I am obviously not Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, or any of the other famous filmmakers who have been indelibly touched by this film, and yet I proudly proclaim myself a lifetime member of the Thief of Bagdad club. Like Scorsese and Coppola, whose joint (though separately recorded) commentary is one of the neat extras on this wonderful new two DVD set from Criterion, I well remember the first time I saw Thief. Unlike Scorsese and Coppola, who saw it on tiny television screens in black and white in their young childhoods, I was lucky enough to see it at a rococo neighborhood theater in San Francisco sometime in the late 70s, in full, if somewhat faded, Technicolor, and on a nice big (Academy ratio) screen. This was long before CGI wizardry overtook even smaller budgeted features, and though there were some hokey elements to some of the special effects, the magic and wonder of Thief touched me as indelibly as any film experience in my life, and I have held the film in high esteem ever since then. MGM released a bargain basement DVD of the film years ago (which, strangely, was part of the famous class action recall, though it obviously was never misadvertised as being in widescreen, the basis for the original lawsuit) which was fine for its day, though the transfer was obviously off a somewhat damaged print (though it did excel in one way, for which see "Video" below). This new, restored transfer still has a few problems, but is head and shoulders above anything we've seen and will hopefully introduce the film to a whole new generation aching for some real magic, as opposed to the pre-fab, CGI variety that so dots our current filmic landscape.
Producer Alexander Korda holds a unique place in British film industry, probably the closest thing the English have to the iconic Jewish studio heads in the United States during the Golden Era. Korda, a Hungarian émigré, built his London Films into a powerhouse studio that delivered a series of striking films over the course of several decades, including such classics as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Four Feathers, and post-Thief, The Third Man. While directors are usually credited with being the auteurs of various classics, in the case of London Films, it is Korda's distinctive imprint that defines many of his productions, aided as he always was by his brothers, production designer Vincent and scenarist/director Zoltan. In fact the Korda brothers' hands-on approach to all the product coming out of their studio is easily compared to the famous siblings in America, the Warners, though London Films specialized in "prestige" productions far removed from most of the potboilers coming out of Warner Brothers during this era. Sumptious sets and costumes, lavish photography (especially in their Technicolor features which began relatively early for the British film industry), literate scripts derived from literary source material, as well as distinguished casting are all the hallmarks of Korda's productions, and they are all on fine display in The Thief of Bagdad.
The film, told partially in flashback, follows the tribulations of a hapless Caliph, Ahmad (John Justin) and his sidekick, the title character who is named Apu (Sabu), after they run afoul of an evil vizier with magical powers, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), who simultaneously wants the Caliph's power while also coveting the comely miss Ahmad has eyes for (June Duprez). Ahmad is struck blind and Apu is transformed into a dog, while Duprez's Princess suffers various mindgames at Jaffar's nefarious hands as he attempts to woo her over via black magic. The plot here is really secondary, however, as the film is episodic and relies more on some truly fantastic set pieces than any supposed "arc" for either character or storyline. And what incredible set pieces we get here, from a daffy Sultan (Miles Malleson, who also worked on the screenplay) who loves mechanical toys (and who gets two doozies from Jaffar) to the slightly malevolent giant Genie (Rex Ingraham) whom Apu unleashes after he regains his human form.
The Thief of Bagdad is a riot of special effects invention, some of which will, frankly, look a bit on the cheesy side to modern eyes, but which must have amazed 1940 audiences. Sights like the Sultan riding a mechanical horse over multicolored minarets to the Genie and Apu interacting despite their disparate sizes to a massive spider attacking Apu to Apu flying on a magic carpet to more "mundane" things like a violent storm are all handled with an amazing degree of creativity given the technical limitations inherent in a 1938-40 era production. In fact, the blue screen process (developed specifically for and used throughout the film) was such a newfangled idea that its stunning use in this film was a large part of what earned The Thief of Bagdad the Academy Award for special effects. Yes, you'll be able to spot the miniatures and yes, you'll probably laugh a little at the clear line of Ingraham's bald cap, but if you dwell on such minor issues, the magic of Thief of Bagdad probably wouldn't speak to your inner child in any case. Add to the special effects wizardry a stupendous production design (aided by William Cameron Menzies, who had worked on the original 1924 Thief with Douglas Fairbanks and had just come off a little picture you may have heard of, Gone With the Wind), truly magnificent matte paintings and gorgeous costumes, and the film simply becomes one of the most all-encompassing feasts for the eyes ever put on celluloid.
As noted above, the film has been a major influence on a host of modern filmmakers, and is probably single-handedly responsible for the slew of similar Universal films starring Maria Montez that poured out of that studio in the 1940s. But the film's influence extends far beyond its own decade of genesis, and you don't really need to look much further than the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen or Disney's Aladdin for proof of that.
Though some critics have found fault with Sabu's childlike performance, the fact is he wasn't much older than a kid when this was filmed, and his wide eyed innocence is a large part of what appeals to youngsters about this film. John Justin never quite attained the stardom that Korda had planned for him, but he does a beautiful job here and has the sort of sonorous voice that one never tires of hearing, reminiscent of Ronald Colman's at times. I personally have never found Duprez particularly attractive--she has a bit of a hard edge to my eye--but her Princess is a lovely creation and obviously the model for both the Montez creations which followed and Disney's own Jasmine. It's Veidt, however, that chews up the scenery in this film, with a hyperbolic performance style that is perfectly suited to an obsessed madman with magical powers. Veidt is able to convey more menace with just his eyes than most actors can with their entire bodies and reams of dialogue to boot.
This is not to say Thief is a perfect film. The film had a host of directors, often working in different locations and with a screenplay being more or less made up on the spot, one of the reasons the film is so patently episodic. But that's also one reason why Alexander Korda's aegis was so important to this production--considering the two year production history of the film, and the various screenwriters and directors attached, it's actually fairly amazing the film doesn't have more of a patchwork quality than it does. The film also depends mightily on a willing suspension of disbelief, especially in some of the final scenes, when Apu's ascent to heavenly realms seems to come out of nowhere. But, again, if you're thinking too hard about such things you've missed the enchantment of this film to begin with.
I would be remiss if I were not to mention the landmark musical score of Miklos Rozsa, mining here the leitmotif genre that was reaching its filmic apex after having been championed by such stalwarts as Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Rozsa's full-bodied Romantic score, with exotic themic elements for all of the major characters of course, is a nonstop explosion of melodic and rhythmic invention, and luckily Criterion offers a music and effects track as a bonus audio option. Even if you're not regularly inclined to view a motion picture without dialogue, listening to the film this way is a master's level thesis in film scoring. Under the direction of future luminary Michael Powell (who did most of the material featuring Veidt), the editing in combination with the underscore comes close to the ideal of "composed film" that was the hallmark of several later Powell/Pressburger productions. A sterling (no pun intended) example of this is in the Silver Maiden sequence, where image and music are so perfectly blended as to be virtually synaesthetic.
Film history buffs may well want to check out the 1924 silent Thief of Bagdad, which has many sequences which obviously inspired this later version. Also of interest to many might be the 1943 German feature Munchhausen, which was obviously deeply influenced by Thief's utilization of fantasy elements playing out within a spectacular color palette.
Disc Two offers a 30 minute featurette on the special effects used in the film, with some nice interviews with Ray Harryhausen (who I must tell you is looking a little scary at his advanced age, no offense intended), Dennis Muren and Craig Barron. The submenu here also has a nifty little example of how the blue screen process works. There are also two audio excerpts, one of Michael Powell recounting his work on the film, and for Korda in general, and another with Rozsa doing similar reminiscing. The Powell piece has fairly degraded audio quality, while the Rozsa piece sounds great. There is also a nice stills gallery featuring black and white and color stills of the film in production. Probably the most interesting extra on this disc is the 75 minute or so feature The Lion Has Wings, a 1940 London Films propaganda feature helmed by Michael Powell which features several cast members of Thief. This black and white feature suffers from some image and audio degradation and damage, but is a fascinating historical curio detailing Britain's war effort (focusing on its air force) at the beginning of that long struggle. Finally, there is a nicely illustrated insert booklet featuring an essay by Andrew Moor on Thief and Ian Christie on Lion.