BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Gregory Peck stars as American hieroglyph expert Dr. David Pollock and Sophia Loren as Persian knock-out Yazmin Azir. The spy thriller has its romantic moments.
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“ARABESQUE” – SPECIAL EDITION
Blu-ray; 1966; Not Rated
Best extra: “Music by Mancini” Archival Featurette with Henry Mancini and Nationally Syndicated Columnist Leonard Feather
ULTRA MOD! Ultra Mad! Ultra Mystery – so Maurice Binder’s crazy psychedelic title sequence tells us. (He’s the title master for all those early James Bond films, too.) It’s accompanied by Henry Mancini’s thrumming score, so you know this is 1966 and you’re in for a jolly good time. Some critics say that “Arabesque” was an attempt by director Stanley Donen to capitalize on his success with “Charade,” but “Arabesque” stands up for itself quite nicely.
The festivities commence with the murder of Professor Ragheeb (Mercury Theater vet George Coulouris) by sleek, sinister henchman Major Sloane (John Merivale), who retrieves a scrap of paper containing a hieroglyph from the earpiece of the late professor’s specs. Shortly thereafter, Sloane attempts to recruit hieroglyph expert Dr. David Pollock (a tweedy, bemused Gregory Peck) to translate the scrap for his employer, oil and shipping magnate Najim Beshraavi (Alan Badel – no, it’s not Peter Sellers – though you can’t be blamed for thinking so). Pollock turns him down.
(1) Stanley Donen’s “Arabesque” was filmed in England and opened on May 5, 1966, in New York City. (2&3) Professor Ragheeb (George Coulouris) is murdered with poisoned eyedrops given by sinister henchman Major Sloane (John Merivale) to retrieve a secret hieroglyph message from Ragheeb’s glasses. (4) American visiting Professor Pollock at Oxford.
Later that morning, the professor is abducted by Prime Minister Jena (Carl Duering), someone who Pollock admires greatly, and is convinced by him to translate the glyph and find out what devilment Beshraavi is up to. This is where we are introduced to Beshraavi’s girlfriend, a Persian knock-out named Yazmin Azir (Sophia Loren in Christian Dior looking like she’s opening the Met Gala).
The rest of the film is a blur of witty banter, chases, double crosses, odd camera shots and vicious murders. Oh, did I mention Sophia Loren?
Where was I?
Right, double crosses ... the original title was “Crisscross,” which would suit quite nicely considering Loren's character’s unfathomable loyalties, except it sounds a mite like the Burt Lancaster/Yvonne De Carlo classic “Criss Cross.” The source novel was “The Cipher,” a 1961 novel by Alex Gordon. Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price and frequent Donen collaborator Peter Stone (as “Pierre Marton”) wrote the screenplay. “Arabesque” did well at the box office and was in theaters for a long time.
(1&2) While running on the Oxford campus Prof. Pollack is abducted by Prime Minister Jena (Carl Duering), from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. He asks him to spy on oil magnate Najim Beshraavi (Alan Badel) while trying to translate the hieroglyph. (3) Beshraavi’s mistress Yazmin Azir asks Pollack to zipped up her revealing evening attire. (4) Pollack is invited to dinner with Beshraavi and Azir. (5) All of Loren’s costumes were designed by Christian Dior
Kino Lorber’s package is fairly loaded with them. I'll admit to blatant prejudice regarding “Music by Mancini.” The first LP album I ever bought with my own hard won lawn-mowing dollars was “The Best of Mancini” in 1965. I still play his stuff on YouTube when I want to get into a particular mood. This little documentary came out when “Arabesque” was about to open and we get to see Hank Mancini (with HAIR) explaining the process he used to score it. I'm a film score buff and, to me, it was worth the entire disc.
There’s also a poster gallery showing Peck and Loren, with Peck assuming a James Bond pose holding some sort of silenced pistol in his mitt. His character never even picks up a gun. Find theatrical trailers and TV spots, and an audio commentary track with film historians Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson. It’s obvious they really enjoyed this film, but sometimes they'd get so excited they talk over each other. It is, apparently, their first chance to get together live after COVID restrictions and they just sound tickled to death.
Clear and crisp. Even the “accented” dialogue is easily understood. I ran subtitles but didn’t need them in the least. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track delivers a good blend of dialogue and effects, with Mancini’s score driving the story.
(1) An awkward and funny scene, as Pollack finds himself in the shower with Azir. The two actors were filmed separately and the two pieces of film were composited together. (2) Beshraavi with his pet peregrine falcon, named after Prime Minister Hassan Jena. (3) Pollack threatens Azir so he can escape from Beshraavi’s mansion. (4) Pollack is given some drugs and dumped onto the highway and nearly killed.
Again, clean but the sharpness varies. This 1080p transfer encoded with MPEG-4 AVC (2.35:1 aspect ratio) was sourced from an older second-generation Universal Pictures master used in the 2015 Italian Blu-ray and Universal’s own 2019 disc. Saturated color and detail hold up with most closes-ups, but the contrast is dialed up causing some crushed shadows and blown-out highlights. The enclosed theatrical trailer is strangely from a better source, producing a more balanced contrast and natural film grain.
Christopher Challis is credited as cinematographer, but Donen has a heavy hand in this. He said he wanted to try something new and that’s what he did. A fan of the hand-held camera, he suspended them by cables from the ceiling for fluid tracking without the shakiness of hand-held. Several characters are introduced by their reflections on other surfaces, filtered through water, lenses or garishly lit.
1966 was a good year for light romps mixed with mayhem and intrigue; “A Man Could Get Killed,” “Where the Spies Are,” “Our Man Flint” and “Our Man in Marrakesh.” “Arabesque” is likely the most polished of the lot.
— Mike Reynolds
(1) Pollack and Azir are on the run in London. (2) Eventually they end up at a camera shop and use a microscope. (3&4) Prime Minister Hassan Jena arrives at the London airport, but an assassination attempt is made. (5) The climax ending with horses and helicopters.