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The Criterion Collection presents
Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

Jens: Did you hear the story about Frost the clown and his wife Alma? We were with Weger back then.
Albert: Was that in the next town?
Jens: Yes. I was there. It was a hell of a business.
Albert: Tell the story if you want.

- (Erik Strandmark, Ake Gronberg)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: July 11, 2008

Stars: Ake Gronberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek
Other Stars: Gudrun Brost, Annika Tretow, Erik Strandmark, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Curt Lowgren, Kiki
Director: Ingmar Bergman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mature themes)
Run Time: 01h:32m:27s
Release Date: November 20, 2007
UPC: 715515026628
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Released stateside in 1956 as the improperly randy The Naked Night and the slightly more accurate Sawdust and Tinsel for its UK drop, this 1953 feature (Gycklarnas Afton, loosely translated as The Clown's Evening) from Ingmar Bergman uses the compelling weirdness of a traveling circus as the backdrop for bouts of humiliation, sexuality, infidelity, power, romance and a steady weave of dreamlike visuals. As far as I'm concerned, that's a recipe that's tough to beat, and when one adds the name of an iconoclast like Bergman to the pile then a solid foundation of adventurous art cinema is firmly in place, lending an air of stylized cool to this one.

But don't let the fear of Bergman or all things high art scare you off of the mesmerizing dark beauty of Sawdust and Tinsel. That's because Criterion has packaged this restored release—which includes footage previously unavailable in any domestic VHS or laserdisc versions—with a fine educational commentary track from Bergman author/historian Peter Cowie, and if you're so inclined there's a wealth of information there that will only enhance the appreciation of this sordid tale of arty greasepaint-driven drama and pathos. Cowie clearly knows his stuff when it comes to Bergman, and the track is busting at the seams with scholarly tidbits to help the study of Sawdust and Tinsel go down even easier.

There's no denying that Bergman is being pure Bergman here, as we're not 10 minutes in before he launches into a curious flashback that quickly sets the tone. It's recalled from atop a traveling circus caravan, and it's a bleak, purposely overexposed sequence, toploaded with boldly artistic sexual imagery (think phallic cannons firing repeatedly), as eventually the poor clown Frost (Anders Ek), while defending the honor of his wife Alma (Gudrun Brost) is subjected to the sort of cruel humiliation that just might push a man over the edge.

And that's just a tip of the proverbial iceberg for what's to come, as Bergman intertwines the drama of unkempt ringmaster Albert (Ake Gronberg) who is about see his wife Agda (Annika Tretow) after spending three years on the dusty circus trail. The only problem is the presence of Albert's mistress, the gorgeous young bareback rider Anne (Harriet Andersson), who wields a commanding but subtle blend of sexuality and innocence that only serves to upset the order of things.

As Albert feels the mounting pressure of being torn between two very different women—and woe to the poor bear that gets the brunt of that frustration—Anne is drawn inexplicably towards the troublesome arms of Frans (Hasse Ekman) and a relationship that can only be deemed as unhealthy. And that's when things truly begin to devolve.

Sawdust and Tinsel may not be one of Bergman's most celebrated films—it failed miserably upon its theatrical release—yet for me it has always been one of his most memorable. But maybe that's the dark-circus-loving part of me talking, because this is truly a beautiful work, even if it's slathered in all sorts of sexual psychosis.

Come for the grungy circus, stay for the magnetic allure of Harriet Andersson.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Bergman's black-and-white feature is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, issued here in a windowboxed format. The new transfer from Criterion is impressive, and while there are some occasional minor instances of film scratches, this is really a stellar effort. The transfer boasts strong black levels, and there are certain sequences—such as a tight closeup of Harriet Andersson at about 46 minutes in—that is simply a beautiful study of light and shadow.


Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Sawdust and Tinsel's original Swedish language mono track is provided here. There are moments when voices tend to clip, primarily during crowd sequences, yet for the most part the quality is quite presentable, especially given the film's age. Understandably a bit thin, yet voices are discernible, and a few bouts of minimal hiss are barely a concern.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Cowie
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: This one's not overloaded with supplements, but the content is extremely rewarding. Inside the clear plastic case—which features a striking image of Harriet Andersson when opened—is a 21-page booklet with a lengthy piece on Sawdust and Tinsel entitled The Lower Depths, written by film historian John Simon. Also included in the booklet is a shorter article entitled Awakening, written by director Catherine Breillat, in which she explores the mythos and allure of Harriet Andersson.

An optional Ingmar Bergman Introduction (03m:17s) was recorded in 2003, moderated by Swedish journalist Marie Nyrerod. I think Nyrerod only gets to uncork two questions, as Bergman reflects on the release of Sawdust and Tinsel, its poor reception and his thoughts on the film decades later.

The highpoint here is a commentary track—recorded in July 2007—from film scholar Peter Cowie, author of Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography. This is a classroom-worthy discussion, well prepared and meticulous, covering not just aspects of this particular film, but an attempt to reveal what made Bergman tick and why he did things the way he did them. If you're new to Bergman, Cowie's input will be revealing and insightful, and even if you're a Bergmanophile there will still be plenty of well-researched explanations and clarifications.

A mini catalog of Criterion noir titles is also included, as is a postcard (the one in my case featured the cover art for Jules Dassin's Brute Force). The disc is cut into 22 chapters—including one for color bars—and features optional English subtitles.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

I love a dark circus story, and Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel fulfills that special need while also including a healthy dash of high art into the mix. Perhaps one of his less renowned works, the eerie imagery and style that permeates this one is as haunting as it is beautiful, and Criterion has issued this title with a terrific commentary track from a knowledgeable and eloquent Bergman scholar.

Highly recommended.


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