Color, 1977, 119 mins. 30 secs.
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring David Carradine, Liv Ullmann, Gert Fröbe, Heinz Bennent
Arrow Video (Blu-ray (UK R0 HD), Criterion (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1)
The word "mistake" tends to get thrown around a lot when talking about Ingmar Bergman's sole big Hollywood studio production made with producer Dino De Laurentiis. In fact, the maestro himself had less than kind words to say on occasion before softening up about it, but over the years it's taken on a certain mystique and plays quite well today as a unique paranoid vision from a period when the art house and mainstream were almost on the same track.
In 1920s Germany, Jewish-American trapeze artist Abel Rosenberg (Carradine) is shaken to the core by the suicide of his brother and fellow circus performer, who leaves behind an enigmatic note stating "There is a poisoning going on." Already eroded by the country's declining fortunes and his own alcoholism, Abel can't provide an explanation to his sister-in-law, Manuela (Ullmann), and is soon questioned in relation to a string of sinister deaths connected to him in the neighborhood. He also discovers Manuela's secret life as a prostitute and cabaret performer, and when they decide to start their lives over in an apartment building, they soon learn that a truly malevolent plan is at work.
The Serpent's Egg was made during a particularly turbulent period for Bergman as he was living outside Sweden due to tax evasion charges, a circumstance that also led to shooting Autumn Sonata and the incredibly dark From the Life of the Marionettes. That latter film (shot, like this one, in West Germany) is key to understanding this one with their shared dissection of the pathology of human cruelty, a morbid streak that would turn up in some of his other occasional forays into pitch black darkness like Hour of the Wolf and The Rite. The chilly response to the film hardly exists in a vacuum as other filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Claude Chabrol, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Luchino Visconti were all making bids for stronger English-language prominence with mixed results. It's hard to imagine that a film with this tone and subject matter was ever really intended by its creator to be some sort of Hollywood calling card; it's a creepy, jagged concoction with Carradine's inherent stoicism serving him well in a tricky role that constantly teeters on the edge of being unsympathetic. The revelation of exactly what's going on is particularly grim and one of the more harrowing passages in Bergman, not dissimilar from the nightmare exposition amateur film portion of Brian De Palma's Sisters as it lays out a string of psychological horrors in front of the viewer.
Bergman's film appeared almost simultaneously on Blu-ray in the U.K. and the U.S., the latter only as part of the spectacular Criterion set, Ingmar Bergman's Cinema. That box mostly treats the film as an afterthought, pairing it up with Bergman's other (partially) English-language feature, The Touch, and featuring as its sole extra a 2004 featurette created for the film's MGM DVD release, "Away from Home" (15m50s) with Carradine, Ullmann and author Marc Gervais recalling how the production got off the ground and became a rewarding experience for both of its stars during the shoot in Munich with a much larger crew than the normal Bergman production. The U.K. Arrow disc is far more substantial, featuring not only the "Away from Home" featurette but also Carradine's audio commentary from the DVD (his descriptions of Bergman as "lovable and hatable" for example are priceless). Audio is LPCM English mono (with some bits in intentionally unsubtitled German) with optional English SDH subtitles. Image quality for both releases is identical, cooler than the DVD but vastly superior with a great deal more detail, refined film grain, and gradation in the darker scenes (of which there are many). Also ported over from the DVD is "German Expressionism" (5m36s) with Gervais expounding more about the film's position outside the usual Bergman film traits thanks to its efforts to invoke the look and feel of 1920s and early 1930s German cinema, particularly that of Fritz Lang. The new "Bergman's Egg" (25m42s) with author Barry Forshaw touching of many aspects including Bergman's knack for building his films around women, the circus thread running through his films, and the public perception of Bergman cinema and its symbolism as well as the strong content that pushed the envelope at the time. The Paramount theatrical trailer is also included along with a huge, 94-image stills gallery. The packaging comes with reversible sleeve options and, in the first pressing only, new liner notes by Geoffrey Macnab.
Reviewed on December 4, 2018