Alexander Korda’s classic retelling of Thief of Bagdad, a remake of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks classic and free adaptation of the Arabian Nights fable, still ranks as one of the finest fantasy films ever made, and for many of its fans, that’s partly the result of seeing it at an early age, and never forgetting the adventures of Abu (Sabu), and Ahmad’s (John Justin) unending quest to hook up with a hot Princess (June Duprez) while eeevil Jaffar (Conrad Veidt and his creepy eyes) uses his malevolent magic to quash meddlers and woo the Princess himself.
Filmed over two years during WWII and originally planned as an operetta, the multiple rewrites, rotating directors (which included Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, and uncredited Alexander and Zoltan Korda) and film shoots in England and later Hollywood could and should have doomed the film into a great big mess, but the consensus among the commentators on Criterion’s sparkling new DVD – namely directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola on the first track, and historian Bruce Eder on the second – is that it was producer Alexander Korda’s hand that kept the film on track, and ensured the original concept’s shift from operetta to a partial song and action fable went smoothly.
Both Coppola and Scorsese admit that, apart from what the cast, crew, and co-director Powell recalled in interviews and published memoirs, no one really knows who directed precisely most of the final scenes; Scorsese notes some stylistic changes in visual approaches – some scenes are opulent while others seem “flat” – but the film still works.
Part of that’s due to having a strong, charismatic villain who just wants to be loved, a dashing hero and his misanthropic companion, and a gorgeous Princess whose life changes when her daffy father isn’t able to save her from the eeevil Jaffar.
Add radiant Technicolor photography, witty dialogue from co-writer Miles Malleson (who also played the Princess’ papa), and Miklos Rozsa’s rhapsodic, multi-themed score, and you have near perfection.
Rozsa’s music has appeared in many recordings since 1940 – perhaps the best-regarded are Rozsa’s own digital re-recording for Varese in 1983, and Elmer Bernstein’s 1977 re-recording for his FMC series (released by Film Score Monthly as part of a mega-box) – but the original score recordings have remained locked away for almost seventy years, until now.
Criterion’s DVD offers a music and effects track, and aside from some abrupt edits, it’s a surprisingly listenable track, even with mild to major sound effects popping up here and there. The age of the track has some shrillness and high end distortion (some of it still present after some major digital cleansing), but fans have both an opportunity to hear Rozsa’s complete score, and watch scenes free from dialogue (which is a rare treat for older films).
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how Thief is less heavy with heavy theme reiterations and revolving fugues that often made Rozsa’s later scores easily identifiable, and sometimes repetitive. Thief feels wonderfully fresh, not because of Rozsa’s multiple themes, but the almost watery flow from clear-cut statements to intimate variations, plus bouts of tenderness on guitar, and the operatic remnants that never fail to enhance character relationships, and their sometimes dangerous plights as power-hungry Jaffar strikes out.
The vocal pieces are quite lovely, but “I Want to be a Sailor” – Sabu’s gem of a theme – is certainly one of the best melodies Rozsa ever crafted, and will probably have you humming for a few days (or in the case of Coppola, for the next 50 years).
The director commentaries have views from Coppola and Scorsese tightly edited into a steady and highly personal narrative; Scorsese cites some direct technical details, but it’s mostly a nostalgic tribute; it’s also bit of a jaw-dropper when Scorsese says he first saw the film on TV in 1947, and didn’t get to see it in colour until some 20+ years later.
That illuminates a generational split where some blazing Technicolor classics were shown on TV for years in black & white, because colour TV broadcasts didn’t really come into their own until the mid- to late sixties in the U.S. (I never knew The Million Pound Note/Man with a Million was in colour until I rented the video; most TV stations aired washed out black & white 16mm prints.)
For Scorsese and Coppola, prior to their film careers, Thief established a special kinship between themselves and future directors Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Brian De Palma (“You like it too?”); the film effects are still highly entertaining, but more importantly, Thief offers a good story, a great romance, and good characters glued together by superb photography.
Criterion’s transfer is vastly superior to the MGM DVD which had colour registration problems (reds hazing and colour offsets were noticeable in wide and medium shots), and the extras are spread over two DVDs, which should keep fans busy for a few days.
In addition to a detailed production commentary by Bruce Eder (who saw the film at the age of six, and was ‘determined’ to find out everything about the film), there’s excerpts from a 1976 KUT-FM public radio interview with Rozsa.
Articulate, witty, and a delightful raconteur, Rozsa begins with his family’s background in music, his aborted attempt to study chemistry in Leipzig, and settling in Paris in 1931, where he wrote “horrible little pieces of music for publishing firms” to stay alive.
Rozsa also repeats his funny tale of meeting Arthur Honegger, where their conversation revealed to Rozsa that film music is not just ‘fox trots,’; his Hungarian Ballet in London, and the events that led him to Alexander Korda. The nearly 36 mins. interview ends with a retelling of Korda’s epic scheme to get Rozsa approved by Ludwig Berg, the first director on Thief, and composing the vocal cues in Los Angeles, where the film was ultimately completed.
A featurette on the film’s pioneering use of blue screen (it was the first!) is also very illuminating, and reveals how well the effects still look and add to the film’s fantasy setting, even after Criterion’s digital cleanup.
Special effects aces Dennis Muren and Craig Barron are accompanied by veteran effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, and the latter makes a refreshing observation about the filmmakers’ not wielding every major component at the audience; there’s pantomime, grand effects, and score, but they’re sometimes applied almost exclusively to scenes when one serves the drama on its own.
Even on the isolated music and effects track, there are some significant silent pauses, signifying Korda’s awareness that score can be more powerful when it’s preceded by an absence of music altogether. One can’t imagine the flying horse, magic carpet ride, or the silvermaid assassin toy without Rozsa’s fantastical, exciting, and ominous music in each respective sequence. Some instrumental cues are remnants of unused vocal pieces, and Eder also cites deleted scenes and script changes that affected Rozsa’s final score.
Also accompanying the DVD is a booklet of essays, publicity and production stills (including some of deleted shots and a scene with Jaffar meeting an astrologist), and rare, previously unpublished Dufaycolor stills (somewhat resembling 2-strip Technicolor film) from Michael Powell’s archives.
Excerpts from Powell’s scratchy dictation recordings – later transcribed for his 1987 autobiography - detail the director’s hiring, and many delicious filming details (“there was no script”) as he watched Rozsa replace Berger’s preferred composer, Oscar Straus, and Mischa Spoliansky, who was originally hired to compose songs.
During the 65 mins. of audio selections, Powell also presents an affectionate portrait of Sabu, and screening Thief at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio years later (a viewing which Coppola refers to in his commentary). There’s also some amusing views on the Technicolor company’s displeasure with the filmmakers’ colour cinematography experimentation (‘don’t make the film for the colour, make colour film work for you,’ says Powell), and the provocative, cleavage-friendly costumes clearly seen in the British footage, and the ridiculously buttoned up attire in the Hollywood-shot material.
As an added bonus, Criterion’s also included Powell’s WWII propaganda film The Lion Has Wings (1940), which was part of Korda’s promise to Winston Churchill to make a film celebrating the might of the RAF, using some of the cast and crew (along with director Powell) during the break before Thief resumed filming in America.
With Thief of Bagdad finally given the Criterion treatment, let’s hope other London Films like Drum (1938), The Four Feathers (1939), and The Jungle Book (1940) aren’t far behind, although Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger can enjoy Criterion’s release of the original British cut of The Small Back Room, long unavailable in the U.S.
© 2008; revised 2013 Mark R. Hasan