I remember having plenty of opportunities to see The Magician on TV back in the early days of cable. It seemed to be on pretty frequently on one of the arts-and-entertainment channels (though not necessarily the lamented A&E itself) that proliferated in the innocent Eighties, but I never felt motivated to give it a look back then. A sense of regret helped compel me to summon the DVD fron Netflix, but I was also inspired by what Tino Balio had written about Bergman in The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1975. Balio devotes an entire chapter to Janus Film's brilliant marketing of Bergman in the late 1950s, which climaxed in 1959, when five of the director's films, including Ansiktet, were playing in New York art houses and the Bergman "brand" had been identified with cutting-edge cinema. Balio sees the Janus buildup as a high-toned alternative to the exploitative ballyhoo with which, like many European films, Bergman's earlier work had been promoted in the U.S. Yet the superior sexual frankness of European film remained a strong part of its appeal throughout the "renaissance," and it remained an exploitable element of Bergman's work. The affinity between art and exploitation on the common ground of "frankness" is best illustrated by the well-known influence Bergman's Virgin Spring had on the creation of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, but Ansiktet has a bit of exploitation flavor as well. Janus helped things along by calling it The Magician rather than translating the title literally as The Face. While Bergman's title is more meaningful once you see the movie, The Magician doesn't exactly do the film a disservice.
The Magician (Max von Sydow, right, with "apprentice" Ingrid Thulin) and the Skeptics (below)
The servants prove a more credulous, appreciative audience, especially the maid Sara (Bibi Andersson) who falls almost instantly for Simson. Some of the servants come in for a scare when an all-too-real apparition invades the estate. It's the old actor from the road, who has failed to die and still craves drink. Though he's not dead yet, he boasts to Vogler that he's already better as a ghost than he was as an actor. When he finally passes out again, Vogler puts him in a box, as if for future reference.
Later in the evening, Vergerus finds Aman, a.k.a. Manda, out of costume in her true identity as Mrs. Vogler. She admits that Vogler can talk and is a fugitive, and Vergerus makes a vague proposition to her while noticing Vogler in the doorway. The magician throws the doctor out, tears off his fake hair and beard and utters his first words of the film, "I hate them!"
In The Magician Bergman explores a continuum of skepticism, superstition and cynicism. Granny Vogler unashamedly exploits the credulity of simple folk. Temporarily short on love potion, she tells Tubal to give a customer a bunion cure, since "what matters is how the bottle looks and how the potion tastes." On at least one level she's right; appearances help make the sale. But belief in the power of love potions also seems to prove their power, though that may only mean that the desire for a love potion proves that love already exists. Magic is only our attempt to make tangible those things that really do haunt us, like the dead child of the consul's wife, or those powers that seem to make us fall in love. Faith in magic can make it real despite the mercenary cynicism of those who'd exploit that faith. Skepticism, meanwhile, isn't invulnerable. Vergerus should have reason to expect that Vogler is trying to fake him out in some way. He should probably expect the supposed corpse to come to life if he assumes Vogler is faking. But he feels fear anyway, because he knows Vogler is an enemy who has already been violent with him. That fear may give Vogler a real power over the skeptic. That power might not be magic, but it's still something real. Magic (or "animal magnetism") is just a label that mystifies reality.
Ansiktet is the sort of story that requires people in close quarters to fall in love or feel strong emotions; it's a fable with a point to make. In that sense it's too neat, too blatant by certain standards, but there are definitely times and places for such stories. With its genre trappings and melodramatic story, The Magician might make a good starter Bergman for the curious, though I don't know how much it prepares you for his major works of the Sixties and Seventies. On its own terms it's pretty entertaining and proves Bergman as much a showman as an artist. He has a forbidding reputation, but Ansiktet is quite accessible and even a little hokey. Genre fans will leave it believing, if only for a moment, that Bergman was one of us after all.