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Sawdust and Tinsel
Gycklarnas afton

Sawdust and Tinsel
Criterion 412
1953 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 92 min. / Gycklarnas afton / Street Date November 20, 2007 / 39.95
Starring Ake Gronberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost, Annika Tretow, Erik Strandmark, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Curt L�wgren, Kiki
Cinematography Hilding Bladh, Sven Nykvist
Production Design Bibi Lindstrom
Film Editor Carl-Olov Skeppstedt
Original Music Karl-Birger Blomdahl
Produced by Rune Waldekranz
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The late Ingmar Bergman is still firmly associated with art film classics like Persona but his more demanding meditations on 'the human condition' were preceded by lighter comedies and relationship pictures. 1953's Sawdust and Tinsel may be the film where Bergman's personal themes came together for the first time. On the surface this circus story is a farce of romantic intrigues and sexual politics, but behind it all broods the familiar quiet desperation of Bergman's later films. The characters fear abandonment and poverty and chafe in restrictive relationships. Bergman also satirizes the pomposity of theatrical people, who consider the circus people their inferiors.

Sawdust and Tinsel was Ingmar Bergman's first collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and their creative harmony is evident in the film's many beautiful and expressive images. The screen vibrates with sexual energy, doubtless due to the director's infatuation with his leading lady Harriet Andersson. In this show, sex is both a natural wonder and a source of great humiliation.


The Alberti Circus limps into town broke and unprepared to put on a show. Owner Albert Johansson (Ake Grönberg) and his beautiful mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson) dress up to beg costumes from the town's theater, run by the imperious Mr. Sjuberg (Gunnar Björnstrand). Sjuberg plays high and mighty with the 'lowly' circus people but relents. Albert left his wife and two sons in this town three years ago, and harbors a desire to quit the circus (and Anne) and return to the security of keeping a shop. He visits his wife Agda (Annika Tretow) but finds that she prospers, enjoys her liberty and has no longer has any use for him. Afraid of being abandoned, Anne contacts Frans (Hasse Ekman), a cruelly narcissistic actor she flirted with earlier in the day. After more insults about the baseness of circus folk, Frans seduces Agda with the promise of an amulet she can sell for cash. The theater people attend the night's circus performance, with both Frans and Sjuberg intent on putting poor Albert in his place -- as a cuckolded failure.

Sawdust and Tinsel builds on the tradition of older continental show-biz films that concentrated on unusual relationships. E.A. Dupont's silent Variety showed the eccentric living arrangement between an older trapeze artist and his young and desirable wife, while Sternberg's The Blue Angel charted the degradation of a respected but naïve schoolteacher who falls for a cabaret singer. Bergman's premise presents another May-December relationship. Albert would like to chuck the circus life and rejoin the family he left a few seasons before. His younger mistress Anne is also desperate for security, and needs the experienced Albert to keep her from making foolish decisions. Albert and his circus must weather an unbroken string of humiliations. The town constable confiscates their horses and forces the costumed performers to roll their circus wagon away by hand. The theater people treat their circus cousins like charity cases, heaping insults upon the vagabonds as a way of justifying their own relative lack of dignity. The actors claim that they create art, while the circus performers merely risk their foolish necks.

Having his profession denigrated isn't all that poor Albert must withstand. His wife Agda has tasted her independence and found peace of mind being in business for herself; she's taught her two boys to hate the circus as well. Albert claims that he could be a good husband, but Agda's no longer interested. She's finished depending on men and coldly lets Albert know that she doesn't lack for companionship. Three years have passed, and husbands are no longer welcome.

Agda's opposite number is the sexy but inexperienced Anne, who knows how to flirt with the primping Frans but is an easy target for the actor's caddish seduction tricks. When the defeated Anne returns to the circus caravan the truth quickly comes out, and Albert throws himself into despair. "We're both stuck," he grumbles, working through his jealousy and anger.

But worse humiliations are yet to come. The bad omen in The Blue Angel was a mysterious clown who kept confronting the cuckolded professor with his true mirror image. Sawdust and Tinsel begins with a disturbing back story of the circus clown Teodor Frost (Anders Ek), who must retrieve his emotionally reckless wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) when she suddenly decides to swim naked with an entire troop of artillerymen. Frost must pull Alma from the surf and carry her back while both soldiers and civilians jeer. Like one of the hallucinations in his later movies, Bergman presents this nightmarish episode purposely overexposed and missing natural audio, like a demented silent movie.

Albert and Frost (who is still in the circus, and still with Alma) share a hilarious scene in a caravan as Albert gets drunk and threatens to kill himself. He suggests that Frost help him kill several others as well. But Albert realizes that he loves people and forgives Anne. He and Frost haven't destroyed themselves by accepting their flawed women, quite the contrary. Frost accepts life's humiliations and doesn't care what the world thinks of him when he's not wearing greasepaint.

The malicious theater people attend the show, bent on tormenting Albert yet further. When Anne performs as a horse-riding Spanish señorita, Frans shouts compromising catcalls from the stands. Albert responds with his whip, and the Circus Alberti becomes a fight arena.

The beauty of Sawdust and Tinsel, and what makes it more accessible than some of Bergman's colder and pitiless later films (Hour of the Wolf, Shame) is that it eventually expresses faith in people. Albert and his circus are in some ways defeated, but there's enough money in the till to keep them together and moving.

Ake Grönberg is a solid presence as the paunchy, conflicted Albert and Anders Elk's Frost lightens many scenes ... Frost is such a good sport, he allows Albert to put a gun to his head: "I need to live. I, uh, have to take care of my father." As the predatory Frans, Hasse Ekman wears a permanent sardonic smile, and Bergman's later leading man Gunnar Björnstrand is properly intimidating as the theatrical producer. Annika Tretow's practical Agda dominates the awkward luncheon with her estranged husband, but Harriet Andersson is Sawdust and Tinsel's radiant center, an erotic vision. Andersson endows Anne with a depth lacking in contemporary sex symbols. Anne is dependent on men and knows very well that she's incapable of taking care of herself. She can be abusive and selfish to Albert, yet will commit to him when the shouting and tears are over.

Criterion's DVD of Sawdust and Tinsel presents this infrequently revived masterpiece in a beautiful B&W transfer, with a clean soundtrack. It was produced by a different company than most of Bergman's films, and for that reason has not been included in many export packages. Its exploitative American title was The Naked Night. Commentator Peter Cowie goes into all aspects of the production and the development of the Bergman / Nyqvist relationship, and promotes the film as the director's first work to incorporate most of his major themes. The only other extras offered by Criterion disc producer Johanna Schiller are a couple of video introductions by the director and insert booklet essays by John Simon and Catherine Breillat.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sawdust and Tinsel rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary by Peter Cowie, essays by John Simon and Catherine Breillat.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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