A Woman’s Face (1938)
Directed by Gustaf Molander
Screenplay by Gösta Stevens, Stina Bergman, Ragnhild Prim
Based on the play Il etait une fois by Francis de Croisset
Cinematography by Åke Dahlqvist
Edited by Oscar Rosander
Music by Eric Bengtson, Jules Sylvain
(1:40) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
One of the most jarring movie experiences I’ve had this year occurs during the opening moments of A Woman’s Face. A gang of blackmailers gather to report to their leader on the progress of two current blackmail schemes. From an inner room (with doors open), we hear a female voice barking orders with impatience and venom. Even if you’ve never seen any of her non-English language films, you know from the voice that it’s Ingrid Bergman, and it’s more than a little unsettling.
Bergman plays Anna Holm, a bitter woman whose disfigured face long ago became the impetus for her alienation from normal society as well as her criminal behavior. All Anna cares about is making as much money as possible. When a member of her gang puts a 5,000 kroner blackmail scheme into play, Anna tells him to up it to 10,000. We’re not (at least I’m not) used to seeing Bergman playing a criminal, much less a heartless one like Anna, yet she’s so good in the role, you wish she’d taken on more criminal parts during her career.
Anna’s gang has two blackmail jobs going at once: trying to fleece Mrs. Wegert (Karin Carlson-Kavli), a doctor’s wife over the letters she wrote to a lover, and Torsten Barring (Georg Rydeberg, above left) a wealthy Consul’s amoral nephew, who plans to murder the little boy stranding between him and a hefty inheritance. I won’t disclose how these sometimes complex events play out, but from what I just told you, you can probably connect the dots as to how Anna has corrective surgery, which changes her entire outlook on life.
Or does it? One of the things A Woman’s Face does is examine the ancient concept that goes everything that’s beautiful must be good, while all that's ugly must be evil. A Woman’s Face is far more complex than that, playing out in a mostly satisfying way, although the first half of the film is more interesting on a film noir level.
The film was famously remade in 1941 with Joan Crawford in the title role. I saw that film years ago and enjoyed it very much, but I suspect that if I saw it again, I would prefer the Swedish original. Bergman made only a few more films in Sweden before coming to Hollywood, and the rest, as they say… Well, you know.