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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan
Cast:
Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez, John Justin, Rex Ingram, Miles Malleson, Morton Selten
Writing Credits:
Lajos Biró (scenario), Miles Malleson

Tagline:
One Thousand and One Sights from One Thousand and One Nights.

Synopsis:
This wondrous fantasy comes out of the pages of "A Thousand and One Nights." When the nefarious Jaffar usurps the Sultan's throne, the princess's beloved suitor Ahmad and the strong and handsome thief Abu use magic to help the king regain power. To defeat them, Jaffar causes Ahmad to go blind, and turns Abu into a dog. But the heroes overcome these adversities and conquer many other mortal dangers before reclaiming the kingdom.

MPAA:
Rated NR

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Monaural
Subtitles:
English
Closed-captioned
Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 106 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 5/27/2008

Bonus:
DVD One
• Audio Commentary with Filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola
• Audio Commentary with Film and Music Historian Bruce Eder
• Optional Music and Effects Track
• Theatrical Trailer DVD Two
• “Visual Effects” Documentary
• Blue Screen Demo
The Lion Has Wings Propaganda Film
• Autobiography Recordings from Producer Michael Powell
• Interview with Composer Miklos Rosza
• Stills Galleries


• Booklet


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EQUIPMENT
Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


The Thief Of Bagdad: Criterion Collection (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 27, 2008)

With 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, we find a famous family fantasy packed with then-innovative visual effects. A riff on The Arabian Nights, Thief introduces us to a blind beggar named Ahmad (John Justin). Evil sorcerer Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) invites him to the palace because it’s been said the blind man can cure the never-ending sleep suffered by the Princess (June Duprez).

We eventually learn there’s more to the story than that. It turns out that Ahmad used to be the ruler until Jaffar tricked him into a situation that wound up in his imprisonment. Flashbacks show what happened to Ahmad, and we follow his relationship with Abu (Sabu), a street thief who befriends and aids the once – and future? – ruler. They escape from prison and go on a series of adventures that involve Ahmad’s love for the Princess, magic spells, and lots of other drama.

While the folks who created Disney’s 1992 hit Aladdin would probably nod toward The Arabian Nights as their primary influence, I suspect that they probably watched Thief a bunch of times as well. The Disney flick doesn’t present a straight remake, but the two films share many common traits, and not just in terms of story and characters; Aladdin clearly took a lot of visual design elements.

Does Thief merit a look as more than just a historical curiosity? Yeah, though I’m not quite sure it deserves its status as a classic. The movie entertains as a whole, but it seems inconsistent and a bit spotty. Some put it on the same pedestal as The Wizard of Oz, but I don’t think it matches up with that movie.

I must admit I’m not wild about Justin as Ahmad. I don’t mind that he’s awfully pale for an Arabian king; that kind of political incorrectness is regrettable but typical for the era. My main complaint comes from his lifeless performance. Justin simply seems anonymous in the part, as he fails to bring personality to his character.

At least some of the others manage to better carry the load. Sabu offers an appropriately spunky turn as Abu, and Veidt is a hissable delight as Jaffar. He shows the evil we expect in the part, but he also manages to give Jaffar a level of depth and personality beyond his status as a simple villain. Veidt brings dimensionality to his scenes, and they become among the film’s best.

As for the flick’s vaunted special effects, they do seem ambitious for the era, and at times, they work acceptably well. However, unlike the visuals in Oz or 1933’s King Kong, the effects never quite allowed me to suspend disbelief. Sure, I always knew that Kong was a little rod puppet, but I got beyond that and accepted him as a giant ape.

No such leap of faith comes in Thief. For instance, the Djinni always looks like an effect, especially since his interaction with Abu shows severe bluescreen artifacts. I admire the effects for their ambition, as most flicks from 1940 wouldn’t attempt anything so extravagant. However, I find it a bit tough to get past their flaws 68 years after the fact, even though I can easily accept the effects in other movies of the era.

I think there’s fun to be had from The Thief of Bagdad, and I can’t deny its influence. However, I just didn’t take a lot of pleasure from it. I enjoyed parts of the flick but felt bored by others; inconsistent pacing and plotting didn’t help its cause. Though I think this is a decent to good film, it doesn’t strike me as a classic.


The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C/ Bonus A

The Thief of Bagdad appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Occasional inconsistencies developed here, but much of Thief looked absolutely glorious.

A few problems stemmed from sharpness. Close-ups looked great, and many wider shots seemed fine as well. However, some of the latter appeared moderately fuzzy and lacked great definition. These didn’t occur with frequency, but they created small distractions. Jagged edges and shimmering caused no concerns, but I noticed light edge enhancement. Print flaws seemed absent for the most part; I saw maybe one or two specks and that was it. Occasionally, some frames appeared to be missing; the image would skip slightly due to these absent elements.

Colors were usually excellent. The tones came across as quite lively and dynamic throughout the film. This was the kind of flick that could show off the Technicolor, and the transfer did so. A few shots wavered in terms of their colors, but most of them showed terrific hues. Blacks were quite dense, while shadows appeared visible and clear. I nearly gave this transfer an “A-“, but the minor flaws were just a little too noticeable for that. Nonetheless, I felt very pleased with the image, as it often provided sumptuous visuals.

The monaural soundtrack of Thief more clearly showed its age. Dialogue seemed thin but understandable, and effects and music sounded about the same. The mix appeared happily free of much distortion, though, and most audio was relatively distinct and clean. Music was a bit too dense, but the score wasn’t problematic. Source noise could be more of a distraction; the flaws weren’t severe, but it sometimes sounded like it was raining in the background. Given the age of the material, Thief offered an acceptable auditory experience.

With that we head to the surfeit of extras found on this two-disc set. DVD One features two separate audio commentaries. The first features filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom sit separately for this edited chat. They discuss childhood memories of seeing Thief and their love for it, how it influenced them, themes and story elements, and various production subjects.

It’s too bad Coppola and Scorsese don’t sit together for their track, but I can’t say that I’m surprised; it’s enough of a coup for Criterion to land these legends, much less plop them in the same room to record their commentary. They create a pretty interesting track, though the two sides aren’t equal. Scorsese offers the more informative portion of the commentary, as he balances his appreciation of the flick with facts about its participants and creation. Coppola tends more toward the nostalgic side of the street; he mainly focuses what he likes about the film. The commentary doesn’t devolve into simple happy talk, though, as it remains focused on movie making and the influence of Thief. The two parts meld well in this enjoyable program.

For the second track, we hear from film and music historian Bruce Eder, who provides a running, screen-specific discussion. He goes over aspects of the film’s belabored production schedule, its use of multiple directors, sets and production design, cast and crew, story elements and influences, music and effects, deleted scenes, and a few other elements.

I usually enjoy commentaries from film historians, and Eder provides a high quality track. He maintains a lot of energy through the flick and he digs into the various topics with enthusiasm. Eder traces the important aspects of the production in a thorough and compelling manner, so he turns this into an excellent chat.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, another audio feature appears. We get an optional music and effects track. This offers exactly what the title describes: music and effects that accompany the film. In an interesting twist, however, some of the cues differ from those in the final flick. That makes it an intriguing addition for fans.

Over on DVD Two, we begin with a documentary simply titled Visual Effects. This 31-minute and two-second show features notes from visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, special effects supervisor Craig Barron and effects designer Dennis Muren. They discuss their initial experiences with Thief, an appreciation of it and its various effects. They give us a good examination of the various visual elements, and we also get some glimpses of the silent Thief. We find quite a lot of nice details here.

Under the “Visual Effects” banner, we also find a Blue Screen Demo. It runs two minutes, 10 seconds as it illustrates that technique’s use in Thief. Most fans already have an idea how blue screen works, but this demo is interesting anyway, especially since it focuses on the effects shots in Thief.

A World War II-era propaganda flick called The Lion Has Wings fills one hour, 15 minutes and 42 seconds. Why does it appear here? Because the British entry into WWII suspended production of Thief, and many of those responsible for Thief also worked on Wings. It’s interesting to have as an archival curiosity.

For comments from the film’s producer, we go to Michael Powell. This presents a collection of audio excerpts recorded by Powell himself to help with his autobiography. Powell covers aspects of Thief, thoughts about cast and crew, the impact of WWII and filming The Lion Has Wings. The quality of the recording makes this a tough listen, but the content makes it worthwhile. Powell covers a lot of interesting territory in this collection of memories.

Next we get a 1976 radio interview with composer Miklos Rozsa. He discusses his musical education, how he got into film scoring, his work on Thief and how he came to live in LA. Throughout this interview, Rozsa is very entertaining and informative. He goes through quite a few useful topics, and he does so in a lively and enjoyable manner.

Finally, we get two Stills Galleries. This domain splits into “Production and Publicity Stills” (55) and “Dufaycolor Stills” (20). The latter area doesn’t seem particularly interesting, but a mix of good shots appear in the first collection.

As with most Criterion releases, this set includes a substantial booklet. This 24-page piece includes an essay from film historian Andrew Moor as well as film professor Ian Christie’s look at The Lion Has Wings. It’s a typically solid affair.

After 68 years, The Thief of Bagdad manages to boast some charms, but not enough to make me truly like it. While I enjoy parts of the film, too much of it leaves me cold for me to really embrace it. The DVD displays era-acceptable audio and boasts often excellent picture along with a strong collection of supplements. Though I lack enthusiasm for the movie itself, I heartily recommend this terrific release for fans.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4444 Stars Number of Votes: 9
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