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Sawdust and Tinsel

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Criterion Collection: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) | Blu-ray Review

As John Simon’s insert essay “The Lower Depths” asserts in Criterion’s Blu-ray re-release of Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 masterpiece Sawdust and Tinsel, the title was something of a turning point for the Swedish cinematic titan, who had yet to claim the international reputation he would soon come to be known for. Previous titles Summer Interlude (1951) and Waiting Women (1953) had recently found Bergman compete for Venice’s Golden Lion, and while 1947’s A Ship to India had been part of the Cannes program, it was 1955’s Smiles of a Summer Night which gave him his first crack at the Palme d’Or, while 1957’s Wild Strawberries would take home the Golden Bear in Berlin. And so, on the 100-year anniversary of Bergman’s life, we return to an examination of the pronounced distressing miserabilism which would come to define many of the unforgettable relationships of his cinema, whether between husbands and wives, forbidden lovers, or enmeshed siblings.

Bergman gets carnivalesque grotesque with Sawdust and Tinsel, the tale of a tired circus owner Albert Johansson (Ǻke Grönberg) who finds himself at a crossroads between his younger mistress (Harriet Anderson), a horseback rider in his traveling circus, and returning to the potential stability of the wife and child he left behind. But neither going forward with ill-fated unions or returning desperately to the comforts of the past will bode well for any of the performers unlucky enough to find themselves examined in Bergman’s side-show melodrama.

Without a doubt, Ǻke Grönberg’s circus ringmaster, through life circumstances and occupation, recalls the tortured visage of Emil Jannings in von Sternberg’s immaculate classic The Blue Angel (1930)—only Bergman at least allows Grönberg’s Albert Johansson to at least be an active participant in his throes of humiliation. Johansson is much like the troubled performing bear featured in the troupe, refusing to eat while being physically and emotionally degrading despite the best efforts of his human colleagues. Like the bear, Johansson is no longer able to perform, having failed at his balancing act of running a circus, satisfying his younger, lithesome lover, and forgotten by the wife and child he left behind for his “fantastic” life as a performer. All efforts to revive Johansson’s drive are merely flaccid attempts at poking the bear.

Harriet Andersson returns after her 1953 breakthrough, Summer with Monika, which Bergman wrote expressly for her. Here, Andersson is a spoke in the wheels of Bergman’s misanthropy, fooled into a sadistic sex with the dashing actor played by Hasse Ekman, who is only allowed the chance to seduce her thanks to her anger at Johansson visiting his wife. Fooled into violent sexual congress with the promise of obtaining an expensive amulet from him, the item ends up being, natch, a worthless trinket. It’s a sister sequence to the flashback which opens the film, wherein the circus clown is publicly humiliated by his wife’s would-be orgy on the beach with a platoon of traveling troops (a Jessica Lange move in Blue Sky, 1994), a woman purportedly made unbalanced thanks to occupational stressors. Sex and desire meld into the toxic elixir which erode these characters’ dignities, each desperate to escape their current existence.

Sawdust and Tinsel was the film’s UK title as it was marketed in the US under The Naked Night, while the original Swedish translation is most apt—The Clown’s Evening. It was Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a union which would eventually become legendary. A more intimate, perhaps more sobering sister film to Bergman’s The Magician (1958), which would cover similar themes amongst a traveling musician and his persona-shifting crew, there’s only sexual degradation and despair to break the simmering tensions on the surface of Bergman’s first major misanthropic work.

Disc Review:

On top of their recent massive box-set of Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema (which included 30+ titles, many of which have not yet been released on disc in the US), Criterion’s new standalone 2K digital restoration of Sawdust and Tinsel is presented in 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are masterful in the new transfer, which includes the 2007 audio commentary track from Peter Cowie, as well as an Ingmar Bergman introduction to the title which was originally recorded in 2003.

Final Thoughts:

Surreal, strange and with the pronounced despair and foreboding which would come to characterize Bergman’s filmography, Sawdust and Tinsel is a harbinger of humiliation.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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