Monday, December 13, 2010

Swedish Mad Max

It's odd how some films stay with you. I saw the Swedish film, The Night Visitor, just once at the theater upon its release back in 1971. Its dark, disturbing, understated quality made such an indelible impression, I've been seeking out films like it ever since. I just saw it again last week for the first time in forty years. With little gore, no jump scares, and a reverse engineered mystery, The Night Visitor still packs a haunting punch.

Synopsis:  Committed Swedish farmer Salem gets himself some payback.  

The film opens with a lone man running through the snowy Swedish countryside at night, wearing only his underwear. In the background, a large, dark, ominous building on the top of a hillside looms over him. He eventually arrives at a house where a family is involved in a heated argument downstairs. The man sneaks upstairs and selects a suit tie out of a bunch of others in the the bedroom closet. When he hears someone approaching, he jams the ties in a doctor's bag and leaves.

The questions raised by the opening are soon answered, although some are answered more quickly and definitively than others. The biggest mystery revolves around how the man is able to get out to execute his plans. This mystery, along with the man's identity, and the reason for his nocturnal visits, are organically explained within the context of events as they unfold rather than with large exposition drops. This makes the film quite lean, pacey and engaging. But it also means the film can't be watched casually. There are minor, but important details, that are passed along throughout the story that are crucial to understanding what's going on. Also, the fantastic, low key ending is set up cleverly, in a matter of fact manner, much earlier in the film.

With three Swedish film icons plus Trevor Howard, the acting performances are all top notch. The mighty Max von Sydow plays the lead character Salem as a quiet, enigmatic, clever man who enjoys mind games. Trevor Howard plays the smart, experienced police inspector who takes nothing at face value and refuses to get manipulated by Salem. Liv Ullmann is very good playing against type as the cold and calculating sister of Salem, but it's Per Oscarsson as her husband, who gives the best performance. Oscarsson, last seen in The Girl Who Played With Fire, is outstanding as the weak doctor who slowly starts to come undone under Salem's mechanizations. 

The gloomy, oppressive and somewhat off kilter atmosphere of the film is accomplished by the unusual cinematography which uses a dark green and grey color pallet. The often discordant soundtrack by Henry Mancini, who is known for much lighter fare, also adds very effectively to the disturbing atmosphere.

The film doesn't really have any major weaknesses. Although the direction is quite perfunctory, and not at all stylized, it gets the job done quite nicely. The story moves right along with only one or two spots where it slows unnecessarily. The film is low budget, but the low production value looks decent, and any cracks in the veneer are not that noticeable.

When I first saw the film at age 10, I enjoyed the thriller aspects and creepy atmosphere. This time I was blown away by the great acting and story intricacies. Despite the understated, subtle nature of the film, I was completely sucked in at both viewings. 

Overall score

Very cool - Max von Sydow running through snow in his underwear.

Not so much - Seeing von Sydow in his underwear.

WTF! Christopher Lee was the first choice to play Salem? No way, von Sydow's the man!

1 comment:

  1. Now, this looks like a good fine....
    Thanks for the tip. I'll be checking it out.