Hitchcock had set the standard for the glossy thriller. But the bar was set so high few others reached it. Stanley Donen fitted that category with Charade (1963) with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn and now he was back for a second crack but minus either star. And the replacement male lead was less of a star and more of a liability.
By this point in the 1960s, Gregory Peck’s career was pretty much at a standstill. Prestige had not saved Behold a Pale Horse (1964) from commercial disaster, thriller Mirage (1965) went the same way, other projects – The Martian Chronicles, Ice Station Zebra – failed to get off the ground or like The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-Ling-a-Ling were abandoned once filming began. So he was the main beneficiary of Cary Grant’s decision to retire.
In some ways Peck was an adequate replacement but lacked the older actor’s gift for comedy and failed to master the art of the double-take. Arabesque was almost a counterpoint to Charade. In the earlier movie Audrey Hepburn is continually suspicious of Cary Grant. The new movie sees a gender reversal, Peck constantly puzzled as to where Sophia Loren’s loyalties lie.
The story itself is quite simple. A code has been put inside a hieroglyphic and a variety of people are trying to get hold of it either to decipher the secret within or to stop someone else finding out what it contains. When the scientist who has the code is killed, the man who ordered the killing, the sinister Beshraavi (Alan Badel), approaches Peck to unravel the code, but is turned down. Professor Peck is then kidnapped by an Arab prime minster (Carl Duering), whom he admires, to ask him to take up the job. Beshraavi’s provocatively-dressed wife Sophia Loren, flirting outrageously with Peck, is also after the code.
There follows more twists and double-crosses than you could shake a stick at, leaving the amenable Peck mightily confused. “What is it about you,” he asks Loren at one point, “that makes you so hard to believe?” It looks like director Donen is playing a variation of the famous Raymond Chandler maxim, that when a plot begins to flag, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Sometimes there is actually a weapon, but mostly it’s just another twist. If Peck doesn’t know what the hell is going on, then the audience is in the same boat.
But it is stylish, set in appealing parts of Britain (antique university, Ascot), Loren decked out in glamorous Dior outfits and even Peck gets to wear a morning suit. Drop in a couple of action sequences, Hitchcock-style chases in a zoo and pursuit by a combine harvester, Peck nearly run over by horses in a race, and the pair of them having strayed into a builder’s yard facing demolition by the British equivalent of a wrecking ball. But the standout scene is when Loren hides Peck in her shower (curtain drawn) while being interrogated by her suspicious husband and then steps in naked and then they play footsie with dropped soap. And she proceeds to expound, “If I was standing stark naked in front of Mr Pollock (Peck), he’d probably yawn.”
Beshraavi’s jealousy over his wife’s flirtation with Peck adds another element of tension. Badel is a very sinuous, sensuous bad guy, who can turn a harmless massage into a matter of life and death. He also has a pet falcon with a habit of ripping people’s cheeks. But even in the face of obvious threats, Peck holds his own. In one scene as Badel attempts to retrieve what he believes is the code from Peck’s dinner plate, where it has fallen from the hiding place in the professor’s clothing, Peck taps the man’s invading fingers with the sharp tines of his fork.
And there is some accomplished dialogue. When Peck offers the falcon a date and is brusquely told the bird of prey only eats meat, he responds, “I thought he looked at it rather wistfully.” Badel retorts, sharply, “It must have been your fingers.”
Donen had not made a film in the three years since Charade, so there was some critical feeling that he was a bit rusty and used experimentation – big close-ups, odd camera angles – to cover this up. He was living in London by this point, and had been for nearly a decade. But there was very little that fazed him in any genre, and he had switched from musicals like Singing in’ the Rain (1952) to romantic drama (Indiscreet, 1958) and comedy (The Grass Is Greener, 1960). And though there is no question the film would have been better with Cary Grant, Peck proves a reasonable substitute. The movie’s main drawback is the lack of romance since falling in love with someone you believe to be a traitor or a compulsive liar is a hard trick to pull off. But if you like the idea of pitting your wits against the screenwriters, then this is one for you.