One imagines that certain Ingmar Bergman skeptics and out-and-out detractors might find cause to term his 1958 picture Ansiktet, also known as The Face, and released in the United States as The Magician, as the writer/director's first substantive self-pity party. Because it is, for all intents and purposes, something of a parable of The Misunderstood Artist. Max von Sydow stars as Vogler, a self-proclaimed—well, not really self-proclaimed, as he pretends to be mute, but he has a spieler who extols his abilities, and loud—mesmerist who works a variety of mysterious and mind-boggling entertainment miracles in an appropriately chiaroscuro-laden 19th-century landscape, via the appropriately mystifying-by-19th-century-standards powers of "magnetism." He and his troupe are waylaid by an impetuous petit-bourgeouis bureaucrat and a pompous, sadistic rationalist physician determined to expose Vogler as a charlatan. Vogler's "art," such as it is, is eventually both vindicated and revealed as "mere" trickery; and Vogler himself, stripped of all his artifices, is revealed as something of a pathetic, grasping figure, more or less reliant on the credulity and/or kindness of the strangers he bamboozles as he and his entourage shamble from one engagement to the next.
"Didn't I do everything in my power to make you feel something?" Vogler begs of his former tormentors directly prior to the film's final and supremely ironic reversal of fortune. Concocting this picture in the wake of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries could have struck some as an odd way to complete a hat trick, but it is in fact a splendid one—although it's even more splendid if one forces one to see it more or less out of its context. Because in fact whatever self-referentiality it contains needs neither redemption nor justification (although Bergman's splendid prose account of/apologia for the film, from his book Images: My Life In Film, and included in the booklet of the new Criterion Collection edition, provides ample supporting evidence for any such case); and also because, viewed without such stuff in mind, The Magician works like the devil as a fleet, witty, atmospheric entertainment, something of a Bergman genre film as it were (as The Seventh Seal also is, in a way), a sometimes faux-gloomy jest that recalls certain of the vintage Universal horrors as it does Seastrom's The Phantom Carriage and other Nordic touchstones. Its narrative briskness and stiff spine is matched by a loose-limbed playfulness beautifully embodied in the utterly unconvincing way gorgeous Ingrid Thulin attempts to impersonate a teenage boy (she is in fact Vogler's wife). The film feels more alive than most period pieces of the contemporary cinema.
This past July marked the third anniversary of Bergman's death, and the continuing—as opposed to waning—fact of his stature as a cinematic master makes Jonathan Rosenbaum's new-conventional-wisdom op-ed in the Times in the wake of the filmmaker's death seem even more churlish than had likely been intended. With a "case closed" confidence, Rosenbaum stated,"The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday." I've never quite gotten over that last bit, which seems to blame Bergman for the scorn straw man Rosenbaum erects. But the more germane self-satisfied faux-"tant pis" occurs earlier in the piece, with Rosenbaum's oh-gee-isn't-that-tough-luck shrug, "Like many of [Bergman's] films, 'The Magician' hasn’t been widely available here for ages." But—ooops!—here's The Magician on DVD, on Criterion no less, in a gorgeous restoration that gives amazing solidity and depth to Gunnar Fischer's black-and-white images—I was practically hypnotized by the steely frames of the eyeglasses worn by Naima Wifstrand's crone and Gunnar Björnstrand's inquisitor. And there's a major Bergman retrospective at, which moved Mike D'Angelo in the L.A. Weekly to insist that coming to grips with Bergman is a necessary "rite of passage" for the "budding cinephile." That doesn't sound like much fun, mind you, but it does sound important. "Like almost any other significant, prolific artist," D'Angelo, slightly adopting Rosenbaum's shrug, proclaimed, early in September, "Bergman produced both towering masterpieces and self-indulgent drivel." There's a different kind of confidence at work in that assessment; as much as I might dislike or object to a particular work of Bergman's or a particular aspect of a Bergman work, I've never been sure that I could apprehend it well enough to dismiss it, literally, as drivel; for me in this respect it's a case of not having enough context. Is the monologue on Mozart from Hour of the Wolf, which Bille August later transposed to A Song For Martin, inspired musicological analysis or just something that sounds nice? I can't rightly say. But someday I may learn. Until that point, I believe that we'll continue to keep arguing about, and learning from, the great Ingmar. And, yes, actually enjoying a good deal of his work. As you should definitely do with this really great disc of The Magician.