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A little over ten years into his film career, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman became one of a select group of internationally acclaimed names in the Art Film world. It was just before the explosion of the French New Wave, when Italian masters dominated the field. Although Bergman made his share of conventional dramas and even comedies, his austere fantasies caught most of the attention. The Seventh Seal mixed the Middle Ages with metaphysics and Wild Strawberries presented an old man's reveries as a parade of surreal hallucinations. 1958's The Magician is a period drama with fantastic overtones about a traveling magic show, through which Bergman presents his personal feelings about life in the theater. The original Swedish title is Ansiktet, which translates as "The Face". That title doesn't seem appropriate until we realize that Bergman has conflicted feelings about play-actors. The actors in this story are all charlatans ripe for exposure, strange beings that conceal their true selves at all times.
The imposing mountebank Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow) moves his small troupe from town to town, selling potions and demonstrating Mesmer's "animal magnetism" theories. Vogler's assistant Mr. Amari is really his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin), dressed as a man in an effort to thwart the police. Granny (Naima Wifstrand) behaves like a witch, collecting herbs for the show's fake potions; she tells gullible people that she's 200 years old. Granny warns of ghouls in the forest. When Vogler searches he finds a sickly, alcoholic actor named Spegel (Bengt Ekrot) who wants to die, because he thinks he might be convincing in the role. Entering a new town, the troupe is detained by Police Chief Starbeck (Toivo Pawlo) and Dr. Vergerus, the medical examiner (Gunnar Björnstrand) at the house of Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson), a fan of spiritualism. Vogler, who claims to have lost the power of speech, has no choice but to submit to the humiliation. Starbeck flaunts his authority while Vergerus prepares to prove Vogler a humbug and assert the superiority of science. Vogler cannot bluff his way through Vergerus' interrogation. When he's forced to perform, his magic is revealed as cheap tricks.
The troupe continues to shake up the Egerman household. Both the cook and the maid Sara (Bibi Andersson) become romantically interested in the visitors, and another maid is impressed by Granny's talk of magic and witchcraft. Sara tries one of Granny's love potions. In mourning over a lost child, Egerman's wife Ottila (Gertrud Fridh) suddenly begs Vogler to come to her bedchamber. In the night Vergerus learns the truth about Vogler's voice and Manda's gender, and is satisfied that his rational viewpoint will prevail. But when the actor Spegel really dies, Vogler uses the body to fake his own death and turn the tables on Vergerus.
Ingmar Bergman's The Magician has a lot to say about performing and the relationship between actors and their audience. Vogler never knows if he'll be welcomed or run out of town on a rail. His troupe is united not by camaraderie but by desperation -- more than one member is looking for a way out. Vogler no longer seems to believe in his own talent, although the public is receptive to superstitious ideas and the Egerot maids believe whatever Granny says. Vogler can only glare with hatred at his smug, condescending interrogators, and what should be an entertainment is instead a struggle for power. Only Manda has faith that things will turn out all right. The tension rises when their host Egerman overhears his wife proclaiming her love for a total stranger. Vogler gets his chance to "haunt" Vergerus, in a creepy sequence involving an autopsy performed in a spooky attic space. For a short while the film resembles an experimental expressionist film, with Vogler stalking the doctor from the shadows, and materializing like a ghost in distorted mirrors.
Although the prevailing image is Vogler's dour, angry face, The Magician has its share of humor. The promise of magic has a liberating effect on the servants. Vogler's front man tries out his patter on the Egermans' cook, and finds a warm welcome in her bed. Granny's love potion gives Sara "permission" to be flirtatious with the coach driver. Vogler's levitation gimmick is a complete failure, but the spinning mirrors in Manda's animal magnetism demonstration become a hilarious success. When told that the treatment will compel her to tell the truth, the Police Chief's wife cheerfully blurts out all of her complaints against her uncouth husband. Bergman's sober approach keeps us off balance, making these sudden bursts of comedy all the more effective.
The tone overall is less reassuring. The death of Spegel certainly isn't funny, even though he said he hoped to become a convincing ghost. Vogler's tricks precipitate another death, a suicide that is barely touched upon and then forgotten. Vergerus is frightened only for a few moments and quickly reasserts his authority. In the film's most uncomfortable scene Vogler is reduced to pleading for a handout. Without his imposing wig and beard, the actor is revealed as a miserable beggar. Although Bergman concocts a happy ending, we don't remember The Magician as a comedy. It is more of an experimental theater piece that invents a collection of crazy characters to provide interesting roles for a "family" of actor-associates. The film is an interesting diversion made just before Bergman's long run of heavy, introspective '60s classics. Eulogizing the great Swedish director, Woody Allen named this particular film as a favorite.
Criterion's Blu-ray of The Magician is an excellent transfer of this unpredictable, mysterious movie. Gunnar Fischer's B&W photography emphasizes the deep blacks of Vogler's clothing and the dark corners of the Egerman house. The High Definition image reveals new details, such as the sand spread on the attic floor to soak up the blood from Vergerus autopsy.
Producer Johanna Schiller's disc extras add greatly to our understanding of the film. The critics sampled seem to agree that The Magician dramatizes Bergman's conflicted feelings about life in the theater. In an excerpt from his autobiography, the director emphasizes the lack of respect for theater people, who are cheered on stage but treated poorly in person. A film clip from 1967 merely shows Bergman evading a question and reciting a rather unimpressive parable, but an audio interview from 1990 is much more rewarding. Bergman biographer Peter Cowie provides a visual essay featurette, and an insert booklet contains essays by Olivier Assayas (the director of the new Carlos) and Geoff Andrew. All in all, The Magician is a fascinating film made more accessible by Criterion's special edition features.
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The Magician Blu-ray rates:
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