Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What do you want to be? Rich or dead?

Blake's 7 1.3: Cygnus Alpha

Well, the quality couldn’t last. Vere Lorrimer does a solid job directing this one, and the night shooting adds atmosphere in spades. Unfortunately the religious cult on a prison planet just isn’t that interesting (notably, big Brian Blessed was about the only well-known British thesp who wasn’t cast in the similarly themed Alien 3).

It’s Who-central from the off with lovely lovely lovely Kara (Pamela Salem – The Robots of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks) and the Caber, I mean Laran (Robert Russell, Terror of the Zygons) noting the incoming London. Which reuses a shot from Space Fall (the spinning object is a planet, clearly one with an unhealthy speed of rotation).
The length of journey issues in this story don’t bear much analysis. It’s now four months since the events of Space Fall, and poor old Leylan has clearly been affected badly by what went down. But he’s only now sending his report? Useful for the wayward viewer, but a bit slack otherwise.

So.…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

Isn’t Johnnie simply too fantastic for words?

Suspicion (1941)
(SPOILERS) Suspicion found Alfred Hitchcock basking in the warm glow of Rebecca’s Best Picture Oscar victory the previous year (for which he received his first of five Best Director nominations, famously winning none of them). Not only that, another of his films, Foreign Correspondent, had jostled with Rebecca for attention. Suspicion was duly nominated itself, something that seems less unlikely now we’ve returned to as many as ten award nominees annually (numbers wouldn’t be reduced to five until 1945). And still more plausible, in and of itself, than his later and final Best Picture nod, Spellbound. Suspicion has a number of claims to eminent status, not least the casting of Cary Grant, if not quite against type, then playing on his charm as a duplicitous quality, but it ultimately falls at the hurdle of studio-mandated compromise.

She's killed my piano.

Rocketman (2019)
(SPOILERS) Early on in Rocketman, there’s a scene where publisher Dick James (Stephen Graham) listens to a selection of his prospective talent’s songs and proceeds to label them utter shite (but signs him up anyway). It’s a view I have a degree of sympathy with. I like maybe a handful of Elton John’s tunes, so in theory, I should be something of a lost cause with regard to this musical biopic. But Rocketman isn’t reliant on the audience sitting back and gorging on naturalistic performances of the hits in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is; Dexter Fletcher fully embraces the musical theatre aspect of the form, delivering a so-so familiar story with choreographic gusto and entirely appropriate flamboyance in a manner that largely compensates. Largely.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

The world is a dangerous place, Elliot, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on, and do nothing.

Mr. Robot Season One
(SPOILERS) With all the accolades proclaiming Mr. Robot the best new show of the year, the tale of a self-styled “vigilante hacker by night and regular cyber security worker by day”, intent on bringing down E/Evil Corp, the largest conglomerate in the world (as opposed to multinational Comcast, the 2014 “worst company in America” which owns the USA Network, home of Mr. Robot), I expected something a little more substantial than a refitted Fight Club, “refreshed” with trendy (well, a few years old) references to Occupy, Anonymous/hacking incidents and a melange of pop cultural signposts from the last fifteen years. There are times when the show feels entirely suffused with its abundant derivations, rather than developing into its own thing, its lead character’s pervasive alienation a direct substitute for Edward Norton’s Narrator. And yet, it has a lot going for it, and the season concludes at a point (creator Sam Esmail’s end of first act) where it has the potential…