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Paul Henreid - Star of the Month
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,Thief of Damascus

Thief of Damascus

Prior to Casablanca (1942), Paul Henreid had supporting roles in such classic films as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940). After Casablanca, he moved on to leading roles. He was already moving in that direction with Now, Voyager (1942), released shortly before Casablanca, but it was his role as Victor Laszlo in the most famous love triangle in the history of the movies that cemented his position as a romantic lead. It wasn't as successful as he would have hoped. From that point on, his filmography isn't nearly as illustrious as the supporting part of his career and by the 1950s he was mainly concerned with directing in television, directing dozens of episodes year after year for a variety of shows. In 1952, his role as Abu Amdar, dashing hero of Thief of Damascus, seemed a last ditch effort to turn the 44 year old actor into an action lead and it might have worked had the studios put a little more time, money and patience into the effort.

Thief of Damascus transports the viewer to another time and place. No, not Arabia in the legendary times of Sinbad and Aladdin, though it does that as well, but rather, to a time when Hollywood was content to fill a tale of Arabian Nights with obviously non-Arabic actors in both the lead and supporting roles. While some of the actors, Paul Henreid for example, have their voices and basic appearances working in their favor, others, like Jeff Donnell (that's Miss Jeff Donnell, by the way) and Helen Gilbert not only appear as clearly American actresses with modern hairstyles, but they also make absolutely no attempt to acknowledge their characters are in a story set in the year 654. To both of their credit, it doesn't seem to matter (Miss Donnell, in particular, is fantastically entertaining with her consistently deadpan, droll delivery).

The story begins as Khalid (John Sutton) attempts again and again to conquer Damascus. He attacks and gets repelled, mostly because his forces are outnumbered by those defending Damascus. His most trusted general, Abu Amdar, suggests a different strategy: Take their already depleted troops and split them, attack from two fronts and give Damascus the impression that they have a much bigger army than they do in the hopes the city will then surrender to save itself from annihilation.

Khalid approves the new plan but warns Amdar not to attempt to take the glory and power for himself and reminds him that Khalid could have him killed anytime he wants. Amdar calls Khalid's bluff, stating correctly that Khalid would rather have Damascus than Amdar dead and heads off for battle.

Inside the walls of Damascus we meet Sinbad (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Aladdin (Robert Clary), friends helping to repel the invaders from the walls of the city. In the palace, we meet Sheherazade (Jeff Donnell) and Princess Zafir (Helen Gilbert) as they consult with Zafir's father, the ruler of the city, about what should be done. Both Sheherazade and Zafir have a plan that revolves around the two of them using their feminine wiles to lure Amdar into an easy surrender for the city, one in which no destruction or sacking will take place. When they go to meet him, it works, and the city is surrendered with no further bloodshed and no destruction.

A beaming Amdar presents the city to his king, confident that Khalid will be thrilled with this turn of events. Instead, Khalid is outraged that the city was not conquered, fearing that without losing brutally in battle, the citizens will always be restless for revolution against their usurpers. He orders Amdar imprisoned and Zafir to be his wife, while her father rots in a dungeon. Amdar escapes his would be captors and flees across the city. In the market, he steels a sword made of Damascus steel and finds that it splits the sword of any man he fights. Shortly after, he meets Sinbad and Aladdin who volunteer their help to get him out of the city.

Once out of the city, he meets up with Ali Baba (Philip Van Zandt) who takes him to his fortress (and, yes, the cave door opens with the words, "Open, Sesame") and agrees to help him fight Khalid. Now, he, Sinbad, and Aladdin have to get back into the city to set everything up. Amdar inquires about the Damascus steel he used but is told no one knows how to make the swords but one smith who will not reveal the secret to anyone. Can Amdar, Sinbad and Aladdin rescue Sheherazade, Zafir and her father and defeat Khalid?

Thief of Damascus suffers from missing elements in its attempt to tell the story but makes up for it with the actors involved and the earnestness of their efforts. Surely, a movie with Aladdin has a magic lamp but here we mainly hear Aladdin talk about a magic lamp without ever using it. Sinbad sails no seas and seems to be a directionless oaf, wandering Damascus, looking for trouble. That Robert Clary and Lon Chaney, Jr. are so charming together goes a long way towards forgiving the shortcomings of their characters as written. They are what would later be called the funny sidekicks in the movie. They have little to do but entertain the audience when the plot needs some more stretching out.

The star, Paul Henreid, is excellent as Amdar and despite being surrounded by plenty of stock footage, gives the viewer the feeling he is involved in his surroundings, whether they're actually there or not. Philip Van Zandt is terrific as Ali Baba and John Sutton makes for a suitably sinister Khalid, uncompromising and unsympathetic. But the real treat of the movie is Jeff Donnell. Born Jean Marie Donnell in 1921, she nicknamed herself "Jeff" after the "Mutt and Jeff" comic strip she so adored. Spending almost her entire career playing the leading lady's friend (and it's no different here), she developed a cynical, carefree delivery that works comically well in Thief of Damascus. Her cadence, accent and delivery is so anachronistic it quickly becomes the most endearing thing in the movie. And her one liners are the highlight of every scene (sample: When Zafir gets a sheer negligee gift from Khalid, Sheherazade remarks, "I wear more than that when I take a bath.").

Thief of Damascus may not top anyone's list of the best Arabian Nights movies ever made and it certainly didn't have the budget for much outside of reused sets and stock footage. But its cast is so delightful they prove once again that the right crew of talents can make anything work. And Paul Henreid and Jeff Donnell take top honors for working magic without benefit of a magic lamp. No small feat.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Will Jason
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: Ellis W. Carter
Music: John Leipold
Film Editor: William Lyon
Art Director: Paul Palmentola
Cast: Paul Henreid (Abu Amdar), John Sutton (Khalid), Jeff Donnell (Sheherazade), Lon Chaney Jr. (Sinbad), Elena Verdugo (Neela), Helen Gilbert (Princess Zafir), Robert Clary (Aladdin), Edward Colmans (Sultan Raudah), Nelson Leigh (Ben Jammal), Philip Van Zandt (Ali Baba).

By Greg Ferrara



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