An elaborately contrived romp centered on a trivial outcome (the translation of a hieroglyphic note), Stanley Donen’s Arabesque is a cinematic soufflé that pauses in its breathless forward movement only to allow one ostentatious flourish after another. All baroque conceit, it has to stay at least two steps ahead of our recognition of just how far-fetched everything is, which it manages to do. The results are nearly exhausting, but always colorful.
David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is an Oxford orientalist hired by an obscenely rich Arab merchant, Najim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) to translate that hieroglyph. Beshraavi keeps Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren) as a trophy mistress and for reasons too complicated to describe, she and Pollock spend most of the movie on the run from Beshraavi’s wrath. The deliberately absurd tone never degenerates into self-parody; the most outlandish embellishments are played straight. It is the charged balance between the showy presentation and ridiculous action that produces the film’s ebullience.
Donen, probably best known as co-director with Gene Kelly of Singin’ in the Rain and a former dancer and choreographer, knows how to keep things moving. While Arabesque is not a musical, it exhibits the same charming brilliance of Donen’s work with Kelly. It is not exactly light, however. You’re a touch too aware of the feats, of the effort to wow to be able simply to enjoy the results. There’s always a nudge to admire what we’re seeing. The soufflé rises successfully; there’s plenty of reason to cheer “Well done!.” But we’re a touch too aware of the cook’s exertions for the results not to taste a little heavy.
That’s because, like another Gregory Peck vehicle, Mirage, Arabesque never lets us forget how clever it is. (Mirage’s scenarist, Peter Stone, apparently did a re-write of the script for Arabesque.) The difference between the films, aside from Loren’s winning presence, is that there are no dark hints to the story, nothing to get in the way of the delectation. Beshraavi’s team is murderous, and there is plenty of suspense, but the atmosphere is too giddy for any sense of real danger, unlike Mirage, in which Peck’s very identity is at risk. The threats and killings are just the spices necessary to keep the soufflé tasty.
While the facetious badinage in Mirage sometimes got in the way of the suspense, here the pace and flamboyance mask how ugly much of the action can be. A few moments (like a struggle and murder in an aquarium, for example) are nasty enough to threaten to tip the balance. Like the skillful dancer he was, however, Donen teeters just close enough to the edge to make us gasp, only to twirl away with another dizzying camera arabesque, making us giggle at his skill, our susceptibility to the conceits, and the punning aptness of the move. The results are not profound, but they are repeatedly, consistently entertaining. Which, when you think about it, is a kind of profundity.