The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

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By Scott Ross

Alexander Korda’s monumental Arabian Nights fantasy is one of the most enchanting movies ever made, and as the “little thief” Apu, the young Indian actor Sabu epitomizes the sunny exuberance of every small child in the audience. (He was a boy when they started filming, in the late ’30s, and a young man by the time they finished. When you’re older you may notice how stunningly beautiful he is; those thighs are a work of art in themselves.)

The color cinematography is ravishing, the sets astonishing, and the movie contains the first — and in some ways, finest — of Miklos Rozsa’s important film scores; the great Conrad Veidt as a villain so archetypal that the folks at Disney “borrowed” him for Aladdin; Rex Ingram as a deliciously devious djinn who utters what may be the most stirring movie cry of the pre-Civil Rights era (“Free! Freeeeee!”); and John Justin and June Perez are a dream-team of thoroughly embraceable lovers.

That charming rotter Miles Malleson — who also worked on the screenplay — is the emotionally retarded rajah with a yen for exotic toys. Flying carpets, wise old Muslims, an ancient and supernally gentle spirit, a terrifying battle with a giant spider, and a Persian market so cunningly recreated you can almost smell the honey Sabu slathers on his pancake.

If I ever become so jaded I don’t find tears in my eyes at the mischievous smile on the ancient face of the old mountain spirit as he discreetly observes Sabu’s heartfelt disobeyance, I’ll know I’ve lived too long.

(And no, that’s not a misspelling in the title.)

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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