The Phantom Carriage, Blu-ray (1921/2011)
Director: Victor Sjöström
Studio: Janus Films/The Criterion Collection 579 [9/27/11]
Video: 1.37:1 for 16:9 tinted color 1080p HD
Audio: Choice of two scores in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Extras: Commentary tracks by film historian Casper Tybjerg, Ingmar Bergman interview from documentary on Sjöström, “The Bergman Connection” – visual essay on the film’s influence on Bergman, Silent footage of Rasunda Studio where the film was made, Printed booklet with photos and essay by screenwriter/filmmaker Paul Mayersberg
Length: 106 minutes
Visually, and with the choice of two scores plus the many extras of all Criterion releases, I would say this is one of the best classic film restoration jobs I have viewed. Sjöström is considered the father of Swedish cinema, and he starred in his own film, which greatly influenced both Ingmar Bergman (inspired him to make movies) and Jean Cocteau. He much later played the old man in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries.
The story line is based on a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author about an alcoholic and abusive man who is mean to his wife and two children and frittering away his life (he also has consumption). A beautiful and very committed Salvation Army sister believes in his redemption and comes to love him in spite of his awful failings. When he first comes to her Salvation Army location, she stays up all night sewing to repair his tattered jacket, while he sleeps. The next day he tears out all her work saying he’s used to it that way, and meanwhile she gets TB due to the germs on his jacket.
The title comes from a story the man tells his drinking buddies about a legend of a phantom carriage that comes at midnight on New Year’s Eve to collect the last soul to die in the old year; then that soul has to be the carriage-driver for the next year, doing Death’s work. Shortly the man himself drunkenly dies and his old friend—who has been the chariot-driver for the past year—comes in the ghostly carriage for his soul. Meanwhile the Salvation Army sister is also dying of TB but wants to see the man once more to try again to redeem him. His soul is taken by the carriage-driver to see her. The morality tale has the flavor of a ghost story by Charles Dickens.
The Swedish Film Institute was involved in this superb restoration work, which uses color film in order to preserve the very effective tinting of the black & white images. Outdoor night scenes are bluish, scenes indoors orangish, and so on. Sjöström used many facial closeups effectively, which few directors did at this time. The aspect ratio is slightly more widescreen than standard 4:3 sound films due to what later became the soundtrack area of the film being part of the image. The Swedish intertitles are clearly translated on the same frame, and one notes how much longer the Swedish title runs than the English translation. One of the two film scores is from composer Matti Bye and played by a small ensemble in a style appropriate the the time of the original film. The other music is of a more experimental electronic nature, by the duo KTL, and doesn’t seem appropriate for the images. The quite long 1981 interview with Bergman is of prime interest.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.