Review: Spotlight on Ingrid Bergman

Review: Spotlight on Ingrid Bergman

 By Mal Byrne



Ingrid Bergman is a Hollywood immortal. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was a crafts person first, and star second, eschewing artifice and radiating a screen candour that mesmerised audiences. Like Greta Garbo, she was an unsullied Scandinavian beauty. However, she was the anti-Garbo. Never aloof nor enigmatic, she let the audience in. She specialised in playing heroic virtuous self-sacrificing women from the lowliest peasant (For Whom the Bell Tolls) to royalty (Joan of Arc, Anastasia). Hence, when the real Ingrid ostensibly shattered the illusion by leaving her husband and moving to Europe to be with her lover Italian director Roberto Rossellini, her fans were shocked. Nevertheless, it's a testimony to the cache she held with audiences and her peers that she was accepted back into the fold immediately and bestowed with an Oscar when she returned to Hollywood to make Anastasia.  

The Mercury Cinematheque is paying a tribute to Bergman in June screening three of her Hollywood classics (including the daddy of all classics, Casablanca) plus the last film she made with Rossellini before returning to Hollywood.

The festival kicks off with Casablanca (1942), Bergman's most famous role and the film with perhaps the greatest screenplay ever written. Set in the famous Moroccan port during World War II when it was part of Vichy France and full of refugees desperate to escape the Nazis, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns Rick's the most famous cafe and gambling house in Morocco. Rick wears his neutrality as a badge and his cafe entertains those who would escape, but also the local corrupt Vichy chief of police Captain Renault (Clause Rains) and his new Nazi warlord Major Strasser (Conreid Veidt). However, when Rick's former lover Ilsa Lund (Bergman) shows up in Casablanca with her Czech patriot husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) looking to get her hands on the only two letters of transit to Lisbon (and freedom) in town which Rick may have, will the bitter Rick relent?

Bergman's official website names Ilsa as her most famous character and it may be her most quintessential heroic character. Flashbacks reveal that when Rick met Ilsa in Paris, she thought Laszlo was dead, but when she finds out he is alive, she makes the self-sacrificing decision to leave Rick waiting at the train station to go to her ill husband. When Ilsa finds Rick again in Casablanca, she tries to get the letters for Laszlo only to realise that her love for Rick overpowers that instinct. Torn, she tells Rick that he “has to do the thinking for both of us”, and he does, armed with the knowledge that her sense of duty will inevitably win out over her own needs. The ending may be the most famous in cinema, but the journey to get there is equally compelling. There is a poignancy and authenticity to the film due to the large supporting cast and extras most of whom were real European refugees and while the love triangle takes centre stage, I think the film belongs to Claude Rains blessed with a treasure chest of witty repartee by the four screenwriters including the legendary Howard Koch.  

While she won her first Oscar for playing the besieged wife Paula Alquist in the thriller Gaslight (1944), Paula is the frailest of the four characters Bergman plays in this Festival. When opera singer Alice Alquist is murdered and the child Paula witnesses the killing, we then jump forward twenty years where Paula is studying opera in Italy. When Paula meets and marries the handsome older Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) and the couple return to London, Paula begins to question her sanity as a series of initial minor mishaps escalate and Gregory himself seems even more convinced that she is going mad. While the film is a thriller and we join the dots on what's going on at an early stage, the effect is riveting as Bergman draws us into Paula's struggle. Freudians and feminists have seized on this film in conjunction with a number of other classics of the time (Sorry, Wrong Number, Sleep My Love) where the home becomes a terrifying prison. If Claude Rains steals scenes in Casablanca, seventeen year old Angela Lansbury matches him in Gaslight as Gregory and Paula's saucy maid, Nancy.

Bergman was a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock and Notorious (Pat Hitchcock's favourite of her father's films)  is a wonderful vehicle for her. Alicia Huberman (Bergman) is the American daughter of a former Nazi war criminal determined to redeem her father's sins.  Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) exploits Alicia's guilt by recruiting her to travel to South America to spy on her father's former associates including the wealthy bachelor Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains again) who Devlin knows was attracted to Alicia previously. Devlin actively encourages Alicia to submit herself to Sebastian, but when she does, he is shocked by his jealous reaction and realizes he loves Alicia.

While Notorious is a thriller, the focus is on the love triangle. In this case too, duty draws Alicia to Alex, but her heart is with Devlin. However, the nobility of the men in Casablanca is lacking here. Alex is a villain and no Laszlo and Devlin loves Alicia, but allows her to degrade herself nevertheless. It's a misogynist fantasy and it's no wonder that Hitchcock is no favourite of feminists. I will leave it to you to decide whether Devlin redeems himself by the film's conclusion. Rains is great again, but the intriguing supporting cast member is Russian silent screen star Madame Konstantin playing Sebastian's overprotective mother.

 Bergman was fascinated by the neorealistic filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. She went to Italy to work with him in one of his films and both ended leaving their respective spouses for each other. Bergman became pregnant out of wedlock and the affair caused a scandal. Journey to Italy (1954) is their last film together before Bergman returned to Hollywood. Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Bergman) are a middle aged wealthy married couple on their way to Naples to sell a villa that belonged to Alex's late uncle. Romantically, the couple's relationship is stale and strained. Naples triggers memories in Katherine of a former lover who died young. Alex's eye is taken with the young girls on Capri. The two agree to spend their days apart while the property is sold. However, Katherine is surprised by her sense of rejection and jealousy. Alex, in turn, flirts with having an affair, but can't bring himself to cross the line.

Rossellini made films for adults and the emotional journey his characters take in this film is familiar yet moving. Rossellini makes great use of Naples, Pompeii and Capri as back drops reflecting the characters' emotions. Bubbling volcanic dust mirrors Katherine's jealousy and the skeletons of the Pontenegri the couple's dying relationship. Things come to a head at the Pompeii ruins where corpses from ancient times are still being found in the dust. It's intriguing to compare Rosselini's stark black and white palettes with the glossy Hollywood tableaux. Rosselini was not a teller of fairy tales. He didn't make films as escapism, he wanted the audience to recognise his characters and their journeys and conflicts. It's also intriguing to watch Bergman the actress in a Rossellini film. There's nothing ethereal about Katherine. She is a jealous rejected wife tearing herself in two.

 “I went from saint to whore and back again, in one lifetime” mused Bergman about her roller coaster relationship with Hollywood. Like many female stars of her era, Bergman found good roles harder to come by as she matured. It mattered little as her canon was so strong and consistent that it felt like she had done it all already. If you haven't experienced Ingrid Bergman, this festival is a compulsory experience. If you have seen one or two, the other one or two will still be unmissable.



Review: Spotlight on Ingrid Bergman