Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Night Visitor (1971)

          By dint of being made in gloomy Swedish locales and starring two of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actors, The Night Visitor is an offbeat hybrid of Bergman-esque psychological darkness and pure escapist pulpiness. The story, about a killer who sneaks out of an insane asylum in order to murder a woman and frame his brother-in-law for the crime, is wildly inventive but also a bit silly, thanks to the far-fetched means by which the killer achieves his goals. Concurrently, the film is much, much darker than any American version of the same material would be, since the only purely sympathetic character—a dogged police inspector played by Trevor Howard—is a cipher rather than an active participant in the movie’s psychological gamesmanship. That said, The Night Visitor has as much technical polish as any Hollywood movie, even though the style is unrelentingly melancholic. The film’s locations are deeply evocative, particularly the remarkable stone edifice used to represent the asylum, and an iconic American composer, Henry Mancini, provides the effectively dissonant scoring.
          When we first meet him, Salem (Max Von Sydow) cuts a strange figure. Dressed only in underclothes and boots, he emerges from a sewer pipe some distance away from the towering asylum. Running through a cold winter’s night, he arrives at a farmhouse where Ester (Liv Ullman) argues with her husband, Anton (Per Oscarsson). Salem sneaks into the house and does a number of strange things, such as planting a necktie inside a doctor’s bag. Soon we discover the method to his madness (or vice versa), because he kills the beautiful Emmie (Hanne Bork) and plants a necktie as “evidence.” After Salem flees, the inspector begins his investigation, disbelieving Anton’s wild theory that Salem was responsible. Later, Salem makes another excursion from the asylum to permanently seal his hated brother-in-law’s fate, and that’s when The Night Visitor presents its most arresting sequence. Using sheets and clothing tied into ropes—as well as other equally resourceful means—Salem creeps through passageways, tunnels, and windows to escape the asylum, thereby demonstrating how he committed the original crime. Director Laslo Benedek keeps Von Sydow onscreen as often as possible (rather than a stunt man), selling the illusion of Salem achieving a superhuman task.
          The detective portion of the story is almost as effective, with Howard’s character using a combination of intuition and perseverance to track down every lead, no matter how unlikely it is to bear fruit. A Hollywood version of this material would inevitably have overstated the cat-and-mouse dynamic, while also giving gentler qualities to Andersson’s character, but it’s the sheer chilliness of The Night Visitor that makes it so interesting to watch. Instead of coming across like a melodrama, the picture feels like a procedural set in a cruelly unfair universe.

The Night Visitor: FUNKY

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