Ingmar Bergman's swollen filmography may be ultimately characterized by containing some of the most fascinating misfires in classic cinema. Vague incest and off-screen spiritual arachnids chap the somber hide of Through a Glass, Darkly; Liv Ullman seduces her way through Face to Face's psychoanalytic self-plagiarism; and Sven Nykvist wrenches the hue of vaginal mutilation from his palette for the meandering Judeo-Christianity of Cries and Whispers. The Magician, made in 1958, is similarly blighted with narrative confusion, infusing stray dramatic droppings of bawdy peasant comedy, medieval allegory, and masculine revisionism that could have been cut from the director's previous four outings. With one foot dipping tenuously into the gothic existentialism that would eventually birth Persona and the other planted in Bergman's early gravitation toward caste-bound moralism, it's the kind of film that auteur theory was invented to forgive as "transitional." It's far more rewardingly interpreted, however, as a standalone portrait of a dysfunctional artist caged, and then contrivedly redeemed, by his own vapid symbols; it reeks of weariness not with cinema but the act of routine creation.
The movie's first act features a couplet of plot-burdening setups that quickly lead to blind alleys. En route to fulfilling a municipal summons, the titular mute conjurer, Vogler (Max Von Sydow), picks up an inebriated thespian with his medicine show entourage; the hitcher dies after peering intently into Vogler's sinisterly vacant eyes, and upon arrival at the manor of a local politician, Egerman (Erland Josephson), the crew of showmen are detained on charges of peddling hokum. As the story class-consciously bifurcates, Vogler is prodded to prove his ostensible mastery of the occult before the superstitious Egerman, a skeptical scientist, Dr. Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand), and a supercilious commissioner, Starbeck (Tovio Pawlo). Meanwhile, the magician's gabby, rotund manager, Tubal (Åke Fridell), kills time by seducing the buxom Nordic honeys in Egerman's employment (Bibi Andersson and Sif Ruud) with snake oil aphrodisiacs. And Vogler's spookily senescent grandmother (Naima Wifstrand) traverses the economic membrane throughout the one-night stand of transitory passion and low-rent sorcery, acting as a cheap reminder that one can only be certain of death's authenticity; she spouts mildly creepy scenarios that poorly imitate the Malleus Maleficarum ("It's a fox without eyes, and with a rotten hole for a mouth") and seems costumed to resemble the pitchfork-gripping rancher of Grant Wood's American Gothic.
Rather than being a ghostly omen, the actor's death exposes Bergman's anxiety over human essence early on; beneath Vogler's inky, carnival whiskers and hypnotically fatigued visage there's an underachiever of a man aching to bemoan his sterility. A smoke-and-mirrors mesmerist bristling against 19th-century advances in reason and technology, Vogler's nothing more than an unemployed actor who identified too intensely with his last role. (The original Swedish title, The Face, more pointedly underscores the thematic significance of the magician's ineffective makeup.) The script's subplots amble in and out of attempted comedy and subtle thrills (one scene patchily transitions between the two with a blatant boom of thunder), but all roads circle back to the deceptive schism between appearance and intention.
When Tubal woos the shrewd and worldly Sofia with worthless vials of "love potion," she makes it clear that she's only paying for the elixir stored between his legs; Tubal's manipulative instincts are forgiven because their source is a mutually surrendered-to bodily mechanism (lust). And when Vogler's coachman, Simson (Las Ekborg), prepares to bed the youthful, fertile Sara, he imbibes the animal-unleashing placebo, adding symmetry to the central representation of ultimate male impotence (creative drought). Vogler's wife, Manda (Ingrid Thulin), drains the final cubic centimeters of blood from The Magician's already half-mast hard-on; posing as her husband's boyish apprentice with flattened chest and stuffed shoulders, her eerie androgyny is the story's sole successful magic trick.
Scene for scene, The Magician contains more joviality than fright, but it's often labeled a devilish horror film due to the tense fluidity of Bergman's camera movement and the foreboding shadow of his cinematography (executed with Gunnar Fischer); it's exemplary of the brooding visual style Herk Harvey emulated for Carnival of Souls, which was intended to have the "look of a Bergman." The mise-en-scène is, indeed, the most noteworthy example of illusory trickery here; the dim black lines that fracture Egerman's mourning wife and the angelic light that cascades upon the handiwork of Dr. Vergérus during a third-act autopsy convince us of danger and urgency that aren't warranted by the content. This piquant control over cinematic grammar doesn't quite rescue the film from a laughably zombie-tinged climax and an anomalous deus ex machina denouement, but it makes The Magician one of Bergman's more accessible failures, and collapses any suspicious connection between him and the fretful Vogler. He may have perpetually doubted his virility, and occasionally his writing got away from him, but Bergman's directorial prowess seldom wavered.
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My guess is that The Magician would feel completely worthless if watched unrestored; the surprising dutch angles and demonic sparkle in Vogler's eyes are the most captivating items, and muddying them up would stunt the film into stagey ineptitude. Here, however, the Criterion Collection has once again exercised its knack for revealing hidden thematic layers through pure visual clean-up; 1080p is hardly forgiving to parlor tricks, but Bergman's optical magic is more sophisticated than the film's plot suggests. Eyes narrow icily, pain is palpably articulated, and spirits nest in the shadowed corners; mute the sound and even the sight of servant ribaldry is scary. The revitalized monaural track is worth hearing, though, for all those sexy Swedish vowels whipped into submission by laboratory clinks and cracks of sudden thunder.
The supplements attached to The Magician unfortunately seem informed by the most facile reading of the film possible—that which sees the friction between mesmerist and skeptic as a cry of frustration from Bergman, who felt humiliated and betrayed by audiences both in Sweden and abroad throughout the '50s and '60s. The artist's onus is certainly a central topic in The Magician, but the movie is hardly the hate letter to the fickle crowd a la 8½ or Stardust Memories that Peter Cowie makes it out to be in his video essay—though Cowie, ever the Bergman expert, nicely contextualizes The Magician within the director's oeuvre. Far better is an audio recording of a 20-minute conversation between Bergman, Olivier Assayas, and Stig Björkman that delves into the filmmaker's unabashed movie love and the necessity of screenwriting to his craft. And, as a frivolous bonus, there's a brief black-and-white interview with Bergman who explicates The Magician with the fable about the Chinese woodcutter who only achieved fame, fortune, and immortality when he humbled himself towards his craft.
The Magician is Ingmar Bergman playing dead in all possible senses of the term.