Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Release Date: September 15, 2018
A Conversation with Constantine Santas
It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what you may have heard about the importance of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaboration with Grace Kelly. Ingrid Bergman’s place in the master’s legacy is every bit as important and possibly even more interesting. Needless to say, any book examining her work is worth reading for fans of the director as well as for those who admire this incredible actress.
In “The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman,” Constantine Santas and James Wilson look at what they consider her most notable performances (and they had plenty to choose from). Her career began in Sweden in the 1930s and lasted until the year of her death in 1982, but this text focuses on the 21 films that they consider her most noteworthy. Special attention is paid to those aspects of her acting that made her stand out most—her undeniable range of emotion, her stunning vulnerability, and her indisputable beauty. Among the films discussed in this volume are Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Notorious, Stromboli, and Autumn Sonata. Each chapter is devoted to a specific film and provides a general production history, a plot summary, thematic highlights, and major award details.
Constantine Santas (professor emeritus at Flagler College) agreed to sit down for a series of questions about his new book, Ingrid Bergman’s incredible legacy, and the impact that certain directors may have had on her craft.
AHM: I’ve read the book and enjoyed it immensely. Could you describe THE ESSENTIAL FILMS OF INGRID BERGMAN for our readers and what your intentions were in writing such a book?
CS: “The Essential Books of Ingrid Bergman” was part of a series called, “The Essential Films…” of several books on Hollywood stars by Rowman and Littlefield, based on their most important works. Books on Mickey Rooney, James Garner, Jack Nicholson, and my own, “The Films of Humphrey Bogart,” have already appeared, along with others that I may not know about. My intentions in writing the book was basically derived from the aim of the series: to select the best films of Ingrid Bergman, out of a total of 51 films, including her pre-Hollywood Swedish works (but not including her television works, with the exception of A Woman Called Golda), for close analysis, including introductory materials, plot designs, and theme selections. These guidelines were set by the publisher and we followed them closely. Obviously, the process of selections was in close cooperation with Stephen Ryan, the chief editor of R&L. With these guidelines in mind, we set out to produce a book on Bergman that would include her best work while sketching out a portrait of an actress who was thoroughly devoted to her work, talented, beautiful and one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”
AHM: When and how did the idea for the book arise, and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?
CS: I started thinking about doing a book on Bergman while I was still finishing up Bogart. Aside from their Casablanca collaboration, the two had certain similarities in outlook and theme. Both had come from modest backgrounds (Bogart had debts to play after his father’s financial failures) and both rose by dint of talent and dedication to the art of cinema. Both had extensive backgrounds before they became famous, Bogart as a stage actor, Bergman a Swedish actress before David O. Selznick brought her to America. Both had extraordinary film careers in the 1940s, generally considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. Bergman was my personal choice among several candidates and I thought it a good idea to be my next target after Bogart. I mentioned the idea to Mr. Ryan, and, when he showed interest, Dr. James M. Wilson and I embarked on the project and signed the contract soon after we submitted a proposal.
AHM: Bergman had such a rich and distinguished career that I can’t imagine having to choose which features to include in a book. You mentioned that Rowman and Littlefield set certain guidelines for you. What exactly was the criteria or approach for choosing which films to highlight in this text?
CS: Choosing the films to include was indeed a challenge. The idea was to choose the best and most representative films of Bergman, the “essentials,” as the series was called. They were to be the best among Bergman’s long career, marked a by a key, ***** a classic, **** as good as a classic, and *** as good. Titles that received ** and * (given in the filmography section) were not chosen for inclusion. As it happens, we chose one of her Swedish productions, and the rest were the most prominent of her classic period in Hollywood. Classics included Bergman’s best movies that reflected her outstanding performance in a movie that was also outstanding in itself. Poor films even with an outstanding performance were not chosen. Most inclusions were from her Hollywood period (like Casablanca, Notorious, Gaslight, and several others), two were from the Rossellini period (including Stromboli), and only a few after Anastasia. [This was] mainly because her output in cinema declined in the following decades. We made certain, however, to include Murder on the Orient Express, which was a classic and gave her third Oscar. There is an element of subjectivity in selecting titles, but with three people involved (including the co-author and editor), we believe that the selections given in the book represent Bergman’s best work.
AHM: What qualities did Ingrid Bergman bring to her films that are unique to her?
CS: Her down-to-earthiness was a quality that gave her appeal. When [she] first came to Hollywood, Selznick proposed to alter her appearance, thinning her eyebrows, changing her hair color, fixing her teeth, etc., as was usually done by studios in that era. Bergman refused staunchly, thus retaining her natural looks, which endeared her to American audiences.
Bergman projected the image of a good woman who frequently appeared vulnerable and was often exposed to dangers (whether physical or psychological) by manipulative men who were usually older and socially or professionally superior (as in Intermezzo, Gaslight, and Anastasia). However, far from being naïve, she usually fought back [while] showing a keen intellect (as in Spellbound) and the ability to extricate herself from treacherous situations. She never played a villain or treacherous person, but she did sometimes portray a woman who suffered blows because of weakness or poor choices (Arch of Triumph or Stromboli). Though known for playing straight dramatic roles, Bergman displayed a talent for comedienne, as in Indiscreet and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Bergman honed her skills constantly, from the start of her career in Sweden to her last role as Golda Meir (for which she posthumously received an Emmy). Bergman was not an imitator but always did things her own way. She commanded the screen with her presence like no one else.
AHM: Do you think that Bergman’s move to Hollywood transformed her acting in any way?
CS: Yes. In her Swedish films, aside from looking much younger (she looked younger than her age throughout her career), she was more realistic [since] films in Sweden had not attained the polish and glamor of Hollywood’s output. Her appearance and character were linked to her Swedish environment. People tried to make a living by leading simple lives and were surrounded by a near-polar environment with long nights and snow on the ground. Bergman’s mentor and director of several of her Swedish movies, Gustaf Molander, was consciously trying to present her on the screen as a woman of modest background (looking middle-class or lower). In the only film included in this book, En Kvinnas Ansikte (A Woman’s Face), she is not only low class but also a criminal that leads a gang which blackmails straying lovers. She also has an ugly scar on one side of her face, the result of a fire wound in her younger days.
David O. Selznick would not have allowed his Swedish import to look anything but beautiful. In Hollywood, beauty and glamor were institutions and actors and actresses had to undergo changes in their appearance, including hair color, eyebrows, lip design, teeth, not to mention accent and body movement. Bergman was tutored in English to learn the American idiom, while her appearance on the screen would change radically. In Hollywood, her Swedish plainness would be transformed into glamor. Though she would not allow Selznick to thin her eyebrows, Bergman was manipulated on a set to look glamorous, and one way to do that was to photograph her face from the left, which, some agreed, favored her profile. In Casablanca, this becomes evident, as one sees her face in profile from several angles, in numerous close-ups. Though retaining her individuality, Bergman became a glamorous movie star, being given proven male leads, and becoming world famous within a year or two after her arrival in Hollywood.
Though her Hollywood image was soiled after her adventure with Rossellini, Bergman regained her glamor with Anastasia, after which she projected an international image, making movies in several languages, Italian, French, Swedish, and never quite becoming a Hollywood idol again. Her last movie, Autumn Sonata, made for her namesake, Ingmar Bergman, brought her back to her homeland (though it was actually filmed in Norway) and the cycle was completed. Bergman’s image of an international star came into being in the second part of her career, but she is mostly still remembered as a Hollywood mega-star.
AHM: What do you think Bergman took away from her experiences working with Alfred Hitchcock?
CS: Actresses who worked for Hitchcock said that they learned a great deal about acting from the Master of Suspense. He tutored them individually, on and off the set, supervising their movements, dress, accent, commandeering their performance in every film, while almost never praising a performance. With Bergman, Hitchcock developed a warm relationship from the start, guiding her adeptly through the three films she made for him. In Spellbound, she developed leadership qualities by adopting an unorthodox method of treating a patient, who was also her lover. Over the objections of several senior members of a psychiatric clinic, she undertakes to prove that he is not a suspected killer. Hitchcock shows her wearing glasses in her early scenes, suggesting that she was sexually repressed—a favorite Hitchcock gambit. As the plot progresses, the glasses are tossed off, while Constance Petersen takes the lead in investigating a crime against the advice of her seniors. In Notorious, Bergman was a dominant figure on the screen throughout the movie. Hitchcock taught her to be subtle in reaction shots, as for instance at the time she realizes that she is being poisoned by Madam Sebastian and Alex. Almost every possible shot was used to photographing her in several mental states—which is actually his strategy in the film. Bergman was a mature actress when she started working for Hitchcock; it shows on the screen. But her work for the Master gave her an extra sheen and cinematic stature that she retained for the rest of her career.
AHM: Not only is NOTORIOUS my favorite Ingrid Bergman film, but it also happens to be one of my five favorite Hitchcock films. I actually believe that it is superior to CASABLANCA (which is admittedly an incredible film) because it has so many layers of subtext to appreciate. I enjoy the relationship politics involved between Alicia and Devlin and their testing of one another—a test they both fail miserably. There is always more to see with each viewing. On top of all of this, Bergman is simply incredible! It’s really her show.
CS: I could have written these exact words. Yes, Bergman was wonderful in Casablanca, but that film is Bogart’s. He has much more screen time than she has, and he is the character that makes the major decisions. In Notorious, Bergman is center stage from beginning to end. Dejected after her father’s trial (and a bit later his death), she takes refuge in carousal and goes driving with an unknown man who happens to be at her party. When she is asked to collaborate with American Intelligence, she accepts and embarks on a dangerous mission that nearly costs her life. She handles everything “with great intelligence,” as Prescott tells her. Alicia Huberman is a heroine in the best sense of the word. She takes on the challenge to be another “Mata Hari” and, despite a heartache caused by her lover Devlin (Grant), she delivers the goods. Hitchcock makes sure the viewer understands her plight by having his camera following her in close-ups, the famous crane shot where the key to the cellar is shown in her hand, and many sequences where her actions, as well as her state of mind, are clearly communicated to the viewer. The love story cannot be ignored here either: the man she loves, stung by his conscience and realizing her plight comes to her rescue, just in time. Casablanca is a story of at least half a dozen people, put together with superior artistry. Notorious is following a single narrative line and the center of that line is Bergman.
AHM: Do either of you have a favorite Bergman film?
CS: For me, Notorious is Bergman’s best film and the reasons for that are explained in the paragraph above. I will add that a close second is Gaslight, for which Bergman received her first Oscar. This is an extraordinary performance in which Bergman is playing a woman losing her mind, subjected to mental torment by a designing villain-husband. In the last scene, when Sergis Bauer (Boyer) is tied, Bergman as Paula Anton delivers a caustic speech in which she explodes with feelings that were held back. She pours out her soul, it seems, providing a balm (catharsis) to the audience, thirsting for her to take revenge.
AHM: Is there a least favorite?
CS: That for me would be Arch of Triumph. It was made by Enterprise—United Artists, a company aiming to make movies with artistic ambitions. The company did not survive the failure of this film. In it Bergman plays Joan Madou, a European woman of undermined background, taking lovers, rather than pursuing a career (possible that of the singer since Madou could sing). The film was poorly edited and the plot seems murky at times. The reason for including it is that, despite its shortcomings, the film still manages to convey the plight of Russian and other refugees at the brink of the Second World War. Besides, the film features strong characters, Charles Laughton as a sadistic Nazi, Charles Boyer as a displaced doctor, and Louis Calhern (remembered from Notorious) playing an expatriate Russian who shelters and helps other displaced persons. Even as a “bad” character, Bergman gives a notable performance as an aimless, displaced woman who suffers the consequences of her ill-judged actions.
AHM: It’s impossible to discuss Ingrid Bergman’s career without at least touching on her relationship with Roberto Rossellini, but instead of the resulting scandal, I prefer to discuss their work together. How do you think their distinctive styles changed the other’s work?
CS: Bergman’s collaboration with Rossellini demanded special work and a special study of the Italian Neo-realistic movement. It was her torrential affair with Rossellini that caught the attention of her fans and obscured the relationship of the two in purely cinematic terms. One thing that should be noted is the vast differences between the movie-making styles and methods of Hollywood and the Italian neo-realists—especially Rossellini. Generally, in Hollywood, preparations for filming demand a considerable amount of time spent on the writing of a script, [the building of] sets, costume design, art direction, musical scoring, the casting of professional actors, and etc.
When Bergman arrived in Stromboli, she saw a volcanic island spuming lava and a few inhabitants eking out a living as fishermen while living under the constant threat of an eruption (which actually happened during filming). What astonished Bergman more than anything else was Rossellini’s unorthodox style of film-making. He had no script—only an idea of a displaced woman he had met earlier in a refugee camp—and it seems that the story evolved as filming progressed. Instead of sets, Rossellini shot scenes on the village streets of Stromboli, the sea-shore, and on the mountainsides. There were no doubles, so Bergman had to do all the running up and down the slopes. And basically, all the actors were untrained uncomprehending villagers who had no idea what was going on, and moved on cue, as Rossellini attached strings to their toes when he wanted them to move in one direction or another.
At first, Bergman was appalled, tossing out a complaint: “Is this realistic filmmaking?” Gradually, however, she complied with Rossellini’s methods as their love affair intensified. To her, Rossellini was a genius and she came under his spell with considerable enthusiasm and eventually she went along with his projects, which included four more films and an oratorio. As a consequence, her Hollywood persona was demolished, and she played women in failed marriages, either because of the conditions of the environment (as in Stromboli), or social class (as in Europe 51), which describes her as attaining sainthood, leaving her husband and his high class, and ending up as an inmate in a psychiatric asylum. Bergman’s talents were so capacious that she could adjust and adapt to Rossellini’s demands, and she rose to the occasion, making three films (Stromboli, Europe 51, Journey to Italy) playing failed women in which Rossellini describes the wreckages of the war, the emptiness of soul in the upper classes in Italy and Europe, and a marriage that goes through the motions—themes that were developed by his contemporaries, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini among others.
During the Rossellini episode, Bergman lost her good reputation in America, but her artistic abilities expanded as she became a more mature and skilled actress. This was due to her unparalleled professionalism which demanded excellence at any level of filmmaking. Rossellini himself explored Bergman’s talents to the limit and most of his films with her stood the test of time, although one cannot say that they have become more popular. In the end, setting aside the dimensions of a scandal that rocked Bergman’s career, both Rossellini and Bergman profited from working together, and their work merits further study.
AHM: Which Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is the strongest, and why do you think it shines above the others?
CS: Unquestionably, the strongest Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is Stromboli. The film shines in its objectivity in describing conditions in a God-forsaken place as realistically as was ever done in film. Despite the primitive conditions of filmmaking, Rossellini knew what he was doing and combined narrative and documentary style (the tuna fishing episode) while creating a story compelling enough to be watched with interest today. As for Bergman, the plainness of the environment favors her appearance, as she is more beautiful than ever (sitting on a rock, her hair, with a silver streak in it, blowing in the Mediterranean breezes). The Criterion Blu-ray of Stromboli is worth watching, as it reveals the uniqueness of this film in the Bergman canon.
AHM: Do you think that her work with Rossellini in Italy had any influence on her later work?
CS: In films that followed, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Goodbye Again, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Murder on the Orient Express, Bergman appears to have gained additional skills, playing mostly European women with an expanded range—a leader in the mountains of China, an American rich woman who fights for a cause against the Nazis, or a woman who a adjusts to a failed marriage—these are signs of maturity that may be attributed to her relationship to Rossellini. It is to be noted, however, that Bergman did not actually make a film in Hollywood until Cactus Flower in 1969. Her Hollywood career had essentially ended after her affair with Rossellini, but her performances were always good and at times superb, as Bergman always sought to try her best in every film she made. Rossellini had left his marks on her which can be traced in the rest of her career.
Interview by: Devon Powell