May 26, 2008


Princes and Thieves on DVD (GARY GIDDINS, May 27, 2008, NY Sun)

Re-watching "The Thief of Bagdad," released today in a glorious Criterion DVD transfer, is not unlike rereading "Treasure Island." Conceived to enchant children, they both requite the adult longing for formative influences that withstand disillusionment and fashion. Unlike "Treasure Island," an exemplary display of English prose and plotting, with one of the finest first sentences in fiction, "The Thief of Bagdad" (1940) occasionally sputters, losing tempo and continuity; yet it, too, survives as a model of its kind, reveling in cinematic craftsmanship — not least the then-novel techniques of color and trick photography — and boasts one of the most magisterial opening shots in cinema. [...]

Some of the blue-screen effects and model work in "The Thief of Bagdad" are dated, but the overall display of pastel colors, magnificent sets, and creative energy subsumes them. One episode, in which Abu claims the all-seeing eye, show an oneiric inventiveness that spawned many images of 1950s cinema. The statue, for example, is shot in a montage of angles that anticipates Alfred Hitchcock's approach to Mt. Rushmore in "North by Northwest." The themes of subjugation and obsession — along with the images of a giant spider and giant squid — would become equally familiar during the postwar era.

Instances of these themes abound in four movies produced by Hammer Films, perhaps the only studio name that reignites the adrenalin of those who began attending movies in the 1950s and early 1960s. These films were frequently censored and reviled for their violence and sexuality, inciting revulsion in England, where they were made. Here they were the stuff of Saturday matinees — not family films, like "The Thief of Bagdad," but fare for adolescent boys who could scarcely believe (I bear witness) the sadism, the colors, and the bosomy extras.

Tough to beat Fritz Lang's Indian Epic for same.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2008 11:37 PM
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