Monday, November 8, 2010
Another film we saw as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's tribute to Stanley Donen was his 1966 comedy-thriller, Arabesque -- another one of our all-time childhood favorites. We'd seen it countless times on television and VHS, so we were thrilled to finally see it in its original widescreen presentation. We weren't disappointed. The cinematography (which won Christopher Challis a BAFTA award) is stunning, and lives up the film's famous tag line: "Ultra Mod! Ultra Mad! Ultra Mystery!" The actors are shot through mirrors, sunglasses' lenses, chandelier crystals -- it's gimmicky, totally of its time, and absolutely wonderful.
The film itself is nowhere near great, but completely entertaining from start to finish. The story (which shamelessly borrows from the James Bond formula; Hitchock's North by Northwest; and, most heavily, Donen's own Charade, with Gregory Peck taking Audrey Hepburn's role as the civilian improbably thrust into international intrigue, and Sophia Loren in Cary Grant's place as the side-switching enigma) is labyrinthine but compelling, particularly if you employ a lot of suspension of disbelief. Helping matters immensely is the fact that the stars have a marvelous chemistry together, with Peck strangely appealing as the slightly ragged, frayed-around-the-edges professor; and La Loren, besides being at the absolute height of her beauty, is alternately sensual, playful and witty as the helpless pawn (or is she?) in this game of espionage.
Alan Badel is third-billed, and makes a splendidly silky, sinister, Bond-worthy villain, complete with mod shades, a closet full of Savile Row suits, and a pet falcon. But the real co-star of the film is Loren's fabulously insane, custom-designed Christian Dior wardrobe, valued at (in 1966) $150,000, and consisting of 14 eye-popping outfits (our personal favorite: the emerald green coat, leopard turban, and emerald earrings) and -- get this, shoe fetishists -- 50 pairs of shoes.
In spite of a derivative storyline, implausible situations, and characters who walk a thin line between satire and cartoon, Arabesque works because of Donen's slick, economical direction (there isn't a dull moment in its entire 105 minute running time), Challis's inventive cinematography, and the superstar power of Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. By the way, did we mention how absolutely stunning Sophia looks? Forget the mod camera angles; Sophia's closeups alone probably secured Challis his BAFTA.