Monday, November 8, 2010

Mod Men

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.


  1. I am in seventh heaven with your comments on Donen's Arabesque and Funny Face (I covered it myself recently) - Sophia is certainly at her zenith here seemingly in total control of the camera - I have seen this one so many times. Her red pvc mac is pretty nifty too, and Badel is the best Arab foot fetishist villain ever. Greg and Sophia are fabulous together - just like he was with Bacall, Simmons, Ava, Deb Kerr, Audrey and just about everyone.

    Hepburn - Jo Malone ?

  2. Jo Stockton!!! LOL... I must have had fragrance on the brain...

  3. I, too, have always felt that this was Sophia's finest hour beauty-wise. (I, of course, subscribe to the Magnolia therory that "there is no such thing as natural beauty" so I love all the over the top hair, makeup, clothes.) I always liked the shower sequence when Greg is hiding upstairs in the mansion.

  4. Funny - I have never seen Funny Face all the way through. Come to think of it, I have never seen any Audrey Hepburn film all the way through. It isn't a dislike for them, but I have caught them either in mid movie, or started watching them and been distracted. Hummmm...

  5. I remember being taken with the way Sophia Loren showed her legs off in this movie (as you illustrate) and trying futilely as a little gayby to emulate her. I think this was also the movie (will have to netflix it now) in which she ordered "bacon-eggs-toast-coffee) for breakfast, right? For some reason, that always stuck with me and I even tried ordering it that way from my mother, who was not amused.

  6. C'est l'un de mes préférés parmi les films de Sophia Loren. Elle y est d'une beauté époustouflante. Je suis tout à fait d'accord avec les commentaires qui précèdent.

    Une beauté parmi les beautés. Elle l'est encore d'ailleurs aujourd'hui.

    Quelle femme remarquable. Dommage qu'on ne voit plus d'actrices de son envergure.

  7. The poster by Robert McGinnis is beautiful, one of my favorite paperback cover artists from the Sixties.


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