During the month of August, Turner Classic Movies aired their annual “Summer under the Stars” where they air one specific actor or actress’s films for each day of that month. Sophia Loren, the beautiful actress from Italy, was one of their featured stars so I decided to tivo one of her films that I had never seen before. I chose 1966’s spy thriller film, Arabesque. Her co-star, was the incomparable Gregory Peck. When I pulled up the film this week and started watching it, child #3, commuter college student, happened to be home and as he saw Peck on the screen, he exclaimed, “It’s Atticus!” remembering Peck’s Academy Award winning turn as lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. I laughed and said that Peck was playing a far different character than Atticus in Arabesque.
Peck plays Professor David Pollack, a visiting American professor teaching at Oxford University, specializing in hieroglyphics. One of his respected and older colleagues is called away for an eye check-up and Peck fills in for this Professor, Dr. Ragheeb. The eye exam, unknown to Dr. Ragheeb, is conducted by a Mr. Sloane, who is really an undercover agent. During the eye exam, Sloane places dilating drops into Dr. Ragheeb’s eyes and he suddenly dies in much agony! ( This scene made me think that Arabesque did for eye doctors what the movie Marathon Man did for dentists!! ) Dr. Ragheeb had hidden in his eyeglasses a hieroglyph-coded message and Sloane snatches it.
Sloane, who is working for Arab shipping leader Nejim Beshraavi, contacts Professor Pollack to invite him to come to Beshraavi’s digs in London and translate the hieroglyph. Pollack tells Sloane that he’s not interested but when he is contacted by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena to accept Sloane’s invitation, Pollack agrees as he has a high opinion of Prime Minister Jena. Jena tells Pollack that Beshraavi is up to something and whatever it is it might be a threat to his country’s national security.
Pollack arrives at Beshraavi’s house and is told that he can’t leave until the translation of the hieroglyph is done. As Pollack looks around the sumptious library/den where he’s been left to begin working on the translation, in saunters the beautiful Sophia Loren, playing Yasmin Azir. It turns out that she owns the house, Beshraavi is her boyfriend, and could Pollack please help her zip up her nighty?? Pollack is immediately attracted to Yasmin but he also learns that Beshraavi is very jealous of any other man who might take Yasmin’s affections away from him so Pollack knows he has to tread carefully where Yasmin is concerned.
During a dinner at Yasmin’s that night, she is able to slip Pollack a newspaper clipping about Dr. Ragheeb’s death. Yasmin is able to excuse herself from the dinner stating that she has a splitting headache. Pollack excuses himself from the dinner stating that he needs to get back to his translating work. Another dinner guest tells Beshraavi that in 2 days Prime Minister Jena is expected to sign a treaty that will have negative effects on Beshraavi’s shipping business. Beshraavi doesn’t seem to be too worried about this fact.
Fun begins to ensue as Pollack meets Yasmin in her bedroom to find out what she knows about Dr. Ragheeb’s death. Yasmin tells Pollack that Beshraavi ordered Ragheeb’s death to get that hieroglyph and that as soon as it’s translated, he’ll order Pollack’s death! A knock at the door reveals that Beshraavi is there wanting to see Yasmin! She tells Pollack to hide in her shower. Then she quickly puts on her robe and tells Beshraavi to come in, that she is about to take a shower. He tells her to go ahead, he’ll wait there for her to finish this task. With no choice presented to Yasmin, she takes her shower, much to Pollack’s surprise and amusement. She keeps her backside to him(we don’t see it but it’s implied) and Pollack stays huddled at the far end of the shower. It’s an incredibly huge shower-6-7 people could stand in it and have a cocktail party!
With chase scenes that remind one of scenes from North by Northwest, Sabotage, and an assassination plot like the one in The Man Who Knew Too Much , Arabesque is a fast, fun, spy thriller. Peck, as Pollack, is great as the somewhat nerdy, cautious professor who gets caught up in this international espionage mess. Loren, is gorgeous, smart, and a pawn of Beshraavi and of another spy. She seemingly double-crosses Pollack, but it does get explained as to why she would do such a thing and she and Pollack are cute as they obviously are falling for one another. The ending scene, in a tiny boat, even seemed to me a bit of a nod to the end of the James Bond movie, Dr. No. Loren also wears some gorgeous clothes in this film, made by Christian Dior and she got to keep all of them after the film was finished. What a nice perk!
Alan Badel plays Neshraavi. I wasn’t familiar with his work at all and he wears dark sunglasses throughout the entire movie; I at first thought he was Peter Sellers! Badel is good as the main villain of the film, at first charming, then menacing. A bit of a creepiness in the way he hangs around Yasmin, but wouldn’t we expect that out of the villain? The rest of the cast gives fine performances too: Kieron Moore as Yussef, John Merivale as Sloane, Duncan Lamont as Webster, Carl Duering as Prime Minister Jena, and George Coulouris as Dr. Ragheeb.
With opening credits displayed over splashes and wild bending rays of colors, music by Henry Mancini, I knew Arabesque was going to be an enjoyable ride and it was. Very creative cinematography by Christopher Challis-watch the scene when Sophia descends a staircase and we see her from a sideview, through the myriad of crystals hanging from a chandelier. Or poor Pollack’s drugged out pov when he’s been forcibly given a truth serum that doesn’t give another set of baddies the answers they want. Very interesting shots to view and they caused my son to utter, “Atticus!” again! Produced and directed by Stanley Donen, with screenplay by three writers: Pierre Marton, Julian Mitchell, and Stanley Price. Based on the book The Cipher, by Alex Gordon.
Arabesque is available to purchase through Amazon on a regular dvd; not a blu ray issue. It’s available through Shop TCM in a 5 dvd set of Gregory Peck films, and here’s a trailer that was shown back in 1966 for the film courtesy of Youtube.
For a fast-paced spy thriller with gorgeous Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck in a different role than a fatherly, lawyer type, check out Arabesque!