Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection
Reviled by critics and audiences alike upon its theatrical release, Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) has since become a much more respected part of the director's deep filmography. Its story follows the travelling Alberti Circus, a motley crew led by Albert (Ake Gronberg, above) that also includes his mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson), along with Frost the clown (Anders Ek) and his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost). Not coincidentally, Albert and his group arrive in a small town where his estranged wife Agda (Annika Tretow) and sons live. Albert hopes to rekindle his dormant marriage and perhaps leave the circus life for good, but also sees an opportunity to put on a extravagant show. Unfortunately, the plan backfires and leaves the ringmaster utterly humiliated. It's a brutal story that puts more than a few characters through the wringer, but not without a touch of optimism to salvage our investment in them.
Sawdust and Tinsel's most obvious technical landmark within Bergman's body of work was the addition of cinematographer Sven Nykvist (here credited alongside Hilding Bladh), who was likewise still in his 30s at the time but already had over a dozen feature-length credits to his name. Although the director and cinematographer wouldn't be full-time collaborators until The Virgin Spring seven years later, Bergman and Nykvist would eventually partner on 20 of their most well-known films during the next several decades. Nykvist's unique abilities are a primary reason why Sawdust and Tinsel holds up so well today: it's got plenty of unforgettable imagery, from the intentionally bleached flashback sequence to harrowing close-ups and perfectly lit interiors. Not to be outdone is the editing by Carl-Olov Skeppstedt, whose only other listed collaboration with Bergman was 1955's Dreams. His expressive and abstract cuts during many sequences, along with sparse music cues by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (or, in some cases, the sudden absence of his music), imbue Sawdust and Tinsel with a great deal of tension and dread.
The film's long and turbulent road to eventual notoriety took decades. Its rocky reception began with that 1953 theatrical release in Sweden as Gycklarnas afton, literally translated as Night of the Jesters but changed to the tawdry-sounding The Naked Night for American crowds. It was known as Sawdust and Tinsel to British movie-goers but, by any name, was generally viewed as a rare low point in the director's filmography for decades. Criterion's 2006 DVD edition, its first domestic appearance on home video, used the British title and, not surprisingly, led to a second (or first?) life in recent years. The upward trend continues this year with Sawdust and Tinsel 's inclusion as part of Criterion's career-spanning Blu-ray boxed set, Ingmar Bergman's Cinema, and this stand-alone release. Both are presumably identical discs, offering a new 2K transfer sourced from its 2017 restoration and extras ported from the DVD.
This new 1080p transfer of Sawdust and Tinsel is taken from a brand-new 2K restoration and can basically be described as the best possible presentation of its source material. Black levels, texture, image detail, and contrast all outshine the studio's picture-boxed 2007 DVD in every possible department, while the substantial boost in resolution and grain stability reveal a lot of little background details that weren't easily visible before. The intentionally bleached sequence early on in the film (Alma at the beach) has again been left intact. No obvious imperfections such as aliasing, compression artifacts, or excessive noise reduction were spotted along the way. Overall, it's a solid presentation of this visually memorable film, and die-hard fans will likely be more than willing to upgrade for this reason alone.
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As usual, Criterion plays it straight with a PCM 1.0 Master Audio track that preserves the film's original mono mix; like the video presentation, a few forgivable flaws remain (very mild hiss during a few scenes, as well as a somewhat thin high end) but it's mostly great news from start to finish. Dialogue is crisp and precise throughout, with well-balanced background effects and even a few moments of sonic depth. The sporadic and occasionally harsh score by Karl-Birger Blomdahl also sounds as good as expected.
Optional English subtitles are included, but only during the main feature and not the bonus features.
Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate with access to its timeline, chapters, and bonus features. The disc is locked for Region A players and comes packaged in a stocky keepcase with recycled cover art from their 2007 DVD edition. The accompanying Booklet is more or less identical as well with production photos, notes about the new restoration, and a reprinted essay by critic John Simon. [NOTE: a second essay by filmmaker Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl) has not been carried over.]
The short list of extras -- at least by Criterion standards -- are also recycled from the DVD. These include a solid Audio Commentary by Ingmar Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, as well as a brief Introduction to the film by the director himself from 2003, just before his retirement and only four years before his death. It's understandable why Sawdust and Tinsel wouldn't have gotten brand-new bonus features as part of the massive Bergman collection...but since this is a stand-alone release, it's more disappointing.
Sawdust and Tinsel isn't in the highest tier of director Ingmar Bergman's vast filmography (The Seventh Seal, Persona, Wild Strawberries), but it certainly has its merits and is well worth watching for fans and first-timers alike. As usual, Criterion's Blu-ray is very impressive in the A/V department but, if you already own the 2007 DVD, there aren't any new bonus features and that's disappointing. While it's not the most essential Criterion disc this year (and can be skipped entirely if you shelled out for the Bergman boxed set), Sawdust and Tinsel is still worth picking up for obvious reasons. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.