Rating (out of 5): *****
When I was in college during the retroactively wondrous 1970s, every budding sophomore movie buff got introduced to the giants of world cinema through 10-week retrospectives that accompanied each quarter's film classes, unspooling in a creaky auditorium with a leaking roof. These crash courses were fairly amazing, since even VHS barely seemed to exist at the time, and the closest art house was a day's drive away. One semester, I watched tons of Ingmar Bergman, supplemented by various textbooks and histories, including the near-Biblical Four Screenplays of Bergman, which featured his treatments for The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician (aka Ansiktet or The Face).
The first three films were so canonical that the post-screening anatomies demanded exhaustive frame-by-frame explications, but I can't recall The Magician ever making the cut. It seems an odd omission, though it's also easy to understand how it fell between the cracks of the Swede's late 1950s work. The overpowering symbolism of Seal and Strawberries made such irresistible fodder for late-night collegiate debates stoked on good weed and cheap wine, that no one missed them, while Bergman's films of the early 1960s would be even heavier lifting.
Which is one reason why The Magician (1958) -- finally out on DVD from Criterion -- is such a pleasure to see now. It is rich in twisting revelations of human pathology, and as visually stunning as anything Bergman ever made. Gunnar Fischer's cinematography offers a spellbinding use of chiaroscuro that becomes chilling as the film moves from a comic (if vaguely sinister) tone into something far darker - really, you can stack this up against Touch of Evil as a classic of black-and-white image-making. Despite this, the film doesn't feel as freighted as the more celebrated titles in Bergman's catalog. And yet, it's about the absolute essence of cinematic art: Conjuring visions out of thin air, enlisting a troupe of actors to turn a fiction into truth.
Bergman favorite Max Von Sydow plays Vogler, the mesmerist of the title who travels the countryside in a horse-driven carriage, wearing a phony beard trimmed in a dandified manner that might have inspired Prince. His companions include his grandmother, the sideshow raconteur Tubal, and his assistant Aman - who is really his wife (played by Ingrid Thulin) dressed as an extremely elegant young man. The film opens as they begin a ride through a haunted countryside, the superstitious crone spitting on an irritable crow as tympani drums rumble on the soundtrack and terse chords are strummed on a guitar. The wind whispers harshly, intimating the presence of dark spirits, but they turn out to only be a dying actor whom the party stops to rescue.
Vogler offers him brandy, and the actor - Spegel - tells him:
I have always yearned for a knife. A blade with which to lay bare my bowels. To detach my brain, my heart. To free me from my substance. To cut away my tongue and my manhood. A sharp knife blade which would scrape out all my uncleanliness. Then the so-called spirit could ascend out of this meaningless carcass.
Keep those lines in mind. The company is bound for the estate of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson, Scenes From a Marriage), where they will give a demonstration of the “animal magnetism” Vogler professes to master. The local powers that be want to make sure there's nothing diabolical afoot, as strange rumors have trailed Vogler from village to village. In fact, as the skeptic Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), suspects, there's no necromancy at all in Vogler's game. The falsely mute magician is a total fraud, a mere entertainer, and Vergerus has a trap to spring on him.
What follows isn't at all what the self-righteous doctor expects. Vogler is a master of deception, and his craft has a reach that's as good as magic in 1840s Sweden. As the film slips from comedy into suspense, it becomes an investigation into the nature of art and artifice, reality and representation, with some bold plot turns and an expertly executed sequence in which Vergerus gets his comeuppance, amid shattered mirrors and shocking revelations.
The film's upbeat finale does little to shake off its spectral vibe, so fully invested has Bergman been in giving his audience the willies. Its complicated shadows are the pure stuff of horror, as Val Lewton and Fritz Lang knew so well, but Vogler shows us that the real fright show begins with a look into the mirror.
The new high-def transfer by Criterion also includes a new visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie; a '67 video interview with Bergman about the film; and especially tasty, a rare English-language audio interview with Bergman conducted by filmmakers Olivier Assayas and Stig Björkman back in 1990.
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