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.
The movie’s comic moments, primarily centering on the other members of Vogler’s troupe as they flirt with the household staff, hold up even if they do seem to come from a different movie altogether. As a moviemaker best known for somber treatises on existential despair, Bergman had a knack for believably depicting sexual tease, and the flirty bits in The Magician are indubitably entertaining, They’re not the moments most buffs recall when they think about the movie, however.
No, that remains the darker material: the shots of the troupe’s wagon going through a fog-festooned forest, the image of a servant hanging from a downstairs ceiling, the casually sudden appearance of a severed hand. In these days of much more graphic terrors, it all seems a little quaint, but it still remains a treat to view — a master moviemaker playing with both Bunuel and Val Lewton, tweaking (as Peter Cowie narrates in a bonus mini-doc) his critics and his audience as he goes.