Branding Bergman — Part Two: The Janus Years and Beyond
How the famed US art-house distributor transformed Ingmar Bergman from a maker of Swedish skin flicks into a synonym for Quality Cinema
Go here to read Part One of this visual history of how Ingmar Bergman’s films made their first impact in North America, presented in conjunction with the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Bergman 100: The Ingmar Bergman Centenary.
Janus Films was founded in 1956 by Harvard alumni Cyrus Harvey, Jr. and Bryan Haliday, arthouse purveyors in Cambridge and New York who saw that there was an untapped market for presenting foreign films to discerning audiences. They named their company after the two-faced Roman God, a tag that Turner Classic Movies explains as representative the company’s “twin avenues of ‘art and commerce.’” (In a 2011 obituary for Harvey, however, his widow Rebecca revealed “They named it that because they themselves were opposites[:] Bryant was gay and Catholic, Cy was straight and Jewish. They really liked that.”)
Janus’ first acquisition was Fellini’s The White Sheik, which they premiered at New York’s 55th Street Playhouse in April 1956. But the company’s early success was directly tied to a deal they struck with Svensk Filmindustri in 1958, which made Janus the exclusive US distributor for the films of Ingmar Bergman. It was a risky venture for both companies: Janus had yet to prove themselves as a distributor, while Bergman was an all-but-unknown quantity for American audiences.
Harvey and Haliday devised a strategy to prepare the market for the large (and still-growing) crop of films they had just acquired. Janus would dole out the films at a steady but deliberate pace while their PR firm, Blowitz & Maskell, seeded the press with stories about the director, his casts, and his themes, conditioning audiences to think of the filmmaker as a singular, significant artist. For each new release, the advance press primed audiences on what to expect from the film and how it fit into Bergman’s oeuvre.
The first of Janus’ Bergman releases was The Seventh Seal, which premiered at Manhattan’s Paris Theatre in October 1958. In his review for The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas boldly stated that “There is more cinema in The Seventh Seal than in the entire Hollywood production of 1958” (though he made an exception for Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil).
US critics were keyed up about The Seventh Seal, and Janus took full advantage of their enthusiasm, creating advertisements and posters that said little about the film itself, but which were plastered with pull-quote adjectives like “Extraordinary,” “Beautiful,” and “Rewarding.”
Janus’ Bergman machine was slow to start — this initial release of The Seventh Seal lasted only four weeks — but it didn’t take long to build momentum. Six months later, the company released Wild Strawberries, employing the same tactics they had for The Seventh Seal. Now primed for the new Bergman after months of groundwork by Blowitz & Maskell, filmgoers turned up in droves. Once again, Janus’ advertising approach was uncomplicated: squeeze as many raves as possible into a quarter- or eighth-page ad.
A mere two months after Wild Strawberries, Janus delighted the growing crop of Bergman devotees by unveiling The Magician, a dark comedy about a troupe of illusionists and swindlers who descend upon a small town.
While The Magician’s ads followed Janus’ now dependable strategy, for this release the company aimed beyond big-city arthouses. Knowing that The Magician was a little less cerebral than their two previous Bergman releases, Janus also issued an English-dubbed version of the film, which allowed it to play in markets whose only prior experience with Bergman was the salaciously advertised Hallmark cut of Monika. (That said, The Magician played in far more reputable houses than those that had opened their doors to Monika.)
A month later, Janus revived The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night (which it had acquired following that film’s previous US release by the Rank Organisation) as a double feature, exposing both films to audiences who had missed them on their first go-round but were now eager to soak up any new Bergman.
By the end of 1959, the seemingly forbidding Scandinavian filmmaker had become a film phenomenon of the sort normally reserved for fresh Hollywood faces. An October 1959 New York Times article entitled “Ingmar Bergman Lights 5 Screens” revealed that in their still-ongoing Manhattan runs, Wild Strawberries had earned $153,000 over 17 weeks, The Magician $63,000 over eight, and that the double-feature run of Seventh Seal and Smiles had already earned $9,000 in its first week. The article suggested that these four films had earned “perhaps more than all the other Swedish films shown since the war put together.”
Even as Bergman was becoming the face of Swedish cinema around the world, at home his films often failed to return their investment. In a feature written by James Baldwin for Esquire, one of Bergman’s Svensk Filmindustri “co-workers” told the author that, while Bergman “wins the prizes and brings us the prestige,” it was other directors the studio “counted on to bring in the money.”
Back across the Atlantic, Bergman’s films brought in more than $1 million for Janus in 1959, which Harvey told Variety was “about 15 or 20 times what we did last year.” Bergman was good for Janus, and Janus was good for Bergman. The director’s steady output and extensive back catalogue allowed Janus to run what, in effect, amounted to an ongoing, nationwide retrospective of a director’s work. In terms of both access and context, they made the films accessible to audiences that might never have encountered the director otherwise.
Janus was also good for some of their competitors. Hallmark’s five-year claim on Monika had yet to expire, and now enjoyed a renewed interest. Inter-American Films quickly released Brink of Life, which Bergman had made the previous year for The Swedish Folk Cinema, a competitor to Svensk Filmindustri.
Meanwhile, Thirst (which previously had that disastrous four-day Miami run in 1955) reappeared as 3 Strange Loves under the banner of Astor Pictures, a one-time Poverty Row distributor that had moved into the growing arthouse market with films like Roberto Rossellini's Fear and Fellini’s Il Bidone.
While film fans were evidently hungry for Bergman, Janus was wary of flooding the market. After a year on screens, the company pulled Wild Strawberries and The Magician, even though there was still demand for both films. However, that gap was filled by Janus’ releases of Bergman’s 1954 comedy A Lesson in Love in March 1960, followed quickly by the 1955 Dreams in May.
A number of A Lesson in Love’s ads show the Janus formula at its breaking point, reproducing lengthy, forbidding blocks of reviews. When Dreams appeared two months later, the company had reined it in a bit and reintroduced a little breathing room.
Janus also assembled a touring Bergman retrospective that was intended to contextualize the films by playing them in roughly chronological order. Interestingly, Janus retained many of the films’ earlier US release titles, including The Naked Night (a.k.a. Sawdust and Tinsel) and Illicit Interlude (a.k.a. Summer Interlude), and introduced a mildly dubious one of their own with Secrets of Women, which had been titled Waiting Women in the original Swedish.
The Bergman phenomenon peaked with The Virgin Spring, which became the first of the director’s films to be issued stateside in the same year as its European release. However, The Virgin Spring arrived in New York City in November 1960 in a slightly edited version. In the months since its Swedish premiere, there had been much speculation that the graphic rape scene that served as the crux of the film would be pruned by US censors. American papers had reported from Stockholm that 15 “stunned” viewers walked out of the first showing in response to the scene, and another two at the second screening.
In the event, New York censors did excise two brief shots of the victim’s bare legs being pulled by one of her attackers. These token edits were likely prompted by the months of press speculation, and would have gone unnoticed were it not for subsequent reports that the film had been sanitized as expected.
But reported these cuts were, and it incited San Francisco Film Festival founder Irving Levin to complain that “viewers were being fed an abridged version of an important film.” Janus responded with a statement that “the other 49 states, including California, will receive the full-length version.” But while the version they got may have been full-length, in most cities it still wasn’t Bergman’s original: Janus opted to widen the film’s appeal by issuing an English-language version outside of New York and Los Angeles. And it worked: The Virgin Spring earned $700,000 in US theatres, 90% of which Harvey said came from the wildly popular dubbed version, and took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
After The Virgin Spring, Janus once again reissued two back-catalogue titles, Secrets of Women in October 1960 and The Devil’s Eye in July 1961.
Meanwhile, Bergman followed up on The Virgin Spring by entering a new phase of his career: the “Trilogy of Faith,” comprised of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Rightly assuming that the first-named film would be Sweden’s submission for that year’s Oscar race, Janus waited until the nominations had been announced and then opened the film in New York City in March 1962. The film won the award shortly thereafter (the second Bergman film to do so in as many years), and Janus duly widened the release.
Understandably, other distributors wanted in on Janus’ golden goose. Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures bought the rights to two older, pre-Svensk Bergman films, Music in Darkness (1948) — which was retitled Night is My Future — and Prison (1949), which received the provocative new moniker The Devil’s Wanton. As would happen again and again in the years to come, the promotion of these films leaned heavily on Janus’ missionary work to make Bergman synonymous with “art cinema.”
These off-brand Bergmans were soon overshadowed by the director’s newest film, Winter Light, which hit US screens in May 1963. By this time, Janus’ promotional efforts were somewhat effortless. Their print advertising was blanketed in pull-quotes — including a strangely defensive one from The New Yorker’s Brendan Gill (“I assure you it is a beautiful movie!”) — while their trailers generally reasserted the director’s bona fides.
To the surprise of many, in early 1963 Bergman announced his withdrawal from filmmaking: having been appointed director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm, he declared that his focus would now be on the stage. His retreat left Janus with two seemingly final, as-yet-unreleased films, The Silence and All These Women. The latter, a consciously frivolous divertissement, had little impact in the US. The former, however, made quite the splash.
The Silence was one of the few Bergman films of this era to make a significant mark on the box office in the director’s homeland. Shortly before its US release, The New York Times devoted a quarter-page article to the film, reporting that approximately 15% of Swedes had seen it and that the country was “churning with debate” over three particularly erotic scenes, which the article then went on to describe in detail.
In retrospect, the NYT piece seems like it could have been secured by Blowitz & Maskell, as its focus on the film’s sexual content was certainly in line with the racy campaign that Janus rolled out for their newest Bergman. Janus’ usual pull-quotes were here replaced with more provocative tidbits (“The most shocking film I have ever seen,” “Not for the prudish”). One fabulous ad from The Los Angeles Times asked (and then answered) that age-old question: “How uncensored can a film be?”
Although Janus didn’t go full Hallmark-style Monika with their Silence trailer, they came close: the voiceover narration promises “an intimate, fascinating look into a world where people seek to communicate through the ruthless gratification of their sexual appetites.” Ingrid Thulin’s role is described as “a brilliant portrayal of the delicate and complexing [sic] intimacies of lesbian love,” while co-star Gunnel Lindblum is painted as “a beautiful arrogant creature of the flesh living only for lust and licentious pleasure.” Enjoy!
The Silence trailer (1963)
Though it didn’t cause the same stir it had in Sweden, The Silence was one of Bergman’s biggest American hits, raking in over $1 million at the US box office. But this success proved to be the end of an era, both for Bergman’s super-popularity in the US and for Janus Films itself.
In 1965, Harvey and Halladay sold the company after several years of diminishing returns. In a 2006 interview, Harvey told NPR that he and Halladay “barely came out of there with a dollar. I mean, we broke even after 12 years of work.” New owners Saul Turrell and William Becker reversed the company’s fortunes by finding a new market beyond the big-city arthouses when they started supplying films to universities and the growing number of film clubs around the country.
Bergman’s absence from filmmaking lasted a mere two years, and when he was ready to return, Svensk Filmindustri — believing that a major studio was the best bet to expose Bergman to a larger audience — made an arrangement with United Artists to release the director’s new films. UA was one of several Hollywood companies that had muscled in on the foreign-film market in the mid-1960s, having acquired the indie distributor Lopert Pictures, which had made a small name for itself with releases of films like Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte.
In March 1967, Lopert/UA released Bergman’s comeback Persona, a film that picked up thematically where The Silence had left off, but introduced a whole host of new, metacinematic devices to Bergman’s stylistic toolkit. In contrast to the novelty of the filmmaking, UA produced a fairly passive marketing campaign comprised of a mediocre poster (above), text-only print ads, and a trailer that somehow manages to be overly enigmatic while still saying too much.
Persona trailer (1967), United Artists
In spite of near-universal praise, Persona earned a disappointing $250,000 in the US. Perhaps the audience had moved on during Bergman’s absence, as the American appetite for foreign films was still very much in evidence: directors like Fellini (La Dolce Vita), Antonioni (La Notte), and Godard (Breathless) had all enjoyed success stateside.
Undaunted, UA plowed on with their Bergman commitment. After the distributor ran ads for Hour of the Wolf declaring “It Is Unthinkable For Anyone Not To See It!”, the unthinkable happened, with the film drawing the same limited crowds as Persona.
The company’s release of Shame led to regret, as the studio took a loss on the film after spending a reported $111,000 on advertising — including a bizarre trailer and print ads resembling ones that surely cost Janus a lot less.
Fearing that Bergman’s follow-up, a fiction/nonfiction hybrid titled A Passion, was going to be a tough sell, UA marketed it as The Passion of Anna in a Hail-Mary attempt to recast the film in a more erotic light. Predictably, audiences showed little passion for the film, rendering the UA-Bergman experiment an unqualified failure.
1971 saw the release of Bergman’s first English-language film, The Touch, by Cinerama, which 20 years after starting the widescreen craze had transitioned into serving as a distributor of films destined for grindhouses and drive-ins. The Touch lost a reported $1 million before fading into obscurity, where it mostly stayed for the next four decades until enjoying a critical reassessment during the Bergman centenary tour.
Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, erstwhile maker of biker movies and nurse-themed sex romps, became the American distributor of the director’s new film Cries and Whispers after Corman made good on a promise to put the film in front of audiences who had never seen an Ingmar Bergman movie (at least since Monika). Perhaps most surprisingly, New World did it all without any tawdry gimmicks, and delivered the director’s most lucrative outing since The Silence.
The Cinerama and New World releases established a pattern that would hold over the next decade, as every subsequent Bergman film to appear in the US was released by a different company than the previous one, with wildly unpredictable box-office results.
While the era of “Bergmania” was decisively done, thanks to Janus’ efforts in the ’50s and ’60s the director’s name still carried weight as a synonym for Quality Cinema. Two decades after that first association, the Janus-Bergman link was reforged when Janus’ sister company, The Criterion Collection, began releasing the director’s films on home video: first on laserdisc, and then on DVD and Blu-ray. Picking up Harvey and Haliday’s mantle, Criterion repackaged the films, provided context in the form of essays and bonus features, and made Bergman’s work accessible for new generations of viewers.
Meanwhile, Janus’ theatrical arm, now run by Turell and Becker’s sons, has acquired almost all of the director’s 40-plus films, making sure they are available for new generations to encounter in theatrical settings. (Janus has provided many of the prints being screened in Bergman 100.) Though the company’s original Bergman formula has never been quite replicated, their calculated rollout of the director’s films provided a blueprint that informed how countless independent distributors introduced North American audiences to international auteurs.