Criterion // 1958 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 4th, 2010
Into the nether-world! You'll gasp at this occult hypnotic experience into the supernatural!
"You represent what I detest most of all -- the unexplainable."
Dr. Albert Emanuel Vogler (Max von Sydow, Minority Report) is a mysterious 19th Century traveling magician who has developed quite a controversial reputation for his mesmerizing performances. He is an ominous figure, usually cloaked in black, sporting an artificial beard and never saying a word to anyone. He is accompanied on the journey by a small assembly of assistants, and they are on their way to Stockholm to begin their latest performance.
Upon their arrival, they are greeted by the Police Chief (Toivo Pawlo, Crime and Punishment) and Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand, The Seventh Seal), the Minister of Health. These men are suspicious of Vogler and his supposedly astonishing magic show, and demand to inspect it for themselves before it is shown to the general public. After a lengthy evening in which the characters are sent through a series of tumultuous events, a private show is performed as Vergerus and Vogler engage in their own personal battle. Who will win this conflict between science and superstition?
For years, The Magician has been regarded as "lesser Bergman," and hasn't received as much attention as most of the director's other works. This is easy to understand to a certain extent, as the film doesn't really grapple with the weighty themes of Bergman's signature work or offer the sort of searing resonance that marks his truly great films. Even so, the film is hardly a disposable entry on the director's resume. On the contrary, it could be argued that the film is an essential addition to the collection of those who have a passion for Bergman's work, as to a certain extent it represents the end of an era in the director's career and is one of the more noteworthy examples of self-reflection on his resume.
Well, one could say "self-reflection" or one could say "self-aggrandizing," depending on your perspective. It's obvious early on that Dr. Vogler is intended as one of Bergman's cinematic surrogates. Bergman would use his principle characters to explore his own feelings on many occasions, though this was frequently in the area of personal belief. Bergman grappled with his complex relationship with religion through the knight in The Seventh Seal and the pastor in Winter Light, but in The Magician he explores his identity as an entertainer.
Vogler, like Bergman at the time of the film's creation, is a tormented and misunderstood genius whose work is frequently criticized by logical, practical, scientifically-minded audiences. If they can't understand, they dismiss it as either laughable or attack it as dangerous, but rarely do they respond to it in the manner he intended. There is a small element of religion at play, as Vogler is presented as something of a Christ figure and made to suffer for the purity of his work, even (Spoiler Warning) being symbolically put to death and resurrected during the film's surprisingly horrific final act (it's worth noting that Vogler is certainly less forgiving than Christ; using his "resurrection" as an opportunity to teach skeptics a lesson) (End Spoiler). At its core, the film is essentially Bergman's impassioned response to his critics; a more elegant, persuasive and entertaining version of the Bob Balaban subplot from M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water.
Bergman has developed a reputation over the years as a director of serious, stern films about profound subjects, so it's often easy to forget what a fine entertainer he was. Particularly in the early portion of his career, Bergman proved particularly adept at working wit and humor into his films (re-watch The Seventh Seal and observe how many genuinely funny bits it contains), and it's interesting to consider that a pretty significant portion of The Magician is focused on comedic material. It's seemingly Bergman's way of giving himself a pass for making such a self-absorbed movie; he's intent on making sure the audience has a good time while he's dispensing punishment upon those who would criticize his work (he even works in a couple of fart jokes).
If you're familiar with a pretty large chunk of Bergman's filmography and you haven't seen The Magician, you will probably notice that it draws upon familiar characters, settings, and scenes from his career. Elements of movies from Wild Strawberries to Sawdust and Tinsel to The Seventh Seal make noteworthy appearances, and Bergman populates the film with a host of familiar faces. While The Magician doesn't represent the very best work of any of its actors, pretty much everyone is solid across the board. Von Sydow is an effective presence as Vogler, but he doesn't get many scenes that really permit him to demonstrate his range. As in many Bergman films, it's the supremely talented Gunnar Bjornstrand who steals the show. Just watch Bjornstrand's face during the horror sequence late in the film; it conveys so much more than the actor ever says.
Criterion's 1080p full-frame transfer is absolutely gorgeous; the film looks every bit as good as their marvelous release of The Seventh Seal. With the exception of a few brief shots containing a good deal of noise, things are sublime. It's amazing to consider how well this 52-year-old film has been preserved. Darker scenes (and there are quite a few) benefit from tremendous depth, and the level of detail is excellent. Basically, the picture is about as good as one could possibly hope for. The audio track is pretty simple, mostly consistent of dialogue and a very spare musical score (save for the terrifyingly bombastic main title and the cheerful Rota-esque circus music that closes the film). It's clean, hiss-free and gets the job done quite nicely. Supplements on the disc are sadly limited to a 15-minute visual essay from the always-engaging Peter Cowie, a 3-minute archival video interview with Bergman, a 20-minute audio interview with Bergman and a booklet containing two essays and a snippet from Bergman's autobiography. It's all good stuff, but I really wish we had gotten a full-length Cowie commentary or an in-depth documentary.
While falling short of being yet another Bergman masterpiece, The Magician is a very involving, surprisingly entertaining film that will reward repeat viewings. Criterion's Blu-ray release, though light on supplements, looks stunning. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Swedish)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Video Essay