Personally, I’ve never understood the need to get revenge on critics, whether it was Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker hurling baseballs at the netting behind home plate, making jeering Mets fans flinch, or Devlin and Emmerich using a pair of obnoxious characters who looked like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in their awful version of “Godzilla” (how ironic). Or, hell, Uwe Boll getting in a boxing ring with some of his detractors.

Sure, I understand the frustration with critics, but at some point, I think one needs to ignore them and move on; engaging them is just a pointless exercise in futility (unless you’re a really good boxer, I guess, but even then, what’s the point?). Pondering Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magician,” which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, I realized that was my main issue with this film: Bergman seemed so interested in smacking down his critics that the movie became unwieldy. He became more concerned in scoring points than in crafting a strong narrative.

That’s a shame, because “The Magician” has a lot going for it: witty dialogue, Max von Sydow’s intense performance, and beautiful camera work. Von Sydow’s Dr. Vogler is a peddler of tricks and potions who finds his scruffy troupe stopped in Stockholm by inquisitive government officials interested in exposing him as a charlatan. The cat-and-mouse game between both sides begins on an intriguing note, but it’s bogged down in the end by the convoluted trap Vogler sets for Dr. Vergerus, the royal medical advisor who is most interested in bringing down the magician. The film’s final scene is also gratuitous and seems meant only to blow a raspberry at critics.

Peter Cowie’s video essay in this DVD release of “The Magician” discusses much of this in the context of Bergman’s early career in Swedish theater and the indifference shown toward his first few films. Admittedly, Bergman’s work was never as accessible as, say, Kurosawa’s, when it came to foreign cinema, but he was at his best when he tried to address concepts other than revenge fantasies against critics. For a good example of that, see “The Seventh Seal.”

This DVD doesn’t contain much else, other than a brief Bergman video interview from 1967 and an audio-only chat with him from 1990. The latter is in English, of course. Criterion boasts a restored transfer for the film, along with an improved subtitle translation. An excellent booklet containing a pair of essays and a relevant excerpt from Bergman’s autobiography rounds out this release.

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  1. Andy says:

    Thanks for this review, it’s good to see re-released classics occasionally discussed. I watched this recently and agree with you – the film doesn’t live up to its potential of “is the magic real or a hoax”, though Von Sydow is compelling while he’s on screen. Worth watching but not one of Bergman’s best.

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