Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The 1000 Greatest Films:
The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Thief of Bagdad is #577 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 09/24/10 on Criterion DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #306 on TSPDT

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).
Big and bold and beautiful, this deliciously rapturous eye-candy work of early Technicolor filmmaking, made by a committee of at least five directors (some credited, some not) working under uber-producer-cum-showman Alexander Korda, but seeming to have the strong auteurial stamp of Michael Powell (the only member of this directorial committee to become a name one day - and what a name he will become), The Thief of Bagdad, 1940 style, is a remarkably fun movie to watch (especially on the big screen) even if the misbegotten youth of today would say it was thoroughly outdated and even more thoroughly cheesy.  But then again, this very cheesy nature of the film (and I must succumb to the misbegotten youth on this one, and agree to a great deal of cheese factor) is what helps make it so damned fun to watch.

Borrowing heavily from the 1924 Raoul Walsh version, this Korda spectacular goes beyond the grandeur of that already quite grand film (the special-effected fantasy scenes in the original silent are well ahead of their time to begin with), and gives us something that can be placed among the greats of that early fantasy genre - topping nearly everything in that same said genre, save for The Wizard of Oz and King Kong (though it can certainly be spoken of, agreeably so, in such company).   Yet, no matter how epic and swashbucklery this movie gets, with its visual opulence and stimulating colouring (foreshadowing the work Powell would eventually do with partner Emeric Pressburger over the next two decades), it is the performances of the young Sabu as the titular little thief (seven years before he would work with Powell again in The Archers' stunning Black Narcissus) and especially the perfectly cast and ever-evil-playing Conrad Veidt as the murderous Jaffar.

By this time, the German actor, having made his way out of Germany as part of the anti-Hitler exodus that also included such actors and directors as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Peter Lorre, Douglas Sirk and others, had already made a name for himself playing the reluctant, tragic villains in both The Kabinet of Dr. Kaligari and The Man Who Laughs.  Here though, as the mythic personification of evil Jaffar, that reluctant part would be cast out of his villainous characterizations (just two year later, after making his way from the UK to the US, Veidt would play the Nazi officer, Major Strasser in the classic Casablanca).  Veidt here, even with the grandiose special effects and bigger-than-life djinn steals the show away.

A huge influence on those Disney imagineers when they made Aladdin (the character of Jaffar is drawn as a cartoonish dead ringer for Veidt) Korda's Thief of Bagdad is still as gorgeous now as it must have been on the screen back in 1940 - those misbegotten youths be damned.  A succulent, if not quite cheesy, masterpiece of fantasy cinema.

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