BERGMAN BREAKS OUT: INGRID BERGMAN’S SWEDISH YEARS (Foreign Film: Third Journey)

Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years (1935-1940)

The Count of the Old Town (1935); Walpurgis Night (1935); Intermezzo (1936); Dollar (1938); A Woman’s Face (1938); June Night (1940)

This collection of six early Ingrid Bergman films is part of Criterion’s Eclipse series and a dandy.

Of all the English-not-their-first-language stars who made their way to Hollywood in the Golden Age, none, not even Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, had quite the impact of Ingrid Bergman.

She won three Oscars and probably deserved more…there are a few performances here that might have at least got nominations had they been made in America or even England. Be that as it may her legend is secure for as long as anyone cares about film and the greatest thing about this collection is that you can see it all coming. If by some chance she had never become a huge star, people who discovered these films would have wondered why.

There are other great things, especially Gustav Molander’s direction of the films that launched her on the international stage: Intermezzo, Dollar and A Woman’s Face. Molander evidently had no small impact on the other Bergman, Ingmar, and one can see why. The films are all potboilers of one kind or another. Intermezzo, later remade with Leslie Howard as Ingrid’s first Hollywood film, is a pure melodrama; Dollar and A Woman’s Face are noir-ish thrillers, though all have elements that blend with other genres, especially the great women’s pictures being made in America at the time.

But Molander and Bergman herself give them more than a touch of class. They make them move, physically and emotionally. Even being distracted by the necessity of reading subtitles you can catch enough to see these are world class talents on display. For intensity, excitement and even intimacy, the chase scene in A Woman’s Face equals anything in Hitchcock, Ford, Kurosawa. It would be worth the price of admission even if the film didn’t contain Bergman’s greatest early performance and one of her greatest ever.

Still, it’s a testament to Bergman’s undeniable star power (David Selznick started wooing her to Hollywood about four seconds after he finished watching Intermezzo–he’d have probably given her Gone With the Wind if she had asked for it–a Swedish Scarlett? Never mind just get her on the lot!), and her already considerable skill that she shines through because these films, especially the last four, have much else to recommend them and I’m sure will reward repeat viewings.

I was especially impressed, even moved, by the social backgrounds so skillfully drawn in Intermezzo. With dark shadows already looming over Europe, never mentioned but rumbling in the film’s subconscious like distant thunder, it’s apparent that bourgeois life went on, even thrived in places like Sweden, where the hope of avoiding disaster was real. The Great War and world wide depression had not killed it. It would take Hitler, Stalin, the Pax Americana and the soft style of bureaucratic  thuggery assembled in Brussels after the war to accomplish that. Add to that the striking, inventive camera work and deep shadings of both plot and cinematography in Dollar and A Woman’s Face, and these films would hold plenty of interest if Ingrid Bergman had never been born.

They wouldn’t have been as good though.

Bergman has a claim on being the greatest actress to ever set foot in front of a camera. The touch of madness that set Vivien Leigh apart can be glimpsed here, and the trouper who could give Barbara Stanwyck a run for her money is on full display.

Give or take Saratoga Trunk, though, a fascinating misfire if ever there was one (it’s a lot easier to imagine the Mighty Ingrid, slightly imperious and all the more lovable for it, as a tail-swishing gold digger chasing a rich husband after you’ve seen the films here than after watching Gaslight and Casablanca yet again), she never got much chance to display her full range, perhaps show us what Leigh would have been like if she had held the madness in check.

It was Intermezzo that brought her international fame. The Germans wanted her as badly as Selznick, badly enough that she actually signed a contract with them–one visit to Hitler’s Germany was all she needed to break it. That film also set her basic style and image. But the strongest film here is A Woman’s Face, which doesn’t skimp on the social drama, sharpens it if anything, despite being a crime film that features Bergman herself as an all too convincing femme fatale who manages a transformation from horribly scarred blackmailer, willing to commit murder for profit without a second thought, to a woman who has her conscience revived by the miraculous restoration of her beauty (all the more striking because she also has a claim on being the most beautiful woman to set foot in front of a camera) with a startling, naturalistic ease. It’s in watching that take place that you realize there’s nothing this woman can’t do–by which I mean both the character and the actress.

I don’t mean to slight the other films here, especially Per Lindstrom’s June Night, another crime/social drama, which has a beautiful, poignant ending I didn’t see coming and strikes a deeper chord for having been made in a world where Sweden was on notice that it would not be allowed to stand idly by as it had done in 1914. They’re all good and they add up to a portrait of Europe between the wars that, collectively, go as far as The Rules of the Game to remind us of what was irretrievably lost in the raging conflagration.

I think they used to call it Civilization. The journey here, from the breezy comedy of The Count of the Old Town to the bleak romanticism of June Night, is a melancholy reminder of how quickly it can be lost.

Who better to take such a journey with than the Mighty Ingrid?

ANTHONY MANN’S EPIC AUTUMN (Segue of the Day: 1/7/17)

El Cid
(Anthony Mann, 1961)

The Fall of the Roman Empire
(Anthony Mann, 1964)

Anthony Mann does not yet get his due. There are occasional professional contrarians who will tell you he’s better than John Ford, but they are a cult and Mann, who would have been the first to tell you he wasn’t quite John Ford, deserves far better. I’ve been counting him as one of my five favorite directors for a while now, but in the latest list from “They Shoot Pictures Don’t They,” the most exhaustive ranking of great films available, he has one entry (The Naked Spur, at #969 of a thousand).

That’s one fewer than Michael Mann, who I still think of as the Miami Vice guy, and the same number as John Avildsen, who’s on the list for Rocky.

All of which adds up to just another brick in the towering wall of our modern delusion. Mann made a handful of noirs and a hatful of westerns (hence the Ford comparisons) that are better than anything Michael Mann has done. He also made these two epics from the early sixties, which time is beginning to reveal as masterworks in their own right.

Watching them together (as I’ve done since I discovered them a few years back…this was my third go-round), in these hurly-burly days is an experience. And, for me, what was even more salient this time was having recently seen Marketa Lazarova, the Czech film from 1967 which I wrote about here, for the first time.

The long view of history I mentioned there is as fiercely present here, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mann’s films served as some sort of inspiration in how to handle narrative and editing in Marketa or any other epic-minded film that uses similar devices to collapse time and space for the purpose of expanding our imaginations.

Of course these carry some Hollywood gloss–big stars playing against ethnic type, fabulous sets and costumes, casts of literally thousands. But once you absorb all that, and understand the level of obsession that went into these films (obsessions that encompassed and enfolded Mann himself, producer Samuel Bronston, the set designers, even the composers, all properly lauded in the fine documentaries that accompany the 2-disc versions from the Miriam Collection) it’s possible to recognize just how thorny and disorienting they are, how fully they (like Marketa) capture not merely lost worlds but lost value systems.

El Cid was a big hit, so big it made The Fall of the Roman Empire’s impossible air of art-house risk possible. For better or worse, the presence of Charlton Heston, then strongly identified in the movie-going public’s mind with The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, massive hits that had done a fine job of capturing value systems not yet lost in the previous decade, was able to carry El Cid to similar box office heights. But he refused to work again with his co-star, Sophia Loren, on the second film. Mann was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable narrative in El Cid. Any chance that he wouldn’t push past the edge in the followup was gone the minute Heston refused to sign on.

Whatever the reasons, Heston’s absence allows Fall to play as the more contemporary film.

I won’t say “better” because I’m a long way from comprehending either film at the level required to make that judgment. But, purely in artistic terms, Heston’s absence may have been as much a blessing as it was a box office curse. Fall became a famous flop, effectively breaking both Mann and Bronston in ways that went beyond the merely financial. Sadly, neither lived to see it redeemed by recent critical appraisals in a way that Cleopatra, a similar back-breaker from the same period, never will be. El Cid needed Heston because it’s a hero’s narrative. Fall didn’t need him (and one wonders if this was the real reason he passed on it), because it’s an anti-hero’s narrative.

The neck-snapping irony in this, is that El Cid is set in a moment when the Christendom just emerging (sotto voce because it’s never mentioned) in The Fall of the Roman Empire, is being saved from extinction.

The further irony is that Fall is even more opulent, something that seems impossible while you are actually watching El Cid.

In terms of both spectacle and historical accuracy, Bronston was determined to make David O. Selznick look like a kid in short pants. With Fall he succeeded. It took me this third viewing to comprehend how much his obsession with the details of Rome’s face, at the singular moment when the mask was finally beginning to show its cracks, has as much to do with creating the film’s unique aura of displacement as Mann’s sudden shifts of tone, mood, lighting, weather.

In the midst of the towering monuments to Rome’s glory, literally recreated with stunning scale and specificity on a plain in Spain, Christopher Plummer’s Commodus (the role of his career), and Stephen Boyd’s hapless Livius, really do seem like they are being toyed with by ancient and angry gods.

Livius himself–the hero Charlton Heston wouldn’t play–is redeemed only by his devotion to the old ways and Commodus’s sister. And it becomes clear, over time, that these virtues are inextricable from a stubbornness and pride that end up costing the lives of nearly everyone and everything he holds dear.

Boyd puts every bit of the bitterness that would come from such a man’s recognition of his own failures into his final line, a line sufficiently damning that one wonders how anyone thought they could get a hit out of this.

What we’re left with is indescribable opulence (it really has to be seen to be believed and I can’t even get my head around what these films must look like on the big screen), endless back-stabbing among cabals who vie for the loyalty of the military and the deep state, a hapless legislative body made exclusively of fops and fools, the endless peddling of influence. All these qualities course through El Cid and finally overwhelm the characters who populate The Fall of the Roman Empire.

The history runs in reverse, as history is wont to do.

The first film replicates the preservation of what rose in the place of what fell in the second film.

Whatever order one views them, these films, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire, which broke Samuel Bronston’s bank account and Anthony Mann’s health, are in the DNA of everything from Star Wars to Kurosawa’s late epics to the best work of the similarly under-appreciated Ridley Scott (who now must labor under the burden of CGI, an empire whose reach and grasp far exceed Rome’s…one hopes that Mann appreciated how lucky he was to fall in with a fellow visionary like Bronston even for a heartbeat).

You can take your pick of which reminds you most of the City by the Potomac these days, as the man who the Alt-Right likes to tweak all and sundry by referring to as the God Emperor ascends, rising from the bottomless sea of our present corruption, within which the deepest muck he was born to rule.