A film much loved by many who grew up watching it on television, sometimes in black and white, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is a milestone in fantasy films if only for its use of chroma key technology, also known as "blue screen" or, in digital effects, "green screen". A more sophisticated version of the usual "back projection" process, in which actors are filmed in front of another movie projected onto a screen behind them, chroma key is a process in which one color (usually blue) is "keyed out" or made invisible, and replaced by another image, making all kinds of previously difficult effects possible. For THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, it was used for such things as a flying horse, a flying carpet, a flying giant genie... you get the idea.
Enough about the effects. As I said, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is a beloved favorite of many a film fan, including such learned and wise people as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who provided a dual commentary track to the recent Criterion DVD release of this film. So I hope nobody locks me up in a bottle for 2000 years or sentences me to the Death of A Thousand Cuts when I say that I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I expected to. I'm not saying it is a bad film and that those who love it are mad - it's just one of those films that I just don't get. It's fun, it's colorful, and I can see how it could have become a sentimental favorite I had seen it as a kid - I still have vivid memories of watching ALAKAZAM THE GREAT on television one Christmas Eve - but coming to it later in life, it didn't grab me the way some other movies I had missed as a kid have. I expect it is my loss that I am unable to fully fathom why so many people love this film. It is not the effects that let me down. I understand that the first use of a new technology is going to produce effects that will not age well, and some of the flying shots in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD are quite laughable these days, although they must have thrilled audiences in 1940. It is the acting that disappointed me. John Justin and June Duprez, as the romantic leads, are terribly wooden, especially Duprez, while Sabu, the nominal star of the whole show, is frequently overbearing and hammy, especially any time he is called on to laugh.
On the plus side, there are at least two marvelous performances. Conrad Veidt plays Jaffar, one of the great fantasy villains. Veidt's career went back to silent movies, and he knew how to use body language to convey his inner emotions. As in the later, the moment Veidt appears on screen, he just projects cold, evil,slimy, calculating nastiness to perfection. Rex Ingram, as the giant Djinni (Genie) from the Bottle is just pure fun. Looking like George Foreman and sounding like Clark Gable, Ingram steals every scene he appears in, playing a genie who is not very nice or very helpful, one who is ready to grant wishes or crush his master under his mighty foot depending on his mood at the moment. And Miklos Rozsa's beautiful and evocative score would be worth listening to on its own for the adventures it can conjure in your mind.
THE THIEF OF BAGDAD moves from set piece to set piece, showing off its glorious matte painting backgrounds, groundbreaking special effects and huge colorful sets. But the story is simply not there, the main characters are bland, and the climax comes out of left field, seemingly invented on the spot as a way to write the hero, the thief, out of an impossible spot and back to Bagdad for a final confrontation with Jaffar. There. I've said it. Most notable as one of cinema's most influential adventures and a prime example of 1940s Technicolor and special effects, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is still worth viewing. But, if you can, see it as a kid first. - JB