A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

February 25, 2011

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

My dad took me to see this in the theater. I think it must have been at the Coolidge Corner theater. This would have been some time in the early eighties, so this movie was already more then forty years old at this point, but it didn’t strike me as dated. It’s an epic tale of love, betrayal, and magic. Even today it retains its wonder for me.

Partially it’s the story telling. We come into the story in the middle, which I always love, and the blind beggar Ahmed tells us the tale of why his dog is so clever, why he’s blind, and why a sinister German in a turban wants him brought to a sleeping princess. Partially it’s the lush beautiful look of the movie. This was an early technicolor film and like Wizard of Oz one year earlier it has a vibrant, exciting palette. The vast lush sets for the Sultan’s palace, for example, are done in a lacquered red that fairly pops out of the screen. Partially it’s the rich, magical world – filled with genies, curses, wonder and true love.

Ahmed, you see, used to be the naive king of Bagdad, so pampered and isolated in his palace that he was unaware that his people hated him and longed for his death. He takes the advice of his Grand Vizier Jaffar (never a good idea) and goes out into the city dressed as a common man only to be arrested and thrown into prison for sedition. There he befriends a witty young thief named Abu who helps him escape from Jaffar’s clutches. The two of them set out to find adventure in the wide world and very soon Ahmed falls head over heels in love with a beautiful princess, only daughter of a dotty old Sultan with a love for mechanical wind up toys. Of course at this point he’s only a penniless beggar and thief himself, but that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him as well. Of course Jaffar, now the self styled king of Bagdad, shows up to ask the Sultan for the princesses hand in marriage, so she flees. Ahmed and Abu are captured by the Sultan’s guards and Jaffar lays a curse upon them. Ahmed will be blind, and Abu is transformed into a dog, until the day that Jaffar should have the princess in his arms.

All of that is just the back story.

In many ways this is a very straight forward love story with Ahmed and the princess (who would appear to have no name oddly enough according to the credits) mooning over each other and a lot of flowery language about their undying love, but it’s also a swashbuckling adventure story. There are songs, prophesies, and a lot of simple but effective special effects.

It also has a fun cast. Conrad Veidt is a fantastic nefarious bad guy. Sure, his strong German accent might seem a little odd in a fairy story about the middle east, but it also lends him a very sinister vibe. In many ways he reminded me of nothing so much as Bella Legosi when he was at his peak with his evil glare and inexplicable mannerisms. The romantic leads John Justin and June Duprez are inoffensive and pretty, which is I think what they are intended to be. Their love is more of a motivator for the adventure than anything believable, but it’s still fun to watch. The best part of the movie, though, is Sabu as the irascible Abu. His acting is perhaps a little overblown (look at his “surprised face”) but he imbues the movie with so much energy and charm that I don’t care at all. He gets all the best parts of the movie – rescuing the king, outsmarting the genie, stealing the all-seeing-eye, and ultimately saving the day through a deus-ex-machina encounter with an ancient race of wise men who treasure curiosity and heroism above all else.

I love the fantasy world on display here. I love the fairy tale tropes such as the very puss n’ boots way in which Abu tricks a mighty and enormous genie into granting him three wishes. I love the really quite well done giant spider. I even love the sappy romance at the heart of the movie and the friendship between the thief from the streets and the deposed king. I have always craved rich, beautiful fantasy worlds, and this completely blew me away in the theater more than twenty years ago. Then, as now, it captured my imagination and filled me with joy.

Tomorrow: Douglas Fairbanks.

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February 25, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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