That Ingmar Bergman, king of art house cinema in the fifties and sixties, would craft an entertainment blending upstairs/downstairs sexual frolics with classic horror movie imagery is most likely one of the big reasons his The Magician is considered one of the master’s lesser works. Yet even lesser Bergman can be pretty damn amazing, and this longtime admirer found Criterion’s recent DVD release an apt offering for Halloween Day. With a beautifully restored high-def digital transfer and improved subtitles, the moodily lensed (courtesy of elegant cinematographer Gunnar Fischer) movie proves an enjoyable grown-up gothic exercise.
Set in 19th Century Stockholm, the film concern a troupe of traveling show folk known as Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theater. Name on the wagon Albert Vogler (played by king of anguish Max von Sydow) is a combination stage magician/patent medicine huckster. Accompanied by his wife (Ingrid Thulin), crone grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), con man m-c Tubal (Ake Fridell) and a young coachman, Vogler is brought to the home of the city Consul where he’s forced to put on a show for the consul and his grieving wife, plus two skeptics who are meant to represent 19th Century reason.
Vogler’s primary antagonist is the doctor Vergérus (Gunnar Bjornstand). An avowed enemy of the “inexplicable,” Doctor V.’s mission is to expose the magician as a charlatan. This he thinks he does until the movie’s horrorshow last act. Trapped in an attic with an autopsied body that looks to be much more lively than it should be, the rationalist physician has his secular faith tested big time.
The attic sequence is the one that also most tests the patience of many Serious Students of Film. But it’s the moment the movie has been building toward. For The Magician is ultimately about filmic storytelling (part of Vogler’s show, it should be noted, involves a magic lantern) as much as it is about the battle ‘tween scientific reason and magical art. Von Sydow’s Vogler spends two-thirds of the movie pretending to be mute — and when he breaks his silence the first words to come out of his mouth are a condemnation of his audience. He’s the struggling creator whose conflict with the arrogant doctor spurs him into concocting a convincing gothic work that blends both the surreal (an eyeball in an inkwell) and familiar (hands clutching out of the darkness.) For a first time viewer, the attic sequence is effective, though after Bergman pulls back the curtain and reveals the trickery, it’s difficult to go back to it the same way.