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A Refurbished “Thief”

thief of bagdad lc repaired

A very handsome 2K restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 “The Thief of Bagdad” is the first library release from the Cohen Media Group, a new distributor that has acquired the rights to what was once known as the Raymond Rohauer Collection. Among the 600 or so other titles in the collection are quite a few treasures that have remained buried because the source material needs some major restoration; here’s hoping that Charles Cohen, the CEO of the new company, will be continue the fine work in evidence here with, for example, Frank Borzage’s 1925 “The Lady,” William K. Howard’s 1926 “Gigolo” and Roland West’s 1928 “The Dove,” just to pick a few of the more tantalizing titles in the catalog.

Fairbanks’s “Thief” has certainly not looked this good since its first release; the dust has been effectively busted without losing the texture of the images, and the color tints have been rendered with taste and restraint. The score, by Carl Davis, comes to us from the old Photoplay edition. Though the director of record is Raoul Walsh, this is one time when I’d assign the authorship to its star, producer and writer, in the person of Mr. Fairbanks, as well as to the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who began construction the amazing art nouveau sets before Walsh was hired to direct. My New York Times review is here, along with an account of Criterion’s release of the seminal cinema-verite documentary “Chronicle of a Summer,” by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

56 comments to A Refurbished “Thief”

  • Alex

    DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD is interesting not only for its own powerful impact and in relation to particular noirs like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but also for its place within the now long tradition of noir dupes of femmes fatales (and their occasionally witting, as well as unwitting, accomplishes) — films like CRISS CROSS, THE KILLERS, LADY FROM SHANGHAI and, more recently, BODY HEAT and CHINA MOON.

    Still, if DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD is a much neglected and underrated film, DOUBLE INDEMNITY remains a film that I think nearly merited in the mid-1940s the kind of praise voiced by Alfred Hitchcock when he wrote that “Since Double Indemnity, the two most important words in motion pictures are ‘Billy’ and ‘Wilder'” sounder acclaon than could have been remotely warranted for CROOKED ROAD and Quine in the mid-1950s, or at any time since.

  • “The Thief of Bagdad” would seem like ideal film fare for many of today’s audiences.
    As a big budget mix of action, fantasy and spectacle, it is aimed right at the tastes of modern movie goers.

    “The Thief of Bagdad” seems like an early example of what we call today “geek culture”. Geek culture centers on people who like science, technology, science fiction and fantasy. It is a major movement in modern society. One that draws in many of our culture’s brainiest people.

    Public libraries in the USA have a major publicity campaign going on right now called “geek the library”. It emphasizes how much you can learn at the library, on your favorite techno-subject.

    While on the subject of geek culture, has anyone here read the film history books of Prof. Gary Westfahl? His new one is about space travel films of the 1950-1969 era. He dubs this “The Spacesuit Film: A History”. The contents cover lots of films I for one have sure never seen:

    Something new under the sun…

  • Alex

    Mike Grost,

    Are “action, fantasy and spectacle” really “geeky” in any “brainy” sense when the fanstasy is science free and the action and spectacle divorced from manifestly high-tech FX?

    When does techy sci-fi get going — Méliès and other sketchy precursors aside– SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?

  • Alex,
    Good questions!

    “When does techy sci-fi get going — Méliès and other sketchy precursors aside– SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME?”

    Key silent science fiction films:
    20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Stuart Paton, 1916)
    Himmelskibet / Excelsior / A Trip to Mars / Das Himmelschiff (Forest Holger-Madsen, 1918)
    Aelita, Queen of Mars (Jacob Protazanov, 1924)
    Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
    Woman in the Moon (Fritz Lang, 1929)

    These are all key works of silent cinema.

    The Wikipedia has helpful decade by decade lists of science fiction films:

    It’s a much bigger subject than most people seem to think.

  • Alex: “Are “action, fantasy and spectacle” really “geeky” in any “brainy” sense when the fanstasy is science free and the action and spectacle divorced from manifestly high-tech FX?”

    Where does Fantasy fit into human culture? What is its meaning and purpose?
    Big questions.

    All humans dream every night. All human cultures have storytelling – and many have myths and legends. Fantasy is deeply entwined with human nature.
    As a kid, my favorite reading was Greek myths, Norse myths and the Arabian Nights.

    On “The Thief of Bagdad”, one can argue that the film’s iconography, while seemingly “science free”, has scientific and mathematical underpinnings.

    “The Thief of Bagdad” opens with a fantasy look at stars and the night sky.
    The night sky is a core Walsh subject, that appears in at least 11 Walsh films. Often it becomes scientific or technological:

    hero discusses stars and planets: High Sierra,
    looking at moon, moon rise timed, a lovely night: The Strawberry Blonde,
    Star Sight for navigation: Desperate Journey,
    navigation by the stars: Captain Horatio Hornblower

    Other times it is purely poetic, like the last line about looking at stars, in The Man I Love.

    The hero of “The Thief of Bagdad” drinks water on his desert journey.
    Water drinking heroes are in 15 Walsh films.
    The subject often becomes technological.
    The Nazis target waterworks in Walsh war films, and the heroes try to prevent the attacks: Desperate Journey, Northern Pursuit.
    Good guy Mordecai wants to irrigate desert, in Esther and the King.
    Walsh Westerns focus on the water supply:
    hero gives money to dig wells: Colorado Territory,
    water bags, water holes: Along the Great Divide,
    couple gather water for compound: The King and Four Queens

    In “The Thief of Bagdad”, villains use gasses to attack: The drugged rose, the fumes.
    Gasses recur as technological subjects in other Walsh films:

    gas inhalator as cold treatment: Baby Face Harrington,
    carbon monoxide gas: They Drive by Night,
    dental gas: The Strawberry Blonde,
    hero struggles to breathe, given ammonia: Manpower,
    onions cause tears: They Died with Their Boots On,
    oxygen used by pilots: Fighter Squadron,
    dental gas, oxygen and nitrogen in air discussed: One Sunday Afternoon,
    tear gas: White Heat

  • “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast” by Patrick McGilligan, tells about the theaters the young Fritz Lang visited in Vienna:

    “the Raimund-Theater, which specialized in fairy tales by leading dramatists. He would never forget Girardi in Ferdinand Raimund’s Der Bauer als Millionar (The Farmer As Millionaire), in a scene where Youth takes its leave of him. ”

    “The fantastical Kratky-Baschik Zaubertheater in the Prater. Hardly Vienna’s most eminent, it was Lang’s favorite as a boy. Ghosts, goblins, witches, gnomes, and fairies pranced across the stage of this little theater in the park, which specialized in pyrotechnics, optical illusions, smoke, and mirrors. Lang made sure that Lotte Eisner took note of the Zaubertheater, and that she mentioned it in her book about him.”
    Zaubertheater means Magic Theater.
    The circle is the archetypal Walsh image.
    Why is Douglas Fairbanks wearing circular hoop earrings, in the lobby card at the top of this post?
    Because circles link Fairbanks to the underlying mathematical forces that organize the universe.