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Release Date(s)1958 (October 12, 2010)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #537)
The Magician (released as Ansiktet in Sweden, which simply translates to The Face) is one of the many masterpieces from Ingmar Bergman. The story is bit akin to The Seventh Seal in some ways, but it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as many other Swedish films do.
The story is set in the nineteenth century and involves a troupe of traveling magicians and potion salesmen who come under scrutiny by a small town’s wary health advisor. Believing them to be involved in either a sham or witchcraft, he puts a tough strain on the group as they try to prove themselves innocent and harmless. The leader of the troupe, Dr. Vogler (Max von Sydow), is put to the test and must both solve their dilemma and restore his reputation as the best illusionist in the business.
One thing’s for sure about The Magician and it’s that it definitely requires more than one viewing to get everything going on in it. You simply can’t take everything in from just one viewing. Between Dr. Vogler, his wife and assistant Manda Vogler, their spiritual Granny, their coach driver, and Tubal the potion salesman, there are plenty of complicated character dynamics and outcomes to deal with. The sorcery of Dr. Vogler also demands to be seen on repeat viewings. I certainly didn’t understand it all right away and had to go back and see it again. That’s not a bad thing though. The thing about Bergman is that he doesn’t give you everything and you have to do some of the guesswork yourself. It’s a bit more involving than most films.
Also, there’s definitely an underlying cynicism to the events as they play out. The final act of the film itself is a bit ghastly but it’s also humorous, and the outcome is definitely a surprise. And like all of Bergman’s work, The Magician is beautifully composed and well shot. It’s a film that begs to be seen in the highest quality possible. Sequestered to VHS, Laserdisc and DVD for many years, finally having a copy of it in high definition is a delight.
Criterion has chosen to restore a 35mm fine-grain master positive print of the film, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (window-boxed for the DVD release). As one would expect, the results are fantastic. There’s a pleasant and healthy grain structure on display, an immense amount of image detail, shadow delineation is excellent, blacks and whites are both very strong, and contrast and brightness are perfect. There are a few minor film defects left behind after the clean-up process, but nothing that distracts from the main presentation. Suffice to say, this is the best this film has ever looked on any home video format. For the film’s audio, the uncompressed original Swedish mono soundtrack has been included. It doesn’t command a lot speaker power, but it’s perfect for the presentation the way it is. Dialogue is clear and audible, sound effects have plenty of weight and the score sounds wonderful. It’s an oldie, but a goody. Subtitles in English have been included using a “new and improved” subtitle track. I only found a couple of moments where the subtitles weren’t accurate, but never to the point of confusion or disconnect.
The supplemental features include a visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie, a video interview from 1967 with Bergman, a rare English-language audio interview with Bergman from 1990, and a 36-page booklet featuring excerpts from a 1990 tribute to the film by Assayas, a new essay by critic Geoff Andrew and an excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography “Images: My Life in Film”. It’s a short selection, but there’s plenty here to explore and learn about.
So The Magician steps onto Blu-ray in a wonderful package. Would one expect anything less from Criterion? It’s a film that was made for the company, and with this Blu-ray release, you’d be hard-pressed to improve upon it. Highly recommended for film fans.
- Tim Salmons