The Magician (1958)

“It’s a fox without eyes, and with a rotten hole for a mouth”

‘The Magician’, directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1958, is a thriller set in the nineteenth century. Max von Sydow plays a magician and mesmerist called Vogler who travels with his family. After a fateful encounter with an actor on the way they end up in a house with an audience of sceptics. Vogler determines to confound the audience with the ultimate trick: to come back from the dead. It’s a creepy film, the traditional stark cinematography that Bergman is known for dovetailing with the eerie, pseudo-supernatural plot. Derived from the short story by G K Chesterton it’s also possible to detect fragments of that author’s obsession with paradox and reality masquerading as fantasy. It’s not subtle, falling into the more stylised type of Bergman’s movies: more ‘The Seventh Seal’ than ‘Wild Strawberries’ or ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, but for all its eccentric characters and unlikely plot twists I still found it to be one of his more absorbing films. It’s not as weighed down with subtexts about nostalgia or madness like his more highly regarded films, but as a tightly wound and perfectly constructed shocker it works really well. The performances are great, von Sydow in particular is mute for the first half of the movie yet still imbues Vogler with an unsettling personality. The climax is also a masterpiece of horror conventions, as suspenseful as Hitchcock, and as heightened as James Whale. It’s not the greatest movie Bergman directed, but it’s a good entry point for some of his more impenetrable films.

Would I recommend it? Yes – maybe with ‘Hour of the Wolf’, a similarly straightforward thriller with generic touches.

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