Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini were both attracted to the metaphoric image of the circus, though the meanings the clowns and trapeze artists held for the two art-house heavyweights could scarcely be more different. While Fellini in La Strada envisioned the circus as a gaudy yet all-embracing setting for the fundamental comedy of the human condition, Bergman in Sawdust and Tinsel saw it as a mocking version of the theater stage that would become his recurring motif, a place where, costumes and makeup notwithstanding, people and their emotions are at their most exposed. When American distributors released Sawdust and Tinsel under the title The Naked Night to suggest Euro bawdiness, they fortuitously hit the movie's theme: The ruthless stripping of the characters' dreams and illusions by Bergman's increasingly invasive camera.
Trumpeted in the credits as a “broadside ballad on film,” this is an actively painful picture. There's a surplus of (most often sexual) humiliation built into just about every relationship here, a concept Bergman brings to the fore in a heavily symbolic but vivid sequence early on, in which the flashback of the clown Frost (Anders Ek) seeing his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) bathing naked before a regiment of chortling soldiers is visualized as a nightmare of overexposed brightness and cacophonous jeering. “That's a woman and love for you,” the storyteller tells Albert (Åke Grönberg), the circus owner who will, in the next day, experience a painful tale of his own. Weary of life with his troupe of itinerant performers, Albert hopes to settle down with his estranged wife; afraid of being ditched, his sexy, petulant mistress, Anne (Harriet Andersson), sleeps with a vain actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman). Pain and degradation follow, inevitably before the eyes of a derisive crowd.
The escape into lyricism, however transitory, that marked Bergman's Summer with Monika the previous year is completely absent here; this is a world, one character says, of “misery, lice, disease,” where a disdainful theater director's insults sting as much as physical blows. It's easy to see why the film became one of Bergman's popular early successes: There's still a reliance on ponderous metaphors (phallic cannons, a scurvy old bear, a return-to-the-womb dream) that Bergman would prune as he moved toward the asceticism of the 1960s, but there's also a new intensity and directness of feeling, expressed in a series of powerhouse one-on-ones. Sardonic moments lighten the gloom: the dark comedy of an emancipated clown carrying his buxom wife as if she were a cross, the liberating cut from Albert's claustrophobic, suicidal contemplation to the spacious overcast countryside, Andersson's sumptuous sensuality even while arm-wrestling her lover. Ultimately too narrow and stingy to work as the universal parable it sets out to be, Sawdust and Tinsel is nevertheless a fierce example of souls made brutally bare by Bergman's scrutiny under the big top of life.