A recent visit to my favorite music/movie store in Kutztown was a reliably productive outing. Along with tracking down some much sought after CDs, a glance through the ‘Independent/Arthouse’ section revealed something that was far from anticipated. You see, familiarizing myself with as many of Ingmar Bergman’s films as possible has been a personal quest over the last year or two and I thought that I was at least aware of the films I haven’t yet seen.

Somehow, a title called ‘The Magician’ had slipped through the cracks in my research. Its cover was intriguing enough: a skull design on curtains strategically obscuring a man’s face. The back cover’s promise of terror and humor certainly helped as well. Ultimately, the fact that it was a Criterion Collection release proved it’s undoing for me in that situation. These releases are consistently top notch and the definitive version of the films they put out, but they command high prices, in this case, $35. That was too rich for my blood on a film that I had never seen and only had a hunch about.

Two days later, at the Lower Macungie Library, I was paging through the more than respectable (in quality and quantity) DVD collection. Lo and behold, ‘The Magician’ was prominently displayed in the form of the same Criterion Collection edition. You just can’t fight destiny.

Thus ends the longest preface to a movie review in history.

A traveling magician named Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow) arrives in Stockholm with the promise of dazzling audiences. Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the royal medical adviser, is skeptical and vows to disprove Vogler’s magical claims. He makes the magician and his entourage stay at the mansion and perform a demonstration that will decide whether magic is real or whether the travelers are just charlatans. What ensues is a back and forth game of one-upmanship with a few surprises.

The actual Swedish title of the film is ‘Ansiktet’ which translates to ‘The Face.’ While ‘The Magician’ is the more obvious moniker, the word ‘face’ would have directly referred to a pivotal scene in the film. Oh well.

This film is certainly a high quality product on a technical level, but it hasn’t ascended to the same level of reverence that many of Ingmar Bergman’s films have achieved. ‘Smiles of a Summer Night,’ ‘Wild Strawberries,’ ‘The Seventh Seal’ and the ‘Virgin Spring’ are seen by many film connoisseurs as Bergman’s prime offerings. Fine, throw ‘Cries and Whispers,’ Scenes From a Marriage,’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’ in there too. We wouldn’t want to neglect these fine latter-day offerings, would we? So why isn’t ‘The Magician’ in the same class?

Part of the problem might be that it hasn’t been singled out by other filmmakers as in the same capacity as ‘The Virgin Spring’ (the inspiration behind Wes Craven’s ‘Last House On The Left’) and ‘Cries and Whispers’ (which was a favorite of Woody Allen’s and heavily influenced his ‘Interiors’ along with other Bergman family dramas). Other Bergman films have benefited from wild praise and exultation whereas this has been relegated to second-class standing. That’s something that is hard to break out of.

Another problem is that while it generates some brief suspense, the mood is relatively short-lived. A few well-placed chuckles are sprinkled throughout the story, which is enough to diffuse the tension, but it doesn’t help to clarify the film’s tone. There seems to be a lack of focus. The climax is worth the buildup to a point, but it would have been stronger if the last five minutes were snipped off. They lend a ‘tacked on’ feeling that seem to undermine everything that led up to it. There also doesn’t seem to be the same kind of subtext or even overt themes at work in this story that many of the best Bergman films have. Is the plot trying to make a statement on doubters of the metaphysical world? Perhaps those who make a living by deceiving others? The unsatisfied lives that some traveling performers lead because of the personas they adopt? Who knows?

Max von Sydow was always Bergman’s go-to male actor (Liv Ullman had the female lead market cornered and is noticeably absent here) and his character is the most striking image of the whole film. He has few lines, but silently conveys the potential to put one over on his accusers. He towers above the rest of the cast, especially the officials who doubt him and much of the household help, all of whom seem to be prone to the general histrionics characteristic of many foreign films of yore.

Special features include: A video interview with Bergman from 1967, an audio interview with Bergman, a visual essay and let’s not forget that nifty booklet of essays pertaining to the film that always come with Criterion releases.

‘The Magician’ isn’t a bad film by any means, but it’s certainly a minor work in Bergman’s canon. It is made up of occasional flashes of brilliance rather than an entire film’s worth. There are some memorable moments and scenes, but the whole purpose of the film isn’t clearly defined.

Still, if you like Ingmar Bergman, you should at least give it a rental.

Unrated         101 minutes        1958

When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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