Unmasking The Magician (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

1959's The Magician is a strange one.  It feels a bit like it's straining under the weight of Ingmar Bergman's previous two films, the break-out successes of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.  Like it's struggling to be slightly abstract and exaggerated in keeping with those visionary films, coming off perhaps a bit more gratuitously artsy.  But taken on its own merits sixty(!) years later, it actually winds up working in its favor, generating its own, off-beat sensibility.  In a time where most of Bergman's 50s films can feel antiquated or stale, it gives The Magician a refreshing appeal that stands up well to more modern faire.  So it kinda makes sense that we've only gotten it on disc in these last couple years - the time has finally rolled around for its rediscovery.
The Magician was originally called Ansiktet, or The Face, which is a more fitting title.  I mean, The Magician is handy if you have trouble keeping track of Bergman's many, many films - you can just think, ah yeah, it's that one about the big, looming magician.  But in terms of reflecting the themes and substance of the film, The Face really cuts to the heart of the matter.  It's a strange, genre-shifting tale of a traveling magician and his troupe who are compelled to perform for the chief of police and other town council who are determined to prove them as frauds and criminals.  They spend the night in the home of the consul and everyone's convictions are threatened.  Like Strawberries and Seal, it's a dark existential film dealing with mortality and, in this case, the role of the artist.  But while The Seventh Seal certainly introduced some comedy with some of the secondary characters, here the film slowly shifts from cheery humor to critical terror and back without revealing the seams.  This is accomplished through Bergman's always impressive photography, by his pre-Nykvist DP, Gunnar Fischer, the tumultuous subject matter, and particularly the strengths of his perfect cast, including a great many of his regulars, including: a particularly powerful Gunnar Bjornstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, a so-young-he's-nearly-unrecognizable Erland Josephson and of course Max von Sydow in the ominous title role.
Throughout the days of DVD, The Magician was unavailable in the US.  Pretty much our only English-friendly option was to import the 2001 Tartan DVD from their extensive Bergman Collection series, which was Region Free, albeit PAL.  But in the enlightened age of HD, Criterion changed that by releasing it on DVD and blu-ray in 2010.  They've released it again in 2018 as part of their massive Ingmar Bergman's Cinema boxed set, but unlike the other films we've looked at so far (and the rest are coming... I'll probably start grouping up several of them into individual posts as we move forward), they haven't created a new master for this version.
2001 Tartan DVD top; 2010 Criterion blu mid; 2018 Criterion blu bottom.
So yes, the 2010 blu gave us a really strong 2k scan of the 35mm interpositive, and the 2018 repeats that.  They are identical transfers.  But boy, do you see the upgrade from the DVD.  Starting with the aspect ratio, the DVD is slightly thin at 1.30:1, which Criterion corrects by restoring the slivers of extra picture for a complete 1.33:1.  It also frames the image slightly lower down, which I'll assume is more accurate; it's really too slight to make a hard judgement call on either way.  But detail is so much stronger, and film grain is very distinct and natural.  That's as opposed to the DVD, which is soft even for DVD, and has blatant, ugly contrast tweaks to clarify edges and details in an otherwise lacking image, but which mostly just result in highlights flaring way out.  Look at the lines on the door in the first set of shots; it looks like they're lined with hot neon strips.

Both discs provide the original Swedish mono track, in lossless LPCM on the blu, with optional English subtitles.
The extras aren't too extensive.  The Tartan disc is completely barebones except for an insert with notes by Ronald Bergan and a couple bonus trailers.  But the 2010 blu does come up with a couple goodies.  We have two vintage Ingmar Bergman interviews, both of which only get around to The Magician by the very end.  The first is a very short, made for 60's television one, where he starts talking about Persona, but then asks a key question about The Magician at the end.  And the second is a longer, audio-only interview that talks about the very beginnings of his career, and would probably be more appropriate on a Crises disc; but then does wrap up with a bit about The Magician.  The other main extra is another excellent visual essay by Peter Cowie.  I wouldn't have minded a longer one that went a little further in depth, or even a commentary, but what we get is certainly good.  And that's it; no trailer here either; though we do get a booklet with essays by Geoff Andrew and director Olivier Ossayas, plus some further notes about Bergman.

And, as I keep saying with films in the Ingmar Bergman's Cinema set, the new 2018 blu has the exact same extras package as the 2010 blu besides, of course, for the fact that it comes packaged with all the other Bergman films, and the extras associated with those.  The set includes a bonus disc with several docs and features about Bergman in general, but nothing more Magician specific.  Heck, some of the extras on The Magician's disc were barely Magician-specific.  The Andrew essay from the previous booklet is back again, too, in the box's massive 248 page book, but interestingly, the Assayas one has been dropped.
So, again, for all intents and purposes, the blu-rays are identical.  But that's fine, as the 2010 disc was excellent, and barring the discovery of some additional cool extras, there'd be no reason to update it.  So if you haven't got this film yet, either blu will do equally, just depending if you want to throw down for the whole box or not.  If you're just hanging onto the Tartan DVD or another SD import, by all means, double-dip already.  Or, if you're like me and you already had the old blu and then got the box, go ahead and sell your old disc off.  But if you're not a mega-Bergman fan, passing on the box and just picking up the occasional highlights, consider The Magician.  It's not one of his most famous, but it's got a contemporary appeal with its unique blend of entertainment value and dramatic weight.

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