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Sawdust and Tinsel: Criterion Collection (1953) – DVD Review

Sawdust and Tinsel: Criterion Collection DVD cover art


Swedish Title: Gycklarnas afton

Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Åke Grönberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost


  • Running audio commentary by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie
  • Video introduction from Bergman, recorded in 2003
  • Booklet: An essay by critic John Simon and an appreciation by filmmaker Catherine Breillat

Released by: Criterion Collection
Region: 1
Rating: NR (some sexy stuff, but nothing that would excite Scott)
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 ratio.

My Advice: Buy it. It’s Criterion.

[ad#longpost]Ken Nordine once said “Damn it all, everything but the circus.” Ingmar Bergman is here to say with this film, “Oh, well, damn that too.” Albert (Grönberg) owns the Alberti Circus, and they’re having a helluva time. They lost half their costumes, they haven’t been paid in lord knows how long, and the bear’s going hungry. Complicating matters is the fact that they’re headed back to Albert’s hometown, which means he’s going to go visit his estranged wife (Annika Tretow) who he hasn’t seen in years. Complicating that is the fact he’s been on the road with his mistress, Anne (Andersson). Albert dreams of turning his circus around and being treated like he dreams circuses are in America, so he tries to make a huge gala event out of their opening night in town…but things are never that easy, are they?

This film comes, as Cowie makes clear in his commentary, before Bergman started making what are considered to be his masterpieces. The Seventh Seal is only four years in the future, for example. As a result this film gets mostly forgotten, not helped by the fact this is the first time it’s hit DVD and the first time it’s arrived in the States uncut. While I can understand it being underrated, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a masterpiece. It is however, pretty damn good.

Harriet Andersson is Anne in Ingmar Bergman

It starts off with a flashback to a long and protracted scene of a clown from the circus being cuckolded. That sort of threw the rest of the movie off kilter for me, since the amount of time spent on it calls a lot of attention to its importance. However, the film never really recovers from the weight of having that dropped on your foot at the very beginning, especially with very little to frame it other than, “Here’s this story I’m going to share with you.” It takes a while for the story to even be tied back into the film as a whole, it seems. Now, if you view the entire film as a hallucinatory bad dream filled with humiliation that the players can’t get out of, kind of like the relationships featured within, then that interpretation helps. I just think the opening sequence, while jarring and necessary, could have been toned down a bit.

Writer/Director Ingmar Bergman with journalist Marie Nyreröd

Now, that being said, don’t get me wrong: I’m not slagging off the film. It was that one piece that felt a little out of place to me. It certainly holds up to multiple viewings. And as interesting as I think the plot is, my favorite part of the film is the same thing I love about a lot of black and white films: the vivid cinematography. The configuration of shots, the use of lighting, all of the stuff that you very seldom see an equivalent of in color films today. Gorgeous.

For bonus bits, the commentary by Cowie is excellent when it comes to placing the film in the context of Bergman’s career, giving you the before and after so you can really figure out where it fits. Also when it comes to context, he explains how Bergman’s love life factored into the way he portrays love (and the lack thereof) on the screen. But there are a few times when–you know those people who have a tendency to see eroticism everywhere they look? A cigar is never just a cigar with this guy, and while there’s a lot of really physical stuff going on, both literally and metaphorically, it wasn’t as prevalent as he makes it out to be, at least in my humble opinion. But still good, overall.

The only other feature on the disc was a short introduction, which is basically Bergman, recorded in 2003, talking briefly about the film. It’s a few minutes long, but it’s certainly better than nothing. It’s just a shame we don’t have a full-on commentary from Bergman, since we only lost him this past year.

Basically, your Bergman fan is going to want to snag this. That goes without saying. Anyone who’s a performer I think will appreciate what’s at work here. And I think it’s worth snagging because Criterion is just that solid, but if there’s any question, you might want to rent it first before you buy.

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