The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)‘I’m an Eni-Meni Geni, an Eni-Meni Geni am l.’

A hopeless genie with a liking for the wine jug is sent on a mission to Baghdad to ensure that Prince Hassan and Princess Yasmin ascend to the Caliph’s throne as prophesied. When he bungles the job, he’s condemned to a mortal existence until he can make the prophecy come true.

Dismal ‘Arabian Knights’ fluff from legendary low-budget producer Sam Katzman and starring nightclub entertainer Dick Shawn. Unfortunately, the film’s in trouble even before the opening credits have finished, with Shawn flying in on a magic carpet (supported by clearly visible strings) singing what is probably one of the most irritating ditties in film history. He’s our title character, a Iovably useless genie who prefers to get wasted than get on with tasks set by his chief William Edmonson. He ends up (literally) in the last chance saloon, but prefers to sample the juice of the grape rather than pay attention to invading Sultan John Van Dreelan, who murders the Caliph of Baghdad and forces the adolescent Hassan into exile.

After having his magic removed, Shawn hangs around hoping for a chance to put things right and regain his powers, but his clever strategy involves spending most of his time with a talking horse and pretending to be a wizard. Seven years pass and the adolescent Prince Hassan has turned into handsome Barry Coe, and the Princess Yasmin into dark-eyed beauty Diane Baker. Can our useless hero bring them together and frustrate the schemes of Van Dreelan and Baker’s toadying father?

If this was supposed to be a comedy showcase to launch Shawn’s burgeoning film career, it had the opposite effect than intended. This is truly a half-assed, juvenile experience, which attempts laughs by making knowing pop culture references and rehashing boring, obvious gags that were old a good two decades earlier. Production values are low, with the larger crowd scenes and one battle obviously lifted from another film, and the sets often somewhat threadbare, something you wouldn’t usually associate with the inside of a palace. The only mildly entertaining scenes are those in which Shawn is side-lined by what little plot there is; specifically the banter and romance between Coe and Baker, who tried hard to wring something out of the lifeless script.

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)

The Royal Motor-bath was powered by extra towels.

The biggest surprise here is that the weak screenplay is from the pen of Jesse Lasky Jr, a Hollywood veteran who’d worked on several Cecil B DeMille productions, like ‘Reap The Wild Wind’ (1942), ‘Samson and Delilah’ (1949) and ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956). In later life, he wrote mostly for UK television, including episodes of hit shows like ‘The Saint’, ‘Danger Man’ and ‘Space:1999’. Strangely enough, this film is entirely omitted from his autobiography.

Shawn had a big following as a singer and entertainer on the nightclub circuit, but his acting career turned out to be mostly ‘gag appearances’ that traded on his name, most notably in ‘lt’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963). His only notable credit is as the actor who plays Adolf Hitler in the show put on by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers’ (1967). Baker had a long and successful career as a character actress, including parts in Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’ (1964), ‘Courage Under Fire’ (1996), many guest roles on television and a bit in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991).

Coe’s subsequent exploits were considerably less notable, although he did have a leading role in weird horror indie ‘Dr Death, Seeker of Souls’ (1973). Director George Sherman managed 128 credits over a long career, but only one notable film; ‘Big Jake’ (1971) with John Wayne, although it’s rumoured that The Duke helmed at least some of that himself.

A dreary, tired and slightly wretched experience.

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Flashman (1967)

Flashman (1967)‘I’m afraid you’re wasting your bullets. They only tickle.’

Thieves murder a professor for his invisibility formula and use it to help them rob a bank. Unfortunately, a lot of their ill-gotten gains had already been replaced with counterfeit notes by a gang of beautiful women and, worse still, the chief teller is actually crime fighter Flashman in disguise.

Painfully uninspired cross between a caper movie and a superhero flick, which struggles throughout to find a focus for its rambling storyline. ls it Paolo Gozlino’s ‘Flashman’, a hero with a silly costume and not much else? ls it Claudie Lange’s girl gang, who cosy up to bank staff at work and swap out real currency with funny money right under their noses? Or is it lvano Staccioli’s cigarette floating in mid-air and chair cushions sinking under his invisible arse? Well, it’s all of these things, and none at all, really.

We open with a swinging montage of bright, primary colours and the camera zooming crazily in and out on tinted stills from the film. Girlie singers sing the name of the movie. Yeah, it’s the Sixties, baby! This Italian movie tries desperately to mine that ‘anything goes’ vibe but fails miserably to capture the spirit of the age with a pedestrian, laboured script which is little more than a scribble on a table napkin.

Our main man is Lord Burman, working undercover in his own bank to foil the counterfeiting ring, and then getting the blame for the more direct methods of the invisible bank robber and his pals. A quick exit is necessary through a convenient window, which leaves the guards flummoxed as he simply disappears! l guess it’s because he has a silly costume back in his closet at home. Also along for the ride is sister sidekick Ann Marie Williams, who contributes a series of silly outfits, outlandish makeup and little else. Flashman’s main squeeze is Micaela Pignatelli (from ‘Goldface, The Fantastic Superman’ (1967)!!), who ends up tied to the train tracks to the accompaniment of tiresome ‘comedy’ music (note the inverted commas).

Flashman (1967)

‘Something for the weekend, sir?’

No, the film doesn’t take itself very seriously, which is a bonus, so there is a fair bit of knock about humour, usually at the expense of ‘the man’, in the form of Police Inspector Baxter (Jack Ary). Sadly, it lacks, wit, style and any kind of madcap sensibility that might have provided some entertainment value. Instead, we have a succession of lifeless developments that really go nowhere, and painfully obvious pratfalls. ln the end, the film simply disintegrates into an extended climactic, chase sequence, which sorely tries the patience.

The only notable creative touch comes from director Ernesto Gastaldi, who sometimes favours close-ups so huge that we can only see part of the actor’s faces. But I guess we have to be kind and assume that it’s some kind of aspect ratio issue, rather than a testament to the amount of strange substances consumed on set.

Enough material for an unfunny comedy sketch does not make for a good film.

The Thief of Baghdad (1961)

Thief of Baghdad (1961)‘The first gate is in the East. It is to be seen where it is not.’

A handsome thief impersonates a visiting Prince so he can pick the pockets of the nobles at the court of the Sultan of Baghdad. During the ensuing confusion, he meets the Sultan’s beautiful daughter. They fall in love but she is promised to a  Prince who wants to be the next Sultan…

After the global success of ‘Hercules’ (1959), it would not have been unreasonable to expect Hollywood studios to come calling on muscleman Steve Reeves with offers to utilise his acting skills and charisma to good use in big stateside productions. Sadly, the star wasn’t over-blessed with either quality and he remained in Italy, starring in a string of pictures that showcased his greatest asset: his physicality.

These pictures were guaranteed a big play in Europe at least so American money was often involved, and this film was actually distributed in the states by MGM. A ‘name’ Hollywood director was also drafted in to take charge: veteran Arthur Lubin, whose biggest hits included ‘Black Friday’ (1940) with Karloff and Lugosi, ‘Buck Privates’ (1941) with Abbot and Costello and, most significantly here, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ (1944). He also gave a break to a young Clint Eastwood, giving him small roles in a string of pictures in the 1950s.

The story follows the Douglas Fairbanks model, of course, rather than the classic Michael Powell version from 1940 where the title character was a young, teenage boy. So we get Reeves as an Arabian Knights version of ‘Robin Hood’, stealing from the rich merchants and court lackeys and redistributing the wealth to poor market traders and the people of the city. The setup is stuffed with a lot of familiar characters; the nice but hopelessly muddled Sultan, his beautiful daughter, the scheming chief of staff and the evil, foreign Prince. It isn’t hard to predict that these last two will form an unholy alliance to grab the throne and that it’ll be up to Reeves to undo their nefarious schemes, on this occasion with the assistance of an old magician rather than the usual genie.

lt’s also no surprise when Reeves is tasked with a quest. He must travel to the East and obtain a Blue Rose to save the Princess, who has been poisoned by the evil Prince with a love potion gone wrong. The quest involves travelling through 7 gates and facing 7 challenges (or ‘labours’ perhaps? Reeves never really escaped from the shadow of Hercules) and these consist of some of the usual suspects, including fighting with a bald muscleman and resisting the temptations of a mysterious and seductive Queen who turns all her lovers to stone. It ends with a big brawl outside the city gates and the usual lesson that love conquers all and what you’re looking for is usually right under your nose.

Thief of Baghdad (1961)

‘Ooooh…who does he think he is?’

The SFX are of their time, of course, but their shoddiness only adds to the general charm. There’s still a joy in old fashioned practical effects, rather than smooth and hopelessly unconvincing CGI. There’s a cloak of invisibility (long before Harry Potter owned one), a flight on the winged horse Pegasus, deadly trees that come to life, and the old magician who pops up and vanishes with pleasing regularity. He’s the only real wrinkle story-wise, in that his help is mostly advisory and not magical, meaning that Reeves is often thrown back on his own resources rather than having his problems wished away in the usual fashion by a genie.

Although not remotely original, the production’s fuzzy familiarity does make for a pleasing and engaging experience and, although the U.S. dub track is pretty hideous, Reeves manages to convey a lightness of touch that is surprising if you’re only familiar with him from his more musclebound roles. The gorgeous Giorgi Moll is perfectly cast as the object of his desire, and also delivers a good performance. She was an actress with plenty of experience in the ‘Sword and Sandal’ genre, but enjoyed her greatest international fame when she featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Le Mépris’ (1963).

A pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half of your day.