The Magician (Blu-ray)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 101 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Swedish
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: October 12, 2010
Review Date: September 29, 2010
Ingmar Bergman’s seriocomic examination of the cautionary relationship between the artist and his audience, sometimes devoted and sometimes dastardly, informs every frame of The Magician. Produced between the string of masterpieces he made in the 1950s beginning with Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries on one side of it and The Virgin Spring on the other, The Magician can’t help but seem a little less inspired than those classics. On its own, though, there are interesting characters (some not as detailed and complex as we’d like) and a climactic set piece in an attic that more than make up for some of the film’s slower, less showy passages. In all, it’s one of the master’s lesser entertainments but one fully worthy of his film signature.
Ottilia Egerman (Gertrud Fridh) and her consul husband (Erland Josephson) call on a traveling mesmerist Albert Vogler (Max von Sydow) and his troupe to see if they can conjure some spirits that can ease their suffering and possibly repair their marriage after the loss of their child. Present at the arrival of Volger’s group is Dr. Vergérus (Gunnar Björnstrand) who goes out of his way to insult their abilities and expose them as charlatans preying on the weak and desperate. Mrs. Egerman is enraptured by Vogler, much to her husband’s dismay, so the jealous Egerman along with police chief (Toivo Pawlo) looks for any chance to show up their visitors. The humiliated performers, however, aren’t willing to go down in disgrace without a fight.
Bergman’s scorn for his critics and for fickle audiences whose support ebbed and flowed with each new work is rampantly clear throughout the piece. The degrading moment when the police chief rushes the stage and unmasks a trick in mid-performance is tremendously cruel and embarrassing (even for the audience who understands they’re fakirs but genial ones). Nevertheless, even with today’s understanding of cinematic tricks, the climactic shock-a-thon in the attic as Dr. Vergérus undergoes his own chamber of horrors is deftly staged with tremendously effective touches (the eyeball in the inkwell, hands out of nowhere) and a generally creepy mood. Some of the bawdy comedy with Ake Fridell as a randy barker wooing any available female servant doesn’t play so well now, but there’s no denying this is a Bergman piece from the bleak opening scenes through the majestically shot expensive interiors of the consul’s house. While Bergman doesn’t probe very deeply into the psychological recesses of the Vogler clan, what we do get is quite riveting and makes them all fascinating enigmas worthy of Bergman’s more high-ranging dramas.
Max von Sydow definitely wears the face and form of melancholy as the struggling artist, resigned to his second-rate touring act and struggling to find dignity somewhere within its confines. As his wife, Ingrid Thulin looks sensational in male drag (and one wishes Bergman had spent time investigating that disguise and its psychological underpinnings) and has a wonderfully frank confessional scene that’s her best moment in the movie. Naima Wifstrand as Volger’s witch-like grandmother steals all of her scenes and makes the character one we’re always happy to see. Gunnar Björnstrand may be laying on the scorn a little thick for most of his scenes, but his attic sequence is certainly effective. Bengt Ekerot as a failed actor who plays a bigger role in the film than one might first suspect and Gertrud Fridh as the at-first devoted and later denying consul’s wife both are marvelous in their respective parts.
The film is framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The grayscale is mostly a thing of beauty here as the very dimensional image boasts expert detail and lush contrast that is never overdone. If black levels are a shade or two below optimum, the cleanliness and mostly artifact free transfer (only a couple of stray hairs are visible) make this a very solid video offering. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
Despite extensive clean-up and an uncompressed PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio mix, the dated sound design is pretty obvious. There is still hiss present which is very noticeable in quieter scenes, and there is also some very muffled crackling early on. One doesn’t expect much better from the sound era of these films, but this is certainly not reference quality sound. Criterion has obviously done all it can to minimize its drawbacks.
There are two interviews with director Ingmar Bergman. The first is a 1967 interview for Swedish television at the premiere of Persona (which the director refuses to discuss) in which he does make a brief mention of The Magician. It runs 3 ½ minutes in 1080i.
The second is an audio interview conducted in 1990 by French director Olivier Assayas and author Stig Björkman in which the director discusses his career as a playwright and then novice film director. Again, The Magician is mentioned right near the end of the interview, likely the reason for this interview’s inclusion on the disc. It runs 20 ¾ minutes.
An excellent Peter Cowie video essay discusses the stage and film oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman and the repetition of names and themes throughout his career using both film clips and stills. It runs 15 minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 37-page booklet contains the cast and crew list, a series of wonderfully evocative stills from the movie, a celebratory essay on the movie by film historian and author Geoff Andrew, and Ingmar Bergman’s own reminiscence on making the film.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
Fans of Ingmar Bergman may not place The Magician as high on their lists of his film as some of his more celebrated masterpieces, but this new Criterion Blu-ray edition makes a strong case for a possible reexamination of the movie. Admirers of his work will definitely want to check out this outstanding new high definition release. Recommended!