Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ARABESQUE, Stanley Donen's WTF Movie

That's an image from the first scene of Stanley Donen's Arabesque, which just came out on DVD as part of a Gregory Peck boxed set. I remember seeing this on TV years ago (in pan and scan); I was expecting good thing because I loved Donen's earlier comedy-thriller, Charade, and this was clearly his attempt to do it again. (He even brought in the writer of Charade, Peter Stone, to do a rewrite on this film, under the pseudonym "Pierre Marton.") And then Maurice Binder's title sequence ended, and the movie began -- and the first thing we get is a zoom shot. Then a tilted angle. Then another tilted angle. Then an evil optometrist gives his hapless victim an eye examination, and as seen above, the eye chart is psychedelically reflected on his face. Then the evil optometrist makes with the poison eye drops, and the camera tilts some more, and... well, and then we cut to a scene with Gregory Peck, and I realized that not only does this movie make no sense, but Gregory Peck is even more boring than usual. And my heart sank. (Donen wanted Cary Grant for the lead, of course; Grant, who had decided he was too old to play romantic leads, turned it down. But Peck once again proves that while he has his virtues as an actor, he's the absolute worst choice for any part that requires charm or lightness of touch.)

The thing about Arabesque is that the plot isn't actually that hard to follow, but the way it's shot makes it seem hard to follow. The opening scene, for example, is the very standard, predictable opening of dozens of espionage stories -- guy goes to some seemingly safe place, like a doctor's office, and gets offed in a gruesome manner -- but it's shot and lit in a way that obscures exactly where we are or what's going on. I later found out that this was intentional; Universal wanted Donen to deliver a follow-up to Charade, he commissioned a terrible script from two young British writers (that's why Stone was called in, but he couldn't help much), and because the script was so bad, he decided that the only way to save it was to razzle-dazzle the audience into ignoring the crappy story.

The cinematographer was Christopher Challis, one of the greatest cinematographers in England and a frequent Donen collaborator, who explained the situation in his book Are They Really So Awful?

The script had proved a problem, several re-writes failing to overcome its inherent weaknesses. Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck were contracted to do it, so the show had to go on. "Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting that the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on," was Stanley's opening gambit. "Go away and read it. See what you can come up with. I want every shot to be different." The time coincided with the perfection of Panavision zoom lenses, reflex cameras, and various advances in lighting equipment which opened up a whole new range of photographic possibilities.

Stanley was in his element, his quick and creative mind full of ideas about reflections. It seemed at times that the whole picture was to be seen in the backs of teaspoons, car mirrors or through tanks of fish. More often than not, the camera was pointing away from the actors, apparently dwelling in close-up on the polished back of a car license holder in which the scene was mirrored.

So when the hero and heroine run down the stairs and out of a house, Donen and Challis can't just show them running down the stairs and out of the house, otherwise it would be all too clear to the audience that there is no reason to care about what these people are doing. So it has to look like this:

Others have noted the likely influence of Sidney Furie's The Ipcress File, another spy movie that livened up a weak script with insane angles, wild cutting tricks and wacky widescreen compositions.

My reading of Donen's post-MGM career is that even though he became his own producer, he doesn't seem to have been very good at one of the most important functions of a producer of an auteur director -- developing a script. If he had a strong script by a writer with a strong personality and vision for the film, he'd execute it well: Peter Stone's script for Charade, Frederic Raphael's for Two For the Road, Peter Cook's for Bedazzled. The art of getting several screenwriters to work on a project until you get the script you want -- which is the only way to get a decent script out of this material -- seems to have eluded him; he was better at executing the writer's vision than getting writers to execute his (assuming he had one for this picture).

Compensating factors in Arabesque: the shots make no sense, but thanks to Challis, they really are quite beautiful; as storytelling, they are pointless, but as displays of color and light and Panavision framing, they're among the best-looking incarnations of the "mod" moviemaking style (way better than what Joseph Losey came up with in Modesty Blaise, for instance). Also, Sophia Loren never looked better, though her Christian Dior wardrobe is surprisingly unflattering -- demonstrating that it's silly to spend a lot of money to hire a superstar designer for a film when you could have just borrowed Edith Head from Paramount; she'd have given Loren much nicer-looking clothes. And the Henry Mancini score, while not one of his best, is at least fun.

The title sequence may also be the start of Maurice Binder's habit of creating generic titles that copied his earlier successes; there's not much to this one except a different set of moving patterns than he used in Charade.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

How does the print of Mirage look? That's really the only movie I want on that set.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I haven't seen the DVD of Mirage but DVD Beaver has some captures from it.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that Donen's WTF movie was SATURN 3... it's conspicously absent from his autobiography, and what little I've heard about the production history is tantalizing - more exciting than the film itself.