work is a testament to the power of widescreen filmmaking. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Hollywood deployed several gimmicks to compete with television: Cinerama, Cinemascope, 3D, even Smell-O-Vision all sought to peel audiences away from the typically flat, rote imagery on their TV sets. Arabesque makes the most of its Technicolor Panavision frame with dizzying delight. Eventually television would influence films for the worse as close-ups dominated coverage and more movies were shot in aspect rations that would translate well to pan-and-scan. Arabesque is a relic of a time when filmmakers had a bigger canvas to play with, and they did not waste it.
Both this and North by Northwest feature an ordinary man swept up in international intrigue with a beautiful double agent. Along the way, our hero is drugged and left for dead, and framed for murder in plain sight. Even Hitchcock’s celebrated crop-duster sequence is referenced as our heroes are victimized by a wrecking ball and later by farm combines in an alfalfa field, though the helicopter finale and romantic denouement on a gondola owe just as much to From Russia With Love. Where the film fails in comparison to Hitchcock is Alan Badel’s villain who, while a bit quirky, never conveys the icy menace as only James Mason could. In addition, Peck doesn’t have much of an arc but he’s along for the ride like the rest of us, and it’s refreshing to see him exercise his comedy chops. If you want more Hitchcock callbacks, Donen presents a scene at the racetrack courtesy of Notorious. The press conference assassination is reminiscent of Foreign Correspondent. And Peck’s surreal, drugged-out nightmare must have given him flashbacks to Spellbound.
Where Donen bests Hitchcock is in his willingness to film on location. The drugging scene feels dangerous as cars whiz past Peck mimicking a matador on a busy highway. The hallucinogenic visuals, wide-angle shots, double exposures, and trippy editing prove more effective than Cary Grant in front of a rear projection screen ever could. Loren is likewise in complete control, shifting wildly from femme fatale to damsel to action hero to love interest without ever feeling out of place. By the time the film turns into a political assassination thriller and the heroes hijack a news van to look for clues on grainy monitors, we’re reminded this was made in between the Kennedy assassinations. For a moment, the romantic lightness takes on an eerie solemnity as we witness a film made at the crossroads of history. It’s incredible to think not even a decade later, Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View would remix some of these plot elements and cinematic devices while ditching romance and spectacle for something altogether more cynical.
Unfortunately, the title is apt for all the wrong reasons. There are no Arabians in this film, only actors in brownface. The MacGuffin is an Egyptian cipher. No exotic locations in the Middle East nor Islamic architecture contribute to art design. Even the title sequence by Bond series regular Maurice Binder is mod optical illusions rather than the titular curvilinear designs. The film is in the style of the Arabs; it puts the “esque” in Arabesque.
Criticism aside, Arabesque is a terrific watch with one foot in the past, one in the present, and one in the future. Maybe a three-footed creature doesn’t make a lot of sense, but neither does the plot. Style over substance? Definitely. But when you’ve got such style, sometimes that’s all you need.
Arabesque is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.