The Magician (Ingmar Bergman / Sweden, 1958):

The artist's face, his humiliation and revenge, Ingmar Bergman takes stock. The stagecoach in the woods might be Ford's, and there's Max von Sydow like John Carradine with top hat, cornpipe and inky whiskers. (By his side in male drag, Ingrid Thulin adds a note of Sylvia Scarlett to the mysterious configuration.) The Sawdust and Tinsel troupe has become "Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater," presently detained at a provincial post and scrutinized by the bureaucratic chimera of bourgeoisie (Erland Josephson), police (Toivo Pawlo) and medicine (Gunnar Björnstrand). A bag of tricks is just that, to evoke emotion is the real sorcery, if the emotion is terror then so be it. "Step by step into the darkness, the movement itself is the only truth." Reveal the wires and they're no longer wires, says Godard of Hitchcock, Bergman leads the pedants backstage for the mordant metaphysical unmasking. Glaring in silence, the conjurer mauls his own hand in response to praise from the host's wife (Gertrud Fridh); shorn of his disguise, he begs for a coin. Loathing the magician's inexplicable nature, Björnstrand's rationalist wants nothing more than to dissect him—he gets his wish in the attic, only to be rattled by a vindictive spook show (eyeball in inkwell, pounding pendulum, cracked mirror). Love potions for servants and the comedy of anxiety for frauds, giddy dread from the witch-granny (Naima Wifstrand) remembered by von Trier ("...a fox with no eyes and a rotten hole for a mouth"), the ruined actor (Bengt Ekerot) who lands a good role as a corpse. The grinning skull on the magic lantern lends a key view, the apparatus includes thunderclaps, Dreyer's Day of Wrath, and invisible chains. "Who was there to judge it?" asks Rimbaud. "The critics!" The Rite brutally settles the score, here Bergman is content to wave the auteur's own capricious wand: Downpour and failure into sunshine and triumph, just "an evening's entertainment." Cinematography by Gunnar Fischer. With Bibi Andersson, Birgitta Pettersson, Ake Fridell, Lars Ekborg, Sif Ruud, Oscar Ljung, and Ulla Sjöblom. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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