Arabella is something of a curio. It’s a film made in Italy in 1967, by an Italian film company in English, but with only three of the main characters played by British actors. Indeed Terry-Thomas plays four separate characters. As a result all the entire soundtrack was overdubbed in post-production giving the impression that everyone involved is simply acting along to a very bad radio play. Margaret Rutherford is the only person involved who manages to naturally synch her dialogue with her on set performance, and the overwrought Foley sound effects of loud footsteps gets quickly wearing. The overdubbing makes the whole thing seem like a pastiche of other European cinema.
And it is a real curates egg of a film. Arabella doesn’t work as a comedy, a romance or a farce. Possibly only real reason to even give it a cursory glance is to see Terry-Thomas stretching his range and playing more than his usual moustachioed cad. But the rest of it? Over the top and uninvolving; it’s a real challenge to stay interested for the overlong 88 minutes it clings to the screen.
So what is the story? Who is Arabella?
The titular character is Arabella Danesi, played by Virna Lisi, who through her beauty and charm attempts to con a variety of men out of their money so she can pay her grandmother’s tax debts. It is Rome, 1928 and the country is under fascist rule – the aristocracy are being heavily taxed and Arabella’s grandmother Princess Ilaria (Margaret Rutherford) is facing ruin. All of the men being conned are played by Terry-Thomas: an English General, an insurance broker, a Duke and a hotel manger. And a young James Fox pops up as Georgio, a mysterious stranger.
It just doesn’t work, despite the jaunty 20s music accompanying proceedings. Everyone involved seems to find events very entertaining, but alas that doesn’t translate through the screen. All in all it’s a baffling mess. And as a comedy it commits the cardinal sin of not being funny. There are a couple of moments where Terry-Thomas’s natural comic timing raises a smirk, but they are criminally few in number. It staggers from one over-the-top set piece to another to no avail.
It’s released on DVD in the UK for the very first time on 21st March, but your time is probably better spent watching something else.