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With: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram, Miles Malleson, Morton Selten, Mary Morris, Bruce Winston, Hay Petrie, Adelaide Hall, Roy Emerton, Allan Jeayes
Written by: Lajos Biro, Miles Malleson
Directed by: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 106
Date: 12/05/1940

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Arabian Delights

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The UK production of The Thief of Bagdad (1940) is a bit like the US production of The Wizard of Oz from one year earlier. On the surface, it looks like a seamless blend of fantasy storytelling, special effects and stunning color, but underneath it was a patchwork collaboration of many hands that came together with a combination of spit, duct tape and luck. These days, The Thief of Bagdad usually gets lumped in with other movies by director Michael Powell (I Know Where I'm Going, The Red Shoes, etc.), but he was only one of three credited directors and at least two more uncredited directors. But The Thief of Bagdad had one driving force behind it: producer Alexander Korda. Korda was a Hungiarian immigrant who, along with his brothers Zoltan and Vincent, took the British film industry by storm with his combination of business savvy and boyish glitz. No matter who filmed what footage, Korda would be the one to call final cut. And despite some sluggish spots, 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 (first-billed Conrad Veidt). Unaware of the ways of the world, Ahmad falls in with a crafty young thief, Abu (second-billed Sabu, an Indian-born actor and a regular in Korda productions), who vows to help. June Duprez is third-billed, playing the princess who catches Ahmad's heart but who Jaffar wants for himself. The trouble is that Jaffar uses black magic to turn the tables at the worst possible moments. Just as Ahmad is about to expose the villain, Ahmad strikes him blind and turns Abu into a seeing-eye dog. Fortunately, Abu later finds a genie (or "djinni") in a bottle (played by bellowing American-born Rex Ingram), who eventually gives them home court advantage. Ingram is spectacular, playing a bullying trickster rather than the grateful 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 spills forth its spectacular visual treats: Abu stealing food and escaping through a crowded square (later copied in Disney's Aladdin), the Sultan with his amazing toys and flying horse, the genie, the theft of the "all seeing eye" and the flying carpet. Die-hard Powell fans will recognize his unique rhythms in certain scenes, but probably fewer than you'd think. 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.

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection has released a brand new DVD, replacing MGM's out-of-print 2002 edition. Its much-celebrated colors and effects are now sharper and brighter, and the two-disc set contains extras to die for. The best one is a commentary track shared by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, except that it's clearly two tracks, recorded separately and edited together (wouldn't it have been less work to get them together in the same room)? Historian Bruce Eder provides the second track, and there's an isolated music and effects track, highlighting Miklos R�zsa'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. Otherwise we get a documentary on the visual effects, audio excerpts from Powell about the film, a radio interview with composer Miklos R�zsa, various color stills, a trailer and liner notes by Andrew Moor and Ian Christie.

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