Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 drama The Magician has never had the vaunted reputation of his ’50s classics Smiles Of A Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, or The Seventh Seal, but it’s of a piece with those early films, in that it comes from an era when Bergman’s wit and whimsy were as central to his style as his preoccupation with pain, death, and the piteousness of religious faith. Set in 1846, The Magician stars Max von Sydow as a grim-looking performing hypnotist who rides into Stockholm with his usual entourage: a palm-reading/potion-selling tout, an old lady, and a young female assistant passing as a man. They get detained by Gunnar Björnstrand, a doctor who has heard rumors of the troupe stirring up the rubes in the European countryside. Björnstrand decides to discredit von Sydow before his spiritualist shadow-plays sucker a local nobleman and his wife, who are looking for comfort in the wake of their son’s death. And so a contest of wills ensues between smugly rational aristocrats and a group of grifters.
Bergman’s sympathies clearly lie with the deceivers, because even though they prey on the superstitious and ignorant, at least they aren’t hypocrites. (Besides, they’re theater-folk; Bergman always had a soft spot for theater-folk.) Nevertheless, there are a few reversals of fortune in The Magician, as Bergman pushes von Sydow through moments of failure and self-doubt, culminating in a poignant moment where, alone with that disguised assistant—his wife—von Sydow removes his mask and wig and drops his pretense of mute stoicism. The Magician’s Swedish title is Ansiktet, which translates as “The Face,” and von Sydow’s face in the movie is its own work of art, revealing so much with just a hint of a smile or a wince.
The Magician mixes drama, comedy, suspense, and philosophical inquiry, and not all of its elements are equally strong. As the film approaches its climax, with Björnstrand exposing von Sydow and the latter exacting revenge, Bergman’s quiet tone keeps a lot of the tension at bay; throughout The Magician, the humor is so subtle that it’s barely there. But it’s fascinating to watch a younger, less pessimistic Bergman grapple with the question of the supernatural, and whether a well-crafted illusion can be a kind of miracle. Certainly Bergman knows something about the power of illusions. When The Magician opens with a horse-drawn carriage rolling through shafts of light and morning mist, somehow a Swedish forest in 1958 looks not just ancient, but enchanted.
Key features: A 15-minute video essay by film historian Peter Cowie, and two interviews with Bergman.