Smiles of a Summer Night was going to be a tough one to follow. It’s an utterly delightful film: fun, sweet, poignant, well paced. Criterion was right to suggest it as the first film to watch on their Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. Crisis (1946), by comparison, is clearly lesser Bergman: its story about an 18-year-old finding herself having to decide between her kindly foster mother and simple country life on the one hand and her more well-off biological mother and the big city is more predictable, its themes handled less interestingly, and its tones balanced less deftly. Crisis was Bergman’s first film as a director (he’d previously worked on scripts, first and foremost); it was based on a radio play by writer Leck Fischer, though Bergman wrote the adaptation for the screen.
Nonetheless, there are pleasures to be found in this early work. The way the characters are set up suggests at first that there are clear good guys and clear villains, yet everyone is shown to be flawed and everyone is granted some sympathy by the script, which is amplified by the performances that reveal humanity in all of them. Crisis is also an early example of Bergman working well with female characters and actresses – which fits the film well, as it is clearly more interested in its women than in its male characters. It is difficult to say to what extent it is the original radio play or the touch of the director, but Crisis shows us various familial setups that are far from the sanctified traditional family: fathers do not figure much into the film, and it is the maternal characters, sometimes by choice more than biology, that hold things together. Finally, while there is more than a touch of melodrama to Crisis, the film finds smart and subtle ways of undermining this with a more realistic and sometimes whimsical touch – though it also veers off into some of the darker reaches, foreshadowing the existential dread found throughout Bergman’s films.
Apparently the director later found little good to say about this very early work of his, and to be honest, I don’t think it’s a part of the collection that I will return to in favour of the more assured works. But Bergman was wrong if he saw Crisis as a failure. It is clearly not an unqualified success and it works better in parts than as a whole, but the film definitely has its pleasures and it points the direction to several of Bergman’s later strengths and the concerns that the director would return to frequently.
And that is already it for the second destination on our travels with Ingmar Bergman. Join me again for the next one, coming up in about a month: A Ship to India (1947).