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Strange how an unpleasant child can make a decent dog!


The Thief of Bagdad
(1940)

A renowned classic, of course, numbering amongst its biggest fans the likes of Scorsese and Coppola. Its troubled production (shifting location to Hollywood due to the outbreak of WWII, three different credited directors - Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan - due to the exacting demands of producer Alexander Korda) belies the supreme confidence of the finished film. But, for all the artistry involved, this is little more than a 70-year old blockbuster; its plot is as straightforward as its characters, lacking finesse but serving to move us from one set piece to the next.

The one conceit the storytelling, adding a layer of trickery, is the initial use of a flashback structure. Blind beggar Ahmad (John Justin), brought to Jaffar’s (Conrad Veidt) mansion, tells how he fell from the lofty status of King of Bagdad. This occurred through the machinations of Jaffar himself; he has magically blinded Justin and turned his friend Abu (Sabu, playing the titular thief) into a dog. Jaffar has arranged to marry the sleeping Princess (June Duprez), who fell in love with Ahmad. Ahmad awakes her but is lured onto a ship that sets sail. The Princess agrees to succumb to Jaffar’s wishes on the promise that Ahamd’s sight will be returned, which it is. But by this point he and the reconstituted Abu are separated and shipwrecked.

If this sounds like an involved narrative, it is less so in the watching. More problematic, the tale unfolds in a halting manner. The characters are established entirely in broad strokes, from which Veidt’s Jaffar suffers the most. His is an evil of the most banal kind (this is not really the fault of Veidt, a fine actor). Justin fares better, while Sabu makes an appealing rascal. British comedy regular Miles Malleson plays a typically silly old fool as the father of the Princess (he effectively sells her hand in marriage for a mechanical horse).

In general, the film lacks the narrative drive to make it truly timeless; rather, it is fitfully impressive. Korda productions were no stranger to overblown production at the expense of dramatic heft; 1936’s Things to Come is a particular chore to get through, despite its ambition (Korda was outspoken about his dislike for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and made the film as something of a rebuke; tellingly, no one much remembers Korda’s film).

That said, the signature scenes and effects are generally very special and it’s quite clear why the Thief made an indelible impression on the young wunderkind directors who ascended to power in the ‘70s. Abu’s encounter with Rex Ingram’s Djinn remains a quintessential genie moment (this section was apparently directed by Powell), employing prototype blue screen effects and a giant model foot and hand. Even Abu’s battle with a giant spider (guarding a gem, the All-Seeing Eye) holds up reasonably well. Elsewhere, the lift-off of the magic carpet is downright magical.

Best of all is the sequence in which Malleson is overcome with desire for (and then overcome by) an animated Shiva statue (one of two roles played by Mary Morris, who would later appears as Number Two in The Prisoner TV series). It’s a very suggestive scene (Jaffar informs the Sultan, “She can embrace you” and the Sultan responds that with he will no longer have any need for his wives; it’s pretty clear what is on his mind). There’s also a less successful moment when a stuffed dog is thrown off a ship, which at least pre-dates Hudson Hawk and There’s Something About Mary.

It’s easy to admire The Thief of Bagdad, but harder to wholly engage with it. As a spectacle the film retains much of its power, yet the human element is stiff and mannered, reliant on Sabu to bring sufficient energy to combat the formality and staidness.  Recommended, nevertheless, as one of cinema’s defining productions.

***1/2

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