In a sense, Arabesque (1966) is a sort of warmed-over rehash of Donen's earlier Charade (1963), which was a really nifty mock-Hitchcockian comedy thriller with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. The later film stars Gregory Peck, who's no Grant, and Sophia Loren, who isn't Hepburn but is Loren—which ain't nothing.
Donen was reputedly highly unhappy with the script, despite being the movie's producer, and his cinematographer Christopher Challis records him saying that their only hope was to present the story in as stylish and eccentric a manner as possible: this, for the most part, they do. (A pretty-well identical tale is told of Sidney J. Furie and The Ipcress File, and the result is similar in each case: a pop-art expressionist fairyland London in which everyone is or might be a spy or double or treble agent.)
The opening scene, in which George Coulouris is murdered at the optician with poisoned eyedrops, terrified me as a kid: Donen and Challis make of this a dream-disco of tinted lights, projections, distortions and canted angles. I had quite an alarming optician when I was 12, so maybe that influenced my response. But it certainly is a freaky start, following Maurice Binder's psychedelic title sequence and Henry Mancini's theme tune which have led us to expect something less... worrying.
Things get literally trippy when Peck, a professor of Egyptology recruited to translate a mysterious Hittite inscription, gets stabbed full of unidentified drugs and left to run amok, out of his gourd on the motorway. Since this scene follows an exciting zoo chase, Peck's perceptions are clouded with wild animals, and Donen gets quite experimental with it.
The film can't sustain this level of demented invention, alas, but it does keep on giving, breaking its fingernails against the bottom of the cinematic barrel of ideas, sometimes, but at other times producing marvels. Challis and Donen may have been the first to shoot car scene process shots from outside the vehicle, having fun with a lightshow of reflections on the windscreen. Previous filmmakers believed they had to preserve the illusion that we were inside the car, else how could we hear the dialogue. Having pushed the boat out this far, the same director/cameraman team staged Two For the Road the following year with real cars and roads, and revolutionized the filming of driving scenes.
Peck is his usual stodgy self and somebody should have told him how to pronounce Rameses; one yearns for Cary Grant, who would have brought realistic LSD experience to it. Loren is pretty good, modelling a lot of Christian Dior, and gets the film's best campy moment, yelling "I am a spy!" in a deafening stage whisper at Peck as they descend rival escalators.
Best of all is Alan Badel, an unlikely Arab but a peerlessly arch baddie, rocking that sunglasses-and-peregrin-falcon look I've always aspired to for myself. Inventing the snide throwaway wickedness that the late Alan Rickman made his own, Badel deserves a place in screen history for his work here. I first saw him in a BBC production of The Woman in White as the diabolical Count Fosco, and it was love at first sight.
OK, so the script is even smirkier than Badel's criminal mastermind, but I still like the way it keeps producing amusing sequences: Peck forced to hide in Loren's shower; zoo chase and aquarium fight; Kieron Moore as an improbable Arab hepcat trying to squash our heroes with a wrecking ball. And I don't find the writing nearly as irksome as Frederic Raphael's work on Two For the Road (Kubrick saw that and thought, "That's the guy I want to script Eyes Wide Shut?").
The real masterpiece of Donen's British period may in fact be Bedazzled (1967), but as a kaleidoscope of excessive visual tics, Arabesque should be shown in every film school: as smorgasbord of stylistic possibilities, or dreadful warning? That's not for me to say.