The next two films on my list were Man with an Umbrella (1946) and A Ship Bound for India (1947). They came out on DVD earlier this year, as did So Close to Life (1958). Each costs just £9 in Sweden, so I plan to buy them when I’m over there in a couple of weeks’ time. I don’t really want to part with £27 just to watch some of Bergman’s less acclaimed work, but LoveFilm tells me I can’t rent it yet, so I have no choice. On the plus side, I’ll save £30 on the UK retail prices.
In the meantime let’s jump ahead in time to Music in Darkness (1948), a film about a blind pianist called Bengt (Birger Malmsten) and his romance with a his maid Ingrid (Mai Zetterling). Warning: spoilers ahead.
The main reason I don’t like Music in Darkness is that it is nauseating. In the opening scene Bengt loses his sight when saving a cute puppy’s life. Later Zetterling reads her lines in a child-like whispery voice and gets mawkish about poetry. And if that doesn’t have you choking on your own vomit, Bengt’s lines will: he calls Ingrid “little calf” and tells her that she smells “like sweet milk”. After some ups and downs the guy gets the girl. Cue more vomit.
The film reaches a sickly low when Ingrid senses that Bengt is in trouble and rushes to help him in his hour of need. It’s a bit like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars sensing that the Death Star has blown Alderaan to smithereens, but because Music in Darkness isn’t science fiction, this kind of nonsense adds nothing.
The other reason I don’t like the film is that I have no sympathy for its protagonist. Bengt is an annoying character. He dismisses Ingrid as lower class, but changes his mind later when he figures that being blind has knocked him down the social ladder a few rungs. It’s irritating that he is so preoccupied with one-upmanship: who can and can’t see?; who is and isn’t upper-class?; who can and can’t win an arm wrestle? You’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t such an asshole.
Bergman doesn’t handle the material as well as he would later in his career. There’s a scene where Bengt’s peculiar attitude gets him in a scuffle with Ebbe (Bengt Eklund), a rival for Ingrid’s affections. Bengt is pleased that Ebbe hits him because it means he is being treated as an equal, rather than as an inferior. It’s one of few moments in the script that Bergman could have brought to the fore, but the delivery is flat and the moment passes.
It’s not all bad, of course. There are some nice moments of irony to break up the dull story: one scene has Ingrid reading monotonously from a book about “rejoicing”; another has two blind men fumbling a picture of a girl in a swimsuit. There’s an intriguing dream sequence and there are some nice close-ups: Zetterling’s angelic face, a telephone receiver, keys on a church organ… And before the opening credits there are a few seconds of darkness accompanied by music — a playful riff on the title of the film?
Bergman hated the source material, a novel by Dagmar Edqvist, but he needed a commercial hit so he made it anyway. Not a formula for a great film.