Thursday, July 12, 2007

Stanley Donen's Alternate Charade

While Stanley Donen's 1963 feature CHARADE has to be one of the most seen films of the sixties, his equally captivating ARABESQUE from 1966 has been largely forgotten and is currently missing in action on the home video market.
ARABESQUE is one of my favorite films of the sixties for its sheer fun factor. Many of my favorite's from the sixties, including WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT and THE APRIL FOOLS among others, can be accurately described as total fluff, but sometimes total fluff can be quite charming and ARABESQUE has charm and style to spare.
Starring, the incapable of giving a bad performance, Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren at her absolute physical peak, ARABESQUE tells the story of hieroglyphics expert Professor David Pollack who gets caught up in a convoluted scheme to kill and replace the Middle Eastern Prime Minister. Along the way Pollack gets involved with the Prime Minister's mysterious mistress, Yasmin Azir, and his relatively peaceful life is turned upside down.
Honestly the rather confused plotting of ARABESQUE doesn't much matter. This is a film all about style and its stars. Peck and Loren work wonderfully well together and honestly about halfway through I am enjoying the time with them so much that the story just kind of fades to the background.
Donen was of course known for his eye popping big budget musicals from the fifties, such as SINGIN IN THE RAIN and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. With CHARADE Donen would make one of the most fully realized 'Hitchcockian' thrillers ever and ARABESQUE is definately a film seeking to reclaim that same magic. 'Hitchcockian' is perhaps one of the most overused terms in Hollywood history, it belongs to that strange set of descriptions (Kubrickian, Tarantinoesque) that are used all the time but in actuality are typically very off. CHARADE is one of the few films where the term really does apply but ARABESQUE has a much more European feel to it, as if Donen spent the three years between films soaking up the astonishing number of masterpieces countries like France, Italy and his own native ENGLAND were producing in this period.

Backed with one of Henry Mancini's most powerfully sublime, if often overlooked, scores, a title sequence by the great Maurice Binder and the delicious Christion Dior costume designs, ARABESQUE is one of the most joyously cool films from the mid sixties. Christopher Challi's BAFTA winning cinematography is crisp and colorful and the unbelievably beautiful Loren just burns the screen up under his photography. Donen's undeniably influential fast paced directorial style is matched up perfectly with Frederick Wilson's near frantic cross cutting editing.
One of the catch phrases in ARABESQUE's original marketing campaign was "Ultra Mod" and that is a pretty perfect way of summing up this film as it was obviously influenced by much of what was going on in London at the time, particularly with Fashion and Photography.
The film, ultimately, belongs to its two stars. Peck and Loren share the same kind of chemistry that Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn had in CHARADE and like those two they look like they are having the time of their lives. Peck is as suave and debonair as possible in the role of Pollock (even though it was written for Cary Grant), and Loren is like some breathtaking Italian dream in her Dior outfits and her slyly comic performance is one of her finest.
ARABESQUE was a pretty solid hit when it hit theaters in the Summer of 66. It was also one of the last films of the period that would truly revel in that very particular mid sixties style as English language cinema was getting ready to go into a major overall. The film scored a mixed reaction from critics though and never really caught the fire that CHARADE had generated. It was available on VHS in a rather ugly full screen rendering but remains annoyingly unavailable on Region 1 dvd. A nice widescreen print pops up on Turner Classic Movies occasionally and that is the best way to go right now to see the movie unless you want to pop for the bare bones Region 2 dvd.
ARABESQUE probably seemed pretty quaint in the couple of years that followed it but I think it has aged wonderfully as a film not afraid to simply entertain. It is a really endearing and fun film that has unjustly been neglected and truth be told I like it better than CHARADE...and I like CHARADE very much. ARABESQUE is not currently on TCM's schedule and no dvd has been mentioned as being in the works but keep an eye out, a film this stylish and fun can't stay hidden forever.


Mr. Peel said...

I rented this film on tape a number of years ago--long enough that I can't really discuss the plot, but my main recollection was that it played as a transparent attempt to recreate CHARADE--remember, co-writer "Pierre Marton" is actually CHARADE writer Peter Stone. But not long ago I caught a few minutes of the letterboxed version on TCM and what I saw hooked me immediately. Seeing it in the correct way showed me how it was this style that was at the forefront in the film and not so much that plot. The Mancini score is very good as well and unlike CHARADE, the album actually contains some of the action score. I'll be sure to keep my eyes open for its reappearance on TCM.

Jeremy Richey said...

Yea it really does need to be seen Widescreen. That old full frame video really does rob it of pretty much all its charm...give it a look next time it is on TCM...hope you enjoy it...thanks for commenting

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I saw this film years ago. My favorite classic actor is Cary Grant, but I thought Gregory Peck was excellent in this. I actually prefer this film to "Charade," even though I do love that movie. This film does have quite an European feel to it. I like that about it. Sophia Loren was very gorgeous in this movie. She and Peck were both stylish in their dress. They did have great chemistry together. I do love the score by Henry Mancini, one of my favs. I would love to see this again sometime.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I wish the film would hit seems very odd that it hasn't considering the talent involved...thanks for the comments.

Cinebeats said...

This is a favorite of mine as well. I enjoy it more than Charade for the simple fact that I think Peck & Loren had more chemistry and worked better as a couple in the film.

I didn't realize it had been shown on TCM in letterbox but I own the VHS. I don't really understand the whole TCM thing since I don't have cable TV. Why do they show these great films - in letterbox even - and yet you can't get them on DVD yet? It doesn't make any sense to me.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kimberly,
I agree about Peck and Loren's chemistry...they are really fabulous together.
It's a good question about TCM. They recently showed an incredible widescreen remastered print of The Monkees "Head" but the only dvd available is that horribly scratched up full frame job.
Some times it seems that when a film pops up on there it can signal a dvd release in the future but often not.
A favorite of mine is the Omar Shariff-Anouk Aimee film "The Appointment" that TCM has a beautiful widescreen print of but it is still a major no show on is so frustrating how many great films are just gathering dust while some of the worst continually get released and re-released...what can you do? We still can't even get "The Devils" out here...
Thanks for your comments...I was actually just commenting on some of your recent Cinebeats posts...