David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is an American professor at an English university who specialises in hieroglyphics, but one day he is asked to look at a small piece of paper with some symbols written on it and translate. He isn't interested until an Arab statesman asks him personally, pointing out to him there is a deal of espionage going on here which has apparently been instigated by the man, the untrustworthy Beshraavi (Alan Badel), who wants the translation. Pollock decides to help out as there may be lives at stake - including his own.
Director Stanley Donen had made his name with musicals in the decade previous to Arabesque, but those often lavish affairs were falling out of favour with the public as well as the studios thanks to their large price tags. Seeing this, Donen tried his hand at something else, and managed one of the biggest hits of his career with Charade, a Hitchcockian thriller essayed with a winning light touch, so obviously to follow this up, in typical Hollywood fashion, more of the same was ordered. Arabesque was the result, owing something to James Bond as well as that previous success, as Peck had a go at a role earmarked for Cary Grant.
Opinions are divided on whether he managed either to make you forget Cary or make you wish Cary had appeared in this instead, but in truth it was refreshing to see Peck let his hair down and trade a few quips with co-star Sophia Loren, who played the mysterious Yasmin, the woman Pollock meets at Beshraavi's London mansion. She was her usual glamorous self, kitted out in Christian Dior and amusing everyone as her character is so difficult to figure out, which the script leaned heavily on to keep you watching, wishing that this convoluted plot would work itself into some kind of solution if Yasmin were the key to it all.
Actually, you'd probably be better off easing yourself back in your chair and allowing it all to pass by, not worrying too much about what on earth was really going on, for this was more a collection of scenes the filmmakers thought would be cool than a smooth narrative. That's not to say it did not conjure up some kind of solution by the finale, but after all that the feeling it had been written on the spot to match whatever whim the locations or the cast thought of never quite left it. Oddly, whereas in some thrillers of this type those locations would be fairly exotic or romantic, often in Arabesque you would be treated to Gregory Peck wandering the motorway to Slough, or an action setpiece at a building site.
Not quite Bond level, then, and while there were opportunities to visit the London Zoo or Royal Ascot for the racing, you'd notice the way out approach to the visuals was designed to cover up the fact that many of them were frankly dowdy and humdrum, and no amount of shooting them at an angle was going to cover that up. Still, the two leads had chemistry and seemed to be enjoying themselves in a half-serious manner, although modern viewers would find it hard not to notice the actors playing the Arab characters, Loren included, were not exactly picked for their faithfulness to that origin. Indeed, most of them were slathered in brown makeup, so no matter how good Badel was as a bad guy, it was distracting that he was obviously a white Brit underneath that slap. Still, a gritty realism was assuredly not what was being aimed for here, and the mood of a bit of a giggle was to its benefit even with the nastier aspects. Music by Henry Mancini.