Saturday, October 8, 2011

Criterion Collection #431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

I'd like to start a little corner for my Criterions. I have a somewhat substantial amount of them and I'll be going through each one, giving a short review and recommendation.

Today I'd like to talk about an old favorite of mine. The Thief of Bagdad was a film I remember seeing on television as a kid. Mostly I remember the Genie and the "all seeing eye". However, I'd somewhat forgotten the film until 2009 when I was just getting into Criterion and I happened to see their 2-disc edition of it in a Borders Books and Music (may that chain R.I.P.). Its quite a nice set, with a copious helping of extras that I was geeking out over.
The film was produced by the great Alexander Korda. Michael Powell was also an one of the three directors working on the film and one can definitely attribute some of his vision to the project. Also worthy of note is William Cameron Menzies, who was an associate producer. He's most remembered as the art director on Gone with the Wind (1939) but I'll always remember him for directing the wonderfully eerie Invaders from Mars (1953).

When I was finally able to relive my childhood with this film, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the film holds up. Though the love story between Ahmed and the Princess (no, she doesn't have a name) may seem antiquated and simplistic, it works in the kind of fairy tale world of the film. Much of the fun comes from Abu (played by the then-sensation Sabu) who is the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the film. That spirit is the sense of childlike wonder, which modern audiences, I dare say, have lost. When Abu makes it to the Land of Legends, the old man tells him that they "were horrified by the evils of men, when they ceased to be children." Rex Ingram as the Genie is a sheer joy to watch. As far as 1940 (and me for that matter) is concerned the effects are top notch. This was also the first film to use the chemical blue screen process. There's even a great featurette on the second disc explaining the technique. Watching the film with a friend, I was delighted to find that he couldn't understand how some of the visual effects were done. I'm glad to see they still hold up today. Helping lift the film into further flights of fancy is the stupendous musical score by Miklos Rosza. He fills the music with leit motifs for each character, ones which are incredibly hummable (especially Abu's theme, 'I Want to be a Sailor'). The film is great fun and deserves to be experienced by a whole new generation, I always end up with a huge grin on my face by the end.

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