I Don't Think Any of Them Know What's Going On, Either
It's quite obvious that this is intended to be the followup to [i]Charade[/i]; heck, Stanley Donan even cast Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn's first costar, when Cary Grant fell through. Even though you wouldn't know it just to look at the two stories on paper, the plots do have a lot in common. The jokes have a great deal in common as well, and the visual styling is that desperate attempt at modernity so common of movies of this vintage. Which, coincidentally, is probably the thing I like least about [i]Charade[/i]. I would say Donan's attempt to cash in on that first movie's success is probably the thing I like least about this one, though it's got a lot of competition. This is simply a much inferior movie, and probably the biggest problem with the [i]Charade[/i] feel is that it constantly reminds you of a better one, which is a fatal flaw for better films than this.
Here, Gregory Peck is stuffy Oxford professor David Pollock, an American abroad. One day, he is asked to translate an inscription on a scrap of paper for a very rich Arab of uncertain nationality called Beshraavi (Alan Badel). He declines, not being fond of what he knows about Beshraavi. He is then picked up by the prime minister and ambassador of that mystery country, I missed their names, and told that it is important to them that the inscription be translated. So he agrees to do it, and while at Beshraavi's, he meets Beshraavi's girlfriend, the lovely Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren). Things end up getting so complicated for everyone that I'm not sure who half the cast was or was working for. Somehow, David got framed for murder, and Yasmin manages to keep her own name while going through more changes of allegiance than Cary Grant did during [i]Charade[/i]. And eventually, it turns out she's not the only one and that the plot, such as it is, is even more complicated than we thought.
It becomes obvious that the role wasn't written with Gregory Peck in mind. Not as obvious as some other miscast movies, but this was intended to be a movie about a man with wit and [i]savoir faire[/i]. Gregory Peck does sometimes exude a certain dry humour, but he had nothing on Cary Grant and knew it. In fact, he apparently even told everyone concerned that the lines might not come across as funny aw written. After all, he wasn't a comedian. And it is probably true that the movie would have been funnier with Cary Grant involved. On the other hand, I think the failings are more than Grant could have solved. It would have been somewhat more believable that Sophia Loren swooned over him right away, given that I'm pretty sure she really did, but the plot wouldn't have worked any better overall, and the lines which fell flat could only have been saved so much by funnier reading. Besides, that would logically only help his own delivery, given I didn't think he had bad chemistry with the cast, the only other thing which would have been improved by a single replacement.
Honestly, I find the title quite appropriate. The movie isn't Arabian; it's Arab-ish. None of the actors have any Arabic ancestry. There's nothing approaching a real discussion of the problems at hand beyond a couple of lines at the end discussing the fact that the people of Wherever It Is have oil, not water, and cannot drink oil. I realize, of course, that "arabesque" doesn't mean "Arab-ish," but it feels as though it should. There is essentially nothing in the entire story which couldn't work if the characters were from practically anywhere else in the world. The region just needs to be politically unstable, and that could be just about anywhere. Of course, it wouldn't be most places simply because it was less likely for Gregory Peck to end up with, say, Ruby Dee than Sophia Loren. But anywhere you can have the female lead be only borderline ethnic, because the location doesn't matter to the plot.
It's true that the story only kind of matters in [i]Charade[/i], because what you are really doing is watching Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn fall in love. However, attention is still paid to it for all that. The threats feel real, and while the characters are only borderline believable, they're believable enough so that you can really get involved in the dangers they're facing. And while what we think we know turns out not to be true half the time, that's by design and works. In this, it kind of feels as though everyone changed their mind and is running off in a different direction instead. And since the chemistry between Loren and Peck never quite meshes, we don't even get the joy of discovery that fills [i]Charade[/i]. On the one hand, I don't think it's fair to keep comparing the two movies; each movie should stand or fall on its own merits. On the other, the movie really wants you to make the comparisons, which means it only has itself to blame when that doesn't end well for it.