An arabesque is an artistic motif with repeating forms and patterns. It seems like the ideal title for the movie "Arabesque," a fun if repetitive little thriller about a professor thrown into international intrigue. The middle of this movie is light on plot, but there's plenty of action, romance, large machines, and a rather surprising twist at the end.
At the behest of an Arab prime minister, Prof. David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is sent to spy on a corrupt businessman named Beshraavi (Alan Badel). Beshraavi needs a mysterious cipher decoded, and he keeps David a prisoner while he works on it. What's more, he plans to kill the professor once he's done.
But David is able to escape with the help of Beshraavi's mistress, Yazmin (Sophia Loren) -- who turns out to have a secret agenda of her own. Now the professor must weave his way through enemies at every turn, along with the mystery woman he can't quite bring himself to trust. And if he doesn't decode the cipher in time, the entire world could be in jeopardy.
"Arabesque" is a movie that doesn't know what to do with its middle section -- it starts off strong, spends a long time spinning its wheels, only to rise up and blossom again in the last twenty minutes. But if "Arabesque" is not a strong political thriller, it's certainly an enjoyable popcorn movie.
The middle section of it isn't bad, just repetitive: scrabble for cipher, fight, follow, rinse, repeat. And they put in some... interesting padding to spice it up, such as a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment where a doped-up Peck meanders down a freeway, playing "matador" with the cars. That was a WEIRD scene.
So what does it have that's good? Director Stanley Donen packs the movie with some pretty strong action scenes (wrecking ball, aquariums, a THRESHER!), some mild comic relief, and a brilliant double-twist in the last twenty minutes. And since this came right after Donen's Charade, we have some mildly witty banter and dialogue ("Let us through! That man's about to be killed!" "I hardly think so, sir. This is ENGLAND!").
Peck and Loren have a fair amount of chemistry, and their characters are likable and pretty clever. Loren plays up her charming sex appeal to the absolute max, and Peck plays David with the right mixture of competence and naivete. And Badel is absolutely spine-chilling as a calm, cool killer who never gets ruffled by anything, even as he prepares to shoot you in the head.
The only problem is that I never entirely bought Peck and Loren's performances -- Peck is a bit too hard-edged for an academic nerd, and Loren's accent is this insane Italo-Anglo-Arab mutation that dies halfway through the movie.
"Arabesque" has some flaws, but it's a fun little thriller with plenty of action, romance and some killer plot twists. Have plenty of popcorn ready before watching it.