Attempting to assess the placement of The Magician in iconic Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s overall canon is a difficult task. Arriving in an in-between moment for the director – in 1958 – the film had the perhaps unfortunate distinction of following a one-two wallop in 1957 from The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, films that historians now regard as two of Bergman’s finest overall. Many of these same historians would cite The Magician as second-tier work from the auteur, a film that packs neither the punch of his existential epics of the late-‘50s nor the raw, lean muscle of his ‘60s oeuvre that represented a marked stylistic departure from his past work.
While The Magician never quite finds its way to masterpiece status – a title reserved for Bergman’s other notable works such as Persona (1966) or Cries and Whispers (1972)—it does find a niche among his underrated works of this period, which examine religious folklore, magic, and the palpable tensions that seethe between the old pagan ways and the new world’s rigid Christian order. There is a dark kinship between The Magician and other Bergman films that explore the pastoral and the macabre such as The Devil’s Eye (1960) and The Virgin Spring (1960). All of these films hover somewhere in between the worlds of the living and the dead that seem to at least somewhat peacefully coexist in the remote, bucolic medieval Swedish countryside.
The original Swedish title is Ansiktet, which means “the face”, and Bergman is nothing if not a master of capturing “the face” in poignant, often aching close-up. In The Magician, he chooses to focus on mysteriously lighting Max Von Sydow’s title character, shading his statuesque features with hard black and white lines to create a sense of supernatural torment, while Granny (Naima Wifstrand) is lit to chill in her storytelling scenes. Though Manda/Mr. Aman (Ingrid Thulin) gets a few great close-ups, the real drawn of this character is the interesting gender role which he/she gets to play: professionally, Manda passes for an androgynous man, while in private, in the bed chamber, she lets her golden hair down and wears negligees (for the most impactful Bergman/Thulin close-up, please see Winter Light ).
It’s interesting to note that this gender-bending/soft-butch theme would later be explored even more fully by Bergman and Thulin with her role as Ester in The Silence (1963). Also of note is the continuity and referencing of other Bergman films, particularly the surname “Vogler” – a name that haunts the cinema of the great director from Persona‘s mute actress (Liv Ullmann) to 2000’s Faithless’ tormented Marianne (Lena Endre) to Thulin as the ghostly Veronica Vogler in 1968’s Hour of the Wolf (in 2008, director Noah Baumbach references the name again in his Bergmanesque Margot at the Wedding, naming the mysterious, dangerous neighbors “Vogler”).
Von Sydow and Thulin were a part of the core Bergman troupe, but equally essential to the success of the troupe, and of The Magician overall, are company stalwarts Bibi Andersson (Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, Gunnar Björnstrand (Smiles of a Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, Erland Josephson (Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna, and Birgitta Petersson (The Virgin Spring). The ensemble works in Bergman’s milieu like a perfectly-oiled machine, navigating a tricky, moody tone where broad comedy must be played in direct juxtaposition with legal intrigues, sex, melodrama, and questions of faith.
Indeed, The Magician has many ideas cooking, but not all of them come out fully baked and ready for consumption. Whether this is a positive or a negative is a tough call. Leaving something to the imagination of the viewer is admirable, but throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them and expecting them to cook a four-star meal with the ingredients is another animal altogether. The confused tones and flavors indicate that perhaps Bergman too may have felt a bit lost in the material and couldn’t pinpoint exactly where he wanted to go.
Though the focus is occasionally blurry (perhaps even murky), second tier Bergman is still far superior to the outright dreck of most contemporary film directors and the mis en scène is purposeful and evocative, as always with Bergman. In this mini-period between his stylistic departure in 1961 with Through a Glass Darkly, where he switched from epics to insular chamber dramas and began a life-long partnership with one of the world’s finest cinematographers of all time Sven Nykvist (who worked on Bergman’s films beginning in 1960), Bergman experimented with familiar visual tones and themes, honing his craft, perfecting what he was already adept at executing.
The Magician might not have a revolutionary spirit like Shame (1968) or the twisted classical refinement Autumn Sonata (1978), but what it succeeds in doing is conjuring an alternately disturbing and sumptuous atmosphere that is unmistakably “Bergman” – the film is a building block, a cornerstone of the great things that were about to come. As such, it remains completely relevant to his body of work, if not as important as some of his landmarks, and Criterion’s treatment of the film is, as usual, first-rate with a stunning high-definition transfer that is rife with impeccable details and black and white lines so sharp they practically cut.
The remaining extras, including an Olivier Assayas essay and a rare television interview with Bergman, are a bit more of a mixed bag in comparison to the deliciousness found in other Criterion-sanctioned Bergman goodies and don’t lend any particularly keen insights that would aid in understanding The Magician. Still, kudos must be given to the company for its continuing commitment to releasing the Bergman catalog on a consistent basis.
Now can we finally have the never-released-to-DVD Face to Face, please?