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Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
37, 38, 39...yup, the math checks out.
With his dying breath, the caliph (Moroni Olsen) hides his son from the invading Mongol hordes and the traitorous Prince Cassim (Frank Puglia). Young Ali has lost everything: his best friend with whom he'd just exchanged a blood oath, his father, his home, and his country. But, after overhearing a seemingly magical command in the middle of the desert, Ali bellows "open sesame!" and is alone no more. No, we're not talking about the vast treasures that await inside this hidden fortress, but the forty thieves who stole it! They raise the young boy – now calling him Ali Baba – as one of their own. Flash-forward ten years, and he's practically running the show, with Ali (Jon Hall) renowned as one of the greatest thieves and most unparalelled swordsmen the world over.
Ali Baba and his forty thieves are the only force remaining to oppose Hulagu Khan (Kurt Katch), and they seem to have found a way to combine their two great passions: fighting for freedom and stealing impossibly valuable treasure. Their quarry this time isn't a what but a who: lovely Amara (Maria Montez), the daughter of Cassim, future wife of the Mongol warlord, and, although neither of them realize it quite yet, Ali's childhood best friend. Could capturing her at long last break Hulagu Khan's stranglehold over Baghdad? Well, Ali will first have to escape from the clutches of Amara's legion of bodyguards to find out...
I wish I were writing a wildly enthusiastic review right now, marveling at all the masterfully choreographed swordplay, entranced by such a seemingly starcrossed romance, and awestruck by the lavish and exotic production design. Alas, not much about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves really works. We're told what a brilliant thief and unrivaled warrior Ali Baba is but hardly ever get to see it. There's disappointingly little action to be had, with the closest thing to a standout setpiece reserved for the film's final moments. Shocking twists and surprises are few and far between. Jon Hall cuts a dashing figure but doesn't make for much of a compelling lead. Having so recently been dazzled by Maureen O'Hara in the immeasurably more thrilling Against All Flags, it's quite a comedown to be saddled with the actress who'd previously been crowned the Queen of Technicolor. Maria Montez is adequate but inert. At least she's draped in all manner of lovely costuming, and there are two (!) separate scenes of Amara bathing.
At least Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is buoyed somewhat by its supporting cast. Western mainstay Andy Devine is hilariously miscast as Ali's 'nursemaid' Abdullah, neither looking the part nor even attempting an accent, but damned if he doesn't succeed as the comic relief anyway. "Why, I haven't killed a Mongol all day!" Of the dozens of titular thieves, he's the only one beyond Ali's surrogate father to have a distinct personality. In the role of Jamiel, Turhan Bey steals every last scene he's in as Amara's knife-throwing confidante and bodyguard. In a more perfect world, it'd have been Bey in the title role. And the villains are realized rather well, with Kurt Katch wielding an appropriately commanding and menacing presence, and Frank Puglia's Cassim so slimy that even his Mongol benefactor can barely stomach the sight of him.
On paper, anyway, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves seems as if it'd be a perfect choice for a Sunday afternoon matinee, with no shortage of lovely ladies, accents that clash as loudly as the scimitars, and Middle Eastern allure that surely enthralled the film's wartime audience. But all these decades later and without the benefit of nostalgia, I found it disappointingly rote and unengaging. Certainly those who grew up with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and have loved it for a great many years will find KL Studio Classics' release worth picking up, but otherwise...? Rent It / Stream It.
This HD master of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is at least a decade old, judging by the long-disused opening Universal fanfare and...well, how generally lackluster the presentation is in most every way. The image exhibits quite a bit of speckling and wear:
Along with there not being nearly as much fine detail on display as I would've liked to have seen, its grain structure is poorly resolved:
And even with a second layer at its disposal, that theoretically filmic texture winds up clumping together and looking rather digital. Finer patterns, such as Amara's veil and the curtains surrounding her bed, have a tendency to shimmer somewhat as well.
I was champing at the bit for a Technicolor adventure, complete with such colorful costuming and exotic set design, and yet its palette never really packs any meaningful wallop. Although its finalé is intended to deliver such a grand spectacle, its colors fare the worst:
The extensive day-for-night footage isn't terribly convincing either. Though shadow detail does remain robust, so many of these shots just seem excessively dark:
There is somewhat of a ceiling to the image quality here, given the sheer length of the shots bookending so many of the dissolves and fades. Rear projection can't help but stick out like a sore thumb either. All of that's entirely understandable and isn't factoring into the number of stars in the right rail above, but that does limit what kind of eye candy Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves could've delivered even under the best of circumstances. And what Universal delivered to KL Studio Classics is a long way from "the best of circumstances." I just can't help but think that the film would've benefitted immeasurably from a fresh scan.
I won't drone on nearly so long about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Presented in 16-bit, two-channel mono, the lossless audio hardly belies its age but doesn't suffer from any glaring flaws. Nothing remarkable yet perfectly serviceable just the same. I did struggle to discern some of the lyrics in the bandits' horseback singalong:
...but at least optional English subtitles are available to help out there. Also included is a commentary track.
- Audio Commentary: There are two primary threads of discussion throughout Philippa Berry's commentary. First is charting the story of Ali Baba throughout popular culture, from the tale's first appearance in print in the 18th century to the pronounced differences that set this particular film apart. For instance, Berry notes how the unexplained mechanism behind "open sesame" here is markedly different than what's often been depicted.
He also delves in depth into the lives and filmographies of most everyone on either side of its Technicolor cameras, taking special note of their other work with Maria Montez. This includes several extraordinary stories, among them Jon Hall later in life inadvertently inspiring the iconic bandage in Chinatown.
Additionally, Berry identifies filming locations whenever possible, discusses other Arabian-inspired fantasies/adventures throughout cinema, reads from contemporaneous reviews, and even notes how Montez' astrologer prompted a change in the name of the actress' character. It is a bit strange to hear Berry attempt to adopt Montez' accent when quoting her – speaking about the star's indifference towards her leading men and how many baths she took on camera – and the pace of the conversation can be uneven, with the last stretch of the film peppered with especially lengthy gaps.
- Trailer (2 min.; SD): "More thunderous excitement! More wild romance! In an Arabian Nights show of shows!"
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' trailer is served up in standard definition. Also included are trailers for two other Jon Hall and Maria Montez collaborations – Arabian Nights and Cobra Woman – as well as Son of Ali Baba.
The Final Word
I tore off the shrinkwrap for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves anxiously anticipating a beautiful restoration, that irresistible Technicolor gloss, and a sand-and-scimitars adventure that cries out for an oversized bowl of popcorn. Your mileage may vary, but I didn't find that the movie or its release on Blu-ray delivered on any of those fronts. Still worth seeking out for longtime admirers, I'm sure; those not yet acquainted might do better to Rent It / Stream It first.