“You shall see and believe,” says the sagacious Genie of the lamp in Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and several other uncredited directors’ gorgeous 1940 fairy tale The Thief of Bagdad, playing this Sunday afternoon and evening at BAM. That proclamation is a promise to the viewer, as the film, ostensibly about the reunion of its star-crossed young lovers, is just as much a parable demonstrating how purveyors of big-budget fantasies need to infuse a healthy amount of naïve, gee-whiz showmanship to prevent technological wizardry from looking like stale craft. The mediator between technology and sentiment therefore must be the soundstage!
Vincent Korda, Thief‘s art director, earned an Oscar for his work on the film because his imagination was matched only by the budding technology available to him—including green-screen technology, which today has become the cheapest type of cinematic illusion. Still, even the chintziest moments in Thief, like when the Genie’s giant foot threatens to crush exotic heartthrob Sabu, radiate a heartfelt sense of wonder that’s also visible in every one of the film’s outlandish sets.
Because Thief of Bagdad is a kind of meta-fairy tale, screenwriters Miles Malleson and Lajos Biro make sure that its characters understand the importance of earnest dissembling. Ahmed (John Justin), the naïve Sultan of “Bagdad”, falls prey to the machinations of his advisor Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) because he’s too honest to know how to interact with, let alone read, other people—he has no clue that Jaffar’s been enforcing a fascistic police state behind his back. Enter Abu the street urchin (Sabu), who teaches Ahmed the importance of lying—after Ahmed learns the importance of stealing food when he’s hungry, he learns how to smooth-talk the Princess (June Duprez) by pretending to be a genie.
Ahmed’s a model pupil, but the same cannot be said about the Princess’s father (Morton Selten), a doddering old man more interested in his “toys,” automata of all shapes and sizes, than in his daughter—he agrees to give the Princess to Jaffar in exchange for a flying wind-up horse. The old king is what Ahmed might have become if he didn’t learn the importance of combining his steadfast moral compass with his newfound proficiency for telling white lies, er, harmless illusions.
That kind of balance is essential because as the all-knowing Genie describes humanity’s frailties: “If their stomachs speak, they forget their brain. If their brain speaks, they forget their hearts. If their hearts speak….hahahaha! They forget everything!” If most of today’s effects-driven fantasias stopped using the latest tech like a crutch—did anybody really wet themselves after seeing the trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar?—and instead focused on replicating Ahmed’s original artlessness as Korda did, they might have a shot at looking this good 70 years down the line, too.