Sawdust and Tinsel aka The Naked Night
Arguably the most famous sequence in any Ingmar Bergman film is the dance of death in The Seventh Seal (1957), with its medieval souls, hands linked, advancing single file in silhouette up an incline against a low horizon under a lot of sky. The image originated with different characters in a different story, Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), a film that contributed to its indifferent reception in the US by being speciously retitled The Naked Night for export. Its procession is of ragtag traveling circus folk -- a few wagons, a few horses, a few dozen people - slogging through a rain-drenched landscape to their next stop, Skane. The members of the Alberti Circus suggest a defeated army, taking its cue from its general, Albert Johansson (Ake Gronberg). Weary even of his lusty young mistress, Anna (Harriet Andersson), he exits their cramped, lice-infested wagon to share a seat up top and a few drinks with the wagon driver.
The latter tells his boss a story about one of the troupe's performers, Alma the bear-handler (Gudrun Brost), who coquettishly feeds her vanity by stripping, then frolicking alongside an artillery detachment on maneuvers, firing phallic cannons into the sea. Her husband, a clown in whiteface named Frost (Anders Ek), carries her back to their tent, humiliated. The film's stark Expressionism - vivid blacks and whites, jagged montages, lots of close-ups on faces and everyday objects that take on a totemic dimension -- suggest that we're watching interior states. We're also witnessing the first collaboration between Bergman and a young cinematographer named Sven Nykvist, who joined Hilding Bladh behind the camera to provide the film's hallucinatory etched-in-acid look. Conventional framing by a homespun theatrical curtain, opening against harmonium music, adds to the feeling that we're watching a nightmare within a dream within a folk tale, especially after Albert, staring blankly ahead, says, "You do your best and still end up feeling like a fool."
But Sawdust and Tinsel is more than just a cuckold's nightmare. The voluptuous Anna, who often appears to be sleepwalking through the action when she isn't tempest-tossed by passion, is unsettled by the realization that Albert's wife and the two young sons he hasn't seen in three years, live in Skane and that he intends to visit them. Her instincts are not wrong. Albert, feeling old and spent, is ready to come off the road into a life of snug domestication. Anna's insecurities take the form of visiting a rehearsal at the theater where she and Albert had gone to beg to be allowed to borrow costumes to replace their ruined ones, and dangling herself before the vain, effeminate-looking, predatory leading man, Frans (Hasse Ekman), who had made a pass at her. Things happen faster than she had anticipated. She soon finds herself seduced by the gift of an amulet she's told is gold, then raped, then shown the door. Across a handbill is emblazoned the title of the play the troupe is rehearsing: "Betrayal."
The scene in the theater is richly layered. The company's director, Sjuberg (a young Gunnar Bjornstrand, four years before his knight in The Seventh Seal made him iconic) insults Albert, not from any sense of superiority, as Albert in his humbly deferential way believes, but because Albert is so insultable. The reason, Sjuberg spells out, is that Albert doesn't realize there's no essential difference between himself and Sjuberg. As the stage director (and stand-in for Bergman himself, who remained a lifelong man of the theater as well as a filmmaker) spells out, both are fueled by ego thirst -- the circus folk putting their lives on the line while the theatricals risk only their pride. He then generously gives Albert a free hand to borrow whatever costumes he needs.
When a goldsmith tells the seduced and abandoned Anna her trinket is worthless, the prospect of economic security it represented to her now suddenly empty, she returns to the circus. Albert fares little better. His wife Agda (Annika Tretow), who has prospered with a tobacco shop she inherited, is cordial and his sons are polite. She treats him maternally, even sewing a button back on his coat. But she makes it clear that she enjoys her peace and comfort and doesn't want him back. He's not entirely crushed. Albert gazes out the window onto his wife's quiet street and realizes something would be missing from his life if he did go back. He, too, returns to the miserable wagon he shares with Anna. Learning of her infidelity, he broods, then takes action on opening night. Having invited the actors to the tent to thank the troupe for the use of its costumes, Albert, in his ringmaster's garb, sees Frans in the front row, snickering to the woman next to him, making increasingly audible taunting remarks.
Boiling, he flicks his whip and knocks Frans's straw boater from his head. A few exchanges later, they're in the sawdust ring, going at it, Albert enraged, Frans coolly tactical. No sooner have they begun than we recall with a start a scene in which Albert and the theater troupe's prop man emerge from the costume storage area, Albert wearing a papier-mache bull's head. Instantly, the circus ring is transformed metaphorically into a corrida. Albert is the bull seeing red. Frans is the toreador. Although meaty Albert is bigger and heavier, Frans is cleverer. Picking up sawdust and hurling it into Albert's eyes, temporarily blinding him, Frans administers a humiliating public thrashing to Albert. And when we think Albert can be brought no lower (we don't take a few post-fight suicide attempts seriously; at heart, Albert loves life too much to leave it), he does sink in stature, by his own hand, performing a despicably violent act.
Compared to Bergman's later excursions into the battle of the sexes, Sawdust and Tinsel ends on a comparatively optimistic note. Like Samuel Beckett's agonized existential tramps, they can't go on, but they do go on. In any case, Bergman's theme is imprinted on the screen as if with a branding iron. Although Bergman kept making further refinements to his view of the world as an unsparing, punishing place through which God's silence howls like a cold wind, he here adds humiliation as a consequence of his view of sex as a sado-masochistic gavotte. That, and the brilliantly limned speech of the theatrical director, leaves both art and artifice seeming facets of vanity and insecurity. With a jaunty upturn of his goatee, Bjornstrand's man of the theater dazzlingly walks the line between savvy and sham. He is both a pragmatic theater boss and the Wizard of Oz.
The final word on vanity is delivered in a 2003 interview with Bergman, included as one of the extras accompanying the characteristically first-rate Criterion DVD. Yes, the film was greeted with muted enthusiasm, Bergman recalls, although he thought he had made a pretty good one. Time has of course sustained his self-assessment. Sawdust and Tinsel is a powerhouse. He says he's forgotten the specifics of the downbeat reviews, save one. Looking as if he swallowed a mouthful of bad fish, the aged Bergman quotes the offending half-century-old review referring to "Mr. Bergman's latest vomit." Critics!
Producer: Rune Waldekranz
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman (uncredited)
Cinematography: Hilding Bladh, Sven Nykvist
Music: Karl-Birger Blomdahl
Film Editing: Carl-Olov Skeppstedt
Cast: Ake Gronberg (Albert Johansson), Harriet Andersson (Anne), Hasse Ekman (Frans), Anders Ek (Frost), Gudrun Brost (Alma), Annika Tretow (Agda), Erik Strandmark (Jens), Gunnar Bjornstrand (Mr. Sjuberg), Curt Lowgren (Blom), Kiki (The Dwarf).
by Jay Carr