Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Movie Review: Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque (1966)

Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren make an attractive couple in Arabesque, 1966.

It looks like the sight of Sophia Loren about to take a shower is giving Gregory Peck heart palpitations. Which is understandable.

Gregory Peck on the set of Arabesque. In case you weren't aware, this picture should let you know that Gregory Peck was seriously handsome. This picture is on the cover of the book Icons of Men's Style.
The director Stanley Donen imitated many of Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarks in his 1963 film Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Three years later, Donen would borrow liberally from the elements of Charade in his movie Arabesque, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. According to IMDB, Peck’s role was written with Cary Grant in mind. Like Charade, Arabesque is a thriller where things are not quite what they seem. Peck plays Professor David Pollock, an expert in hieroglyphics. At the beginning of the film, we see him lecture about hieroglyphics, and it feels a bit like The Da Vinci Code. But fortunately, there are no scenes in Arabesque where the plot comes to a screeching halt as someone explains something to us in great detail. Arabesque opens with a murder in an optometrist’s office, and there are plenty of tricky camera angles throughout the movie, as we are constantly looking into mirrors and through prisms. I greatly enjoyed all of the camera trickery, as it made Arabesque more interesting to watch.

Arabesque also borrows from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, as Peck plays an ordinary man caught up in a plot to kill a prime minister of an Arab nation. North By Northwest is echoed at the beginning of the movie, as Peck is forcibly shoved in the prime minister’s car while jogging, which echoes Cary Grant’s kidnapping at the beginning of Northwest. Other references to Northwest include Peck being given a shot of truth serum and then dumped out onto a highway. Feeling drunk, Peck first thinks he’s a matador and the cars are bulls, but he eventually commandeers a bicycle and gets away safely. This sequence is an homage/rip-off of the scene in North By Northwest where Grant is forcibly intoxicated by James Mason’s hoodlums and dumped in a Mercedes-Benz convertible along a twisting road near jagged cliffs. Of course, Grant also gets away safely. At the end of Arabesque, Donen stages his own version of the famous crop-duster scene from Northwest, as Peck and Sophia Loren have to crawl around while being chased by sharp and pointy farm implements. 

Unfortunately for Donen, Arabesque can’t hold a candle to North By Northwest. Gregory Peck does his best with the light comedy of the script, but as you watch, you can’t help but feel that Cary Grant would have done it better. It’s unfair to compare Peck to Grant, as Peck was not a comedic actor, and Grant was one of the greatest light comedic actors the movies have ever seen. But because Arabesque so blatantly copies other films starring Grant, the comparison is inevitable. 

Peck and Sophia Loren don’t have a lot of chemistry together, which also hurts the movie. She plays a mysterious woman whom Peck meets at the house of a businessman named Beshraavi, played by Alan Badel, who seems to be impersonating Peter Sellers. Peck has been hired by Beshraavi to decipher a code. However, it soon becomes obvious that Beshraavi is going to kill Peck as soon as he finishes deciphering the code. So Peck hides out in Loren’s bathroom as she takes a shower-which I read as a nod to the scene in Charade where Cary Grant takes a shower with all of his clothes on. Like Charade, where the audience and Audrey Hepburn are constantly wondering whose side Cary Grant is on, the audience of Arabesque and Gregory Peck are wondering whose side Sophia Loren is on. (Spoiler alert for Charade: of course Cary Grant’s the good guy! Duh! Cary Grant is ALWAYS the good guy!)

Sophia Loren looks gorgeous, which is pretty much all that the role requires her to do. For his part, Peck looks very handsome and dashing at age 49 and the grey in his hair just makes him look more distinguished, as though he really needed to look more distinguished. Looking distinguished was what Gregory Peck did all day, every day. 

Arabesque isn’t a great film, but it’s an enjoyable enough movie if you’re looking for a 1960’s Hitchcock-lite trifle.

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