Radiant and expressive, Ingrid Bergman must stand next to Garbo as one of the most luminous foreign-born stars of the classical age. Plucked from Sweden’s film industry by super-producer David O. Selznick, Bergman refused a studio makeover, maintaining an unadorned look by 1940s standards of Hollywood glamour. As an actor, she was a consummate professional – keen to challenge herself and closely collaborating with her directors. Those collaborations even extended to Alfred Hitchcock, he of the famous “actors are like cattle” quip.
Her public image – that of a world-weary but unimpeachably ‘good’ woman — was shattered in the early 1950s when she left America – and her family – for a love affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. In the vicious media circus that followed, Bergman was vilified in all corners for her ‘loose morals’. She nonetheless flourished in a handful of films directed by Rossellini, and went on to work with Jean Renoir and that other great Bergman in a stunning late career coup. Here are 10 of Ingrid Bergman’s essential films.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
A near perfect synthesis of wit, cynicism and romance, Casablanca remains an incredible example of Hollywood serendipity. The film hardly seemed a likely contender to become one of the most beloved of all time. Shooting was a jumbled and frustrating process. A slew of credited and uncredited writers rewrote the script on a daily basis. Bergman complained to producer Hal Wallis, wondering how to characterise the vacillating Ilsa when the screenwriters still hadn’t decided her fate. Even after its latter-day appreciation, Bergman could never quite understand its appeal. And somehow, in spite of all that, Casablanca moved far beyond the realm of wartime propaganda – becoming a distinguished pinnacle of the entire studio system.
Director: George Cukor
Set in Victorian London, George Cukor’s psychological thriller stars Bergman as an unwitting new wife to a slick, manipulative murderer (Charles Boyer) who begins to convince her she is going mad. Torn between affection for her husband and increasing terror, Bergman avoids playing the faint-hearted victim, maintaining an understated, nervous demeanour instead. Her slow decline into hysteria won her the first of her best actress Oscars. Her put-on insanity in the final sequence, where she refuses to help a tied-up Boyer, is almost elemental in its vindictive glee. Gaslight is sophisticated and elevated genre material; a gothic melodrama with all the long shadows of noir, aided and abetted by a very strong cast.
The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Director: Leo McCarey
This good-natured comedy starring Bing Crosby as a bumbling parish priest attempting to reform an inner-city Catholic school – with Bergman as a hard-headed young nun – is a light-hearted audience favourite. It’s certainly a far cry from the philosophical solemnity of her work with Rossellini – but the stars were in good hands with McCarey, whose comic credentials included Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937). It’s a meringue of a movie that feels like a cheerful respite for the often-serious Bergman – and it’s got some great gags.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
If for the Salvador Dalí dream sequence alone, Spellbound deserves a place on any celebration of Bergman’s film career. It also happens to be her first of three outings with Hitchcock, who cast her as a smitten psychoanalyst. She races to solve a murder in an attempt to protect the afflicted Gregory Peck, the object of her desire. According to Bergman, an extra Dalí sequence had lasted for 20 ingenious minutes before producer David O. Selznick called it “drivel” and cut it out altogether. Spellbound contains much in the way of dime-store Freud, and the repressed memories at the crux of the narrative are just this side of absurd, but the film glides through its sillier conceits on the charm and intensity of its two leads.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hitch envisioned his leading lady in a “Mata Hari type role” in this romantic espionage thriller. Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the dissolute and guilty daughter of a German spy. American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) uses her guilt to his advantage, sending her undercover to Rio to foil a Nazi plot. The government is happy to exploit Alicia’s much-remarked upon easy virtue to seduce an old acquaintance (an aristocratic, lovesick Claude Rains) for their covert plans. It’s a thoroughly adult, psychologically complex portrait of a love triangle – with a yearning between Grant and Bergman that’s sexy and palpable. Some of the most effective romantic scenes Hitchcock ever committed to celluloid can be found here, censor-defying kisses included.
Director: Roberto Rossellini
A product of Bergman and Rossellini’s initial flirtatious correspondence, Stromboli became the first film to bring the pair together, artistically and otherwise. Bergman plays Karin, a Lithuanian war refugee so desperate to escape her conditions that she marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) and moves with him to the remote, traditional island of Stromboli. The pair live beneath the ominous shadow of an active volcano, with Karin, a beautiful stranger, the target of the village’s bigotry and castigation. Isolated and despairing, she undergoes something of a spiritual crisis. Rossellini explores ideas of belonging and estrangement perhaps well-suited to the actor at that time; but he offers no easy answers.
Journey to Italy (1954)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Rossellini’s enigmatic story of an unravelling marriage takes place in the coastal holiday destination known as the Neapolitan Riviera. It’s a place so breathtakingly beautiful that one wonders how even the most sniffy of bourgeois couples might be unhappy there, but Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Bergman), a vacationing English couple, seem to fit the bill. Something in the Italian mood seems to magnify their malaise, making them aware of their loss of vitality after eight years of marriage. Conversations are airless and sarcastic. They make trips in solitude, wandering art museums and nightclubs with a distinct lack of purpose. When the pair finally come together in a tender moment, one wonders how much of it is motivated by devotion, and how much it’s just plain terror of their own mortality.
Director: Anatole Litvak
It’s somehow fitting that Bergman’s return to Hollywood after years of exile was in a film about the reinstatement of a deposed princess to her rightful place. (Even more fitting that she should win an Academy Award for her efforts.) Yet home isn’t home anymore for the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who, perhaps like the star, has been irrevocably changed by her exile; a gilded cage has no real attraction for her. Yul Brynner is an ex-general who has his eye on the inheritance left for any surviving member of the Romanov family. Bergman is the amnesiac princess – a starving vagrant when Brynner discovers her. It’s a histrionic, larger-than-life role set off by lavish CinemaScope, but Bergman does well to ground it – and to make real the terrible trauma of her family’s execution.
Director: Stanley Donen
This British reunion for Cary Grant and his Notorious co-star allowed them to resume their amiable working relationship, and the pair’s chemistry was still palpable. Donen elevates run-of-the-mill material here, casting Bergman as a lovelorn woman and Grant as the married man she falls for. It’s breezily directed, effortlessly acted, and full of effervescent glamour – the Lanvin, Dior, and Balmain gowns designed for Ingrid are alone worth the price of admission. Playfully acknowledging Bergman’s real-life reputation, the film posits her character as a potential homewrecker before conveniently dispensing with the moral quandary – Grant’s in a sham marriage. Still, it leaves her with a wickedly memorable line: “How dare he make love to me and not be a married man!”
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s softly-lit chamber piece stars Liv Ullmann as Eva, the resentful grown daughter to Ingrid’s elegant concert pianist, Charlotte. The film picks up after a seven-year gap between visits. In that space of time, Eva has lost a child who her mother has never even bothered to meet. Over the course of a day and a cathartic night, the facade of affection between the two women slips into blame and painful recrimination. The Swedish master takes a scalpel to the fraught mother-daughter dynamic, offering an unrelenting gaze into the bitter cycle of guilt, codependence and rage therein. Accusals of infidelity and family abandonment can’t help but to recall the star’s own extramarital drama, making it a brave and astoundingly frank late-career performance from Bergman.