June 11, 2008
Thief of Bagdad (Criterion)
Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****½
The Thief of Bagdad usually gets lumped in with other films by director Michael Powell (I Know Where I'm Going, The Red Shoes, etc.). Die-hard Powell fans will recognize his unique rhythms in certain scenes, but Powell was only one of three credited directors and at least two more uncredited directors. No matter who filmed what footage, producer Alexander Korda would be the one to call final cut. The film has some sluggish spots, but despite the many cooks on this soup, the result is still dazzling enough to enchant entirely new generations of dreamy children.
Fourth-billed John Justin plays the film's hero, Ahmad, a king who is tricked and betrayed by his right-hand man Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Unaware of the ways of the world, Ahmad falls in with a crafty young thief, Abu (Sabu, an Indian-born actor and a regular in Korda productions), who vows to help. June Duprez plays the princess who captures Ahmad's heart, but whom Jaffar wants for himself. The trouble is that Jaffar is a sort of wizard and uses black magic to turn the tables at the worst possible moments. Just as Ahmad is about to expose the villain, Jaffar strikes him blind and turns Abu into a seeing-eye dog. Fortunately, Abu later finds a genie (here spelled "djinn") in a bottle (played by bellowing American-born Rex Ingram), who eventually gives the heroes home court advantage. Ingram is spectacular, playing a bullying trickster rather than the grateful genie slave we see in other films and cartoons.
Though it bears the same title as Douglas Fairbanks' brilliant 1924 film, it very quickly departs from that film's storyline. It starts awkwardly, with the blind Ahmad explaining the first half of the story in flashback, before he finds his true love and things progress again in present time. But soon the film lays bare its spectacular visual treats: Abu stealing food and escaping through a crowded square (later copied in Disney's Aladdin), the Sultan playing with his amazing toys and flying horse, the genie, the theft of the "all seeing eye" and the flying carpet. Poor John Justin just can't compare to the pure presence of his co-stars and he looks especially pathetic in a sword fight, and a song from the princess stops the movie dead for a few minutes. But the rough patches are part of the movie's homemade charm, and they help it come together as a whole.
The Criterion Collection's new two-disc set comes with a commentary track shared by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese (actually two tracks, recorded separately and edited together). Historian Bruce Eder provides the second track, and there's an isolated music and effects track, highlighting Miklos Rózsa's celebrated score. Another major extra is an entire second feature film from Alexander Korda, The Lion Has Wings (1939). It's a pure wartime propaganda piece, designed to look like a documentary and starring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson. Other bonus goodies: a documentary on the visual effects, audio excerpts from Powell about the film, a radio interview with composer Rózsa, various color stills, a trailer and liner notes by Andrew Moor and Ian Christie.
Posted by cphillips at June 11, 2008 9:25 AM