DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Matt Hough, May 15, 2008.

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  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
    Directed by Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1940
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
    Running Time: 106 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
    Subtitles: SDH
    MSRP: $ 39.95

    Release Date: May 27, 2008
    Review Date: May 16, 2008


    The Film

    5/5

    How ironic that within a year of one another, two of the cinema’s greatest ever fantasy films were released: MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and London Films’ The Thief of Bagdad. Of the two, Thief is the starker, rougher, more mature entertainment with a grown-up romance, several deaths and a slashing in close-up, and a main character who’s, well, not always altogether honest. Both are delightful entertainments and have stood the test of time admirably. And now in this new edition, The Thief of Bagdad can hold its head up high with a special edition that’s worthy of its greatness.

    Scheming wizard Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) has hoodwinked ruler Ahmad’s (John Justin) kingdom from him (turning him blind in the process) and has now gone after the love of his life, the princess of the neighboring land (June Duprez). Only with the help of plucky Bagdad street thief Abu (Sabu) can he hope to regain his kingdom and his love as well as defeat the powerful Jaffar.

    Alexander Korda’s massive production, filmed in both England and (due to the beginning of World War II) Hollywood (and the Grand Canyon), won three Academy Awards, and like The Wizard of Oz before it was the product of innumerable hands behind the camera. All production notes about who was responsible for what have long been lost, but none of it matters when the finished product is as enchanting and entertaining as this finished product. The massive sets, the then-astounding special effects (whose seams show rather obviously now almost seventy years later), and its surprising combination of an operetta song score (though it’s not a musical) with one of filmdom’s richest background scores (courtesy of genius composer Miklós Rózsa) makes for a film that astounded audiences in its day and still beguiles more than half a century later.

    Though Conrad Veidt receives top billing and delivers a wonderfully stylized portrait of evil, the movie belongs to Sabu as the wily street urchin. With a brash confidence and a quick wit, he meets all obstacles head-on with grit and determination. Previous and future screen versions of the story (1924 and 1960) combined his part with the romantic lead into one central character, but the split here makes for a more entertaining picture as we have two rooting interests and at certain points two dire situations to juggle our interest and involvement with. June Duprez and John Justin make a perfect fairy tale couple (the sequence where she believes him to be a lake genie is one of the cinema’s most captivating “meet-cutes”), and mention has to be made of Rex Ingram’s bombastic performance as the almost malevolent Djnni adding yet another layer of Arabian Knights magic to the movie’s already mystical allure.

    With its flying carpets, genies, giant spiders, mechanical flying horses, and other feats of legerdemain along with its romantic lovers and the engulfing spell of the best fairy tales, The Thief of Bagdad is a classic in every sense of the word. Its wondrous spell and bewitching enchantment have never ceased to delight audiences for over seven decades.


    Video Quality

    4/5

    The film’s original 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced faithfully in this new digital transfer. The Technicolor hues (particularly the various shades of red) will burst from your screen with a vivacity that will delight the viewer. I’ve read complaints about the image being slightly brown, but I didn’t see it on my display though some might wish for a somewhat brighter picture. There are a couple of color registration problems where the picture appears out of focus for a moment, but the image is so sharp that the matte seams can be spotted with close attention, and you‘ll easily see the brown latex skull cap on Rex Ingram, too. You’ll glimpse a scratch or two as well, but nothing that will distract the viewer for any extended period of time for the image otherwise is wonderfully clean. The film is divided into 15 chapters.

    Audio Quality

    3/5

    The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is typical for its era. There is light hiss and momentary distortion on occasion, but mostly the track is clean and engaging mixing music, voices, and effects in a neat balance.

    Special Features

    4.5/5

    The disc offers two audio commentaries. In the first, Oscar-winning directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese reflect (separately) on the film’s impact on them, and Scorsese does some detailed analysis of shots and set-ups. The second (and better) commentary is by critic Bruce Eder who has concentrated his comments on the personalities before and behind the camera who took part in making this marvelous film.

    The disc offers an isolated music and effects track which is a terrific way of appreciating Miklós Rózsa’s majestic music for the production. The recording is mono, of course, but is beautifully recorded and presented here.

    The film’s original theatrical trailer is offered and shows a much brighter, more garishly colorful image than the more carefully controlled film transfer. In rough shape both in video and audio, the trailer runs 2 ½ minutes.

    The other bonuses for the set are contained on disc two.

    “Visual Effects” is a 30 ½-minute set of interviews with filmmakers Ray Harryhausen, Dennis Muren, and Craig Barron as they discuss the various special effects in The Thief of Bagdad and how the technology at use then affected their own film work years later. It’s presented in anamorphic widescreen with 4:3 clips from both the 1924 and 1940 versions of The Thief of Bagdad. An additional featurette details the mechanics behind the blue screen matte work which went into the flying horse sequence.

    Co-director Michael Powell reads excerpts from his autobiography which deal with his work on both The Thief of Bagdad as well as the other film included in this set: The Lion Has Wings. Divided into 11 sections, these spoken excerpts run over an hour and might have been even more interesting if stills and captured film images had been used to illustrate the people and places he’s describing.

    A radio interview with Miklós Rózsa, like the previous bonus, is divided into sections (six this time) but with no stills or photographs to illustrate the composer’s interesting recounting of his early years and how he became a movie music composer, especially his interesting tale of how he came to work on The Thief of Bagdad.

    The Lion Has Wings, a 1940 propaganda film produced by Korda during a hiatus in production of The Thief of Bagdad, is presented in its entirety. The 76-minute film, a mixture of documentary footage concerning Britain’s readiness for war (according to Powell’s interview complete hogwash) and some fictional wartime footage with actors like Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon playing a British couple doing their parts for the war effort, is interesting viewing with its views of munitions factories, Hitler and his troops, and the valiant Royal Air Force gearing up for battle. There’s been no audio or video clean-up for the film, but it’s in acceptable shape for viewing.

    There are two step-through stills galleries featuring shots from the film, shots behind-the-scenes, posters, and lobby cards in both black and white and color. Interesting is the second gallery of stills printed in Dufaycolor, a less vibrant and slightly desaturated color process.

    A 21-page booklet contains some stills from the films in the package as well as movie historian Andrew Moor’s essay on The Thief of Bagdad and film professor Ian Christie’s tribute to The Lion Has Wings.


    In Conclusion

    5/5 (not an average)

    One of the great cinematic fantasies of all time, The Thief of Bagdad finally has a DVD set worthy of its place among the cinema greats. Obviously, this set comes highly recommended.


    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC
     
  2. Chris S

    Chris S Cinematographer

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    Great review as always Matt! Very much looking forward to this in a couple weeks. Thanks!
     
  3. Will Krupp

    Will Krupp Screenwriter

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    I can't wait for this either. I have the old MGM disc and was happy with it, but I'm looking forward to the upgrade.

    Can anybody explain the production history of this to me? I'm most interested in the filming dates. How long did they shoot in England? How long was the hiatus? How long did they shoot in the US and what was the final prodcution cost? I can't seem to find definitive answers anywhere so any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks for the great review!
     
  4. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    Some of your questions about dates will be answered in Bruce's Eder's commentary and in Michael Powell's reminiscences in his audio bonus feature. I don't remember any specific mention of the final cost of the film (Powell mentions they had spent $2 million with the film not yet finished), but Powell does say that the film cost Korda a fortune and made back that fortune many times over.

    Come to think of it, he might have said two million pounds rather than 2 million dollars.
     
  5. Jim_K

    Jim_K Executive Producer

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    Anybody know how the PQ stacks up to the old MGM disc?

    I'm kinda torn on this one. With Criterion having already announced they're going Blu-ray in the fall (reportedly with the same MSRP as their SD titles [​IMG]) it's probably only a matter of time before this comes out in HD.
     
  6. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer
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    From talking with the DVDTalk reviewer on another site, he said the Criterion is in much better shape though the color is brighter on the MGM. Sorry that I didn't have the MGM release here to make a comparison.
     
  7. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    Couldn't agree more.

    Finally, via Criterion, a release of TToB that looks as it should!

    This one is a keeper.
     
  8. Charles H

    Charles H Screenwriter

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    Would love a Criterion edition of FOUR FEATHERS. It would be great if they could include Zoltan Korda's CinemaScope remake STORM OVER THE NILE, but I can't figure out who controls it? Fox? Columbia? MGM?
     
  9. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    I have the MGM release, but I expect the Criterion to be much better. Once I get my Criterion copy, I'll try to do some comparisons between the two.






    Crawdaddy
     
  10. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    I am really looking forward to watch this very soon
     
  11. Brad Vautrinot

    Brad Vautrinot Stunt Coordinator

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    As much as I want to watch TToB I'll hold off for a while to see if Criterion releases it on BD in the near future.

    Brad
     
  12. Jim_K

    Jim_K Executive Producer

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    No problem it's just helpful to do comparisons with these double-dips, if possible of course.

    I do appreciate the review.
     
  13. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    You have a point that I might have to reconsider my decision in buying this release.
     
  14. Jim Peavy

    Jim Peavy Supporting Actor

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    I sure would like to see some screen grabs comparing this and the orig. MGM disc. DVD Beaver reviewed the Criterion disc, but couldn't get his MGM to play (!).
     
  15. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    Any news/rumors of a BD release (of course, preferably from Criterion) for this yet?


    _Man_
     
  16. Radioman970

    Radioman970 Lead Actor

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    Funny this was bumped. I watched the 1939 Russian film Vassilisa the Beautiful yesterday. In the extras the son of the main actor compared it to Thief, like Thief borrowed from it. There's a scene with a creepy spider that's similar to Thief. Anyway, I was thinking I need to get Thief on blu ray. Such a great film and a perfect time of year to watch it. Too bad I spent the rent money on a stack of Russian classics! hahaha!
     
  17. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    So anyone know if the various BDs released elsewhere, eg. in UK, Germany, Aussie, are worth acquiring over this Criterion DVD?


    Getting tired of waiting for a Criterion BD of this and will probably just take the plunge on something in the near future -- maybe this Criterion DVD, if the various BDs don't offer noticeably better PQ... particularly when projected.


    Thanks...


    _Man_
     
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  18. RMajidi

    RMajidi Supporting Actor

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    Hey _Man_, this probably won't help, but I'll post it on the off-chance that it does...

    Despite my avatar, I'm not an expert on The Thief of Bagdad (neither am I a thief, nor have anything to do with Bagdad btw).

    However, it was the first live action film I ever saw on the big screen (only Disney animations before then) and it blew my mind and left a lasting impression.

    I bought the UK Network DVD a couple of years ago and was very impressed with it. I upgraded to the Network Blu-ray last year and the improvement was only marginal in my estimation.

    I don't know whether the Blu is region-locked as I'm on holiday away from my collection and can't test it on my Region A player.

    Once I get back home, I'll buy the recent Aussie release, but it would be early Feb by the time I could report to you about how it compares to the UK version. I don't have the German release.

    Incidentally, if you're interested, the Eureka Blu-ray of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves has noticeably better PQ than the one in the German Koch Media 3-movie boxset (though the other 2 films in the set - Arabian Nights and The Golden Blade are top notch)
     
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  19. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    Thanks, Ramin.


    There's also this Italian release that's region-free and readily available here I'm curious about. It seems like it might be identical to the German one, except for some minor details:


    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00GVHQEPG


    I did also find a comparison of the Criterion DVD to the German BD (along w/ brief descriptions comparing the UK Network one) at DVDBeaver.


    I'd prefer to get something region-A or region-free, but I did finally acquire a region mod for my Oppo 103 player, so if the UK Network BD is noticeably better than the others, I can certainly go for that instead.


    And yeah, ToB (along w/ a few other Harryhausen flicks) left a lasting impression on me from childhood when I first saw it on the big screen (in some sort of theatrical reruns back in Hong Kong). I probably shoulda just bought the Criterion DVD when it was first released nearly 8 years ago, and don't want to wait too long yet again -- maybe I'll wait just long enough to hear back from your copy of the recent Aussie release before deciding...


    Thanks again!


    _Man_
     
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  20. RMajidi

    RMajidi Supporting Actor

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    Hi _Man_ (is that how I should address you?), I've just placed my order for the Aussie Blu-ray, which I've read somewhere (but can't yet confirm) is region-free. JB Hi-Fi often has 20% discount sales and is running one now, so I thought I might as well order it now and it should be waiting for me when I return home from holidays.

    https://www.jbhifi.com.au/movies-tv-shows/movies-tv-shows-on-sale/adventure/thief-of-bagdad-the/697815/

    If you can hold off buying for 2-3 weeks, I'll post again with a comparison between the UK and Aussie Blus and confirm region support on both.

    Only two things I can tell you about the Italian version:
    1. The cover is similar to the UK Network Blu
    2. The several reviews at Amazon.It are overwhelmingly positive (the few negative reviews there are for the DVD edition)

    The German Sony edition is selling for close to 60 Euros now, so is out of my budget.

    Yes, this movie is very special, and for me holds up so well after all these years. So much so that its thematic and stylistic influence on Disney's Aladdin are unmistakeable.

    Fun fact: Martin Scorsese said that Sabu and Victor Mature were his favourite actors growing up.
     

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