The 1924 fantasy-adventure is considered widely as actor/writer/producer Douglas Fairbanks’ tour de force. Raoul Walsh (White Heat) may serve as director of the silent Arabian Nights adaptation, but the show is Fairbanks’ and the performer knows it, traipsing with abandon through the exquisite, no-expense-spared sets. (They come courtesy the mind and body of Oscar-winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, who later would become a director in his own right, including a double-whammy of schlock in 1953 with Invaders from Mars and the 3-D The Maze.
Cohen Media Group’s disc features the 155-minute epic in a version restored from two 35mm negatives. Among the work done to bring it up to speed is the inclusion of the original release’s frames being tinted — not just to show off color, but to match the mood of each scene.
Because the work is silent, I recommend watching it with the commentary on, especially if this represents your first trip to Bagdad. Fairbanks historian Jeffrey Vance knows his subject inside and out, this way and that, and listening to him is a crash course in not just the film, but the screen legend treating Thief like his personal playground. Vance is so knowledgeable, I can forgive that he’s obviously scripted his comments, line for line, right down to each forced laugh.
As we close in on the film’s centennial, it retains a power to awe. I credit two primary elements, indelibly linked. One is Fairbanks, whose athletic prowess and effortless charisma had to have influenced the screen persona of Jackie Chan. The other is the picture’s special effects, still amazing to this day — done not with computers, of course, but trickery brewed from good ol’ brainpower. —Rod Lott