THEY LIVE BY NIGHT
“What about tomorrow?”
It’s a question that provides the sweaty throb of motivation for so many doomed and desperate heroes, anti-heroes, and villains of film noir as they fight to escape the fatalist snarl of bad luck and bad choices that has ensnared them within a world of eternal night; a world in which “tomorrow” is a concept as unattainable as it is irresistible. It’s a question that leads adulterous couples to murder rich and cuckolded husbands, that teases lifetime payoffs to heists and capers forever destined to go wrong, that fuels star-crossed lovers on frantic, road-bound breakouts from The City and its cataract of rain and ruin that hangs over all. For these characters, “tomorrow” is a concept so inaccessible as to be worth risking everything.
“What about tomorrow?”
It’s a question that echoes throughout Ingmar Bergman’s second film as a director, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love. A question the hard-luck couple at its center asks again and again as they continually double-down on risky choices that render their futures doomed at worst and merely ambiguous at best. The film—a tonally-daring Expressionist chiaroscuro of broken lives attempting to escape a rain-soaked nightworld of broken dreams—presents two impetuous lovers repeatedly making foolish and sometimes criminal decisions to survive in an unnamed City, dumbstruck by the consequences they engender; it’s also a film that, like much of Bergman’s early 1940s work, interrogates the social necessity and moral value of those consequences and finds them wanting.
“What about tomorrow?”
It’s a question of dual meaning in the worlds of film noir and It Rains on Our Love. At times, it’s a reminder that tomorrow is a second chance worth fighting for; at others, it’s a queasy acknowledgement that today’s mistakes weave to form tomorrow’s noose. Early in Bergman’s sophomore film, a midnight rainstorm assaults the roof of a tiny cottage with the staccato fury of machine gunfire. Inside, ex-con and burglar-trying-to-go straight David (Birger Malmsten) eases onto a couch. Next to him lies Maggi (Barbro Kollberg), a secretly pregnant actress-turned-maid and, most recently, David’s lover. Light flickers from the fireplace, sending waves of ink-black shadows dancing across the walls, their faces, everything.
Homeless, broke, and without prospects, they’ve busted into the empty cottage to hide from the rain and their pasts and The City that looms around them. As they rest, David turns the handle on a damaged music box that ekes out a warbly tune. “It sounds a bit off,” he notes, “but I think it’s meant to be a melody.”
David then remarks that all of it—the two of them together, listening to a broken music box, lying together in the warm cottage—is nice. Of the music box, or perhaps the cottage itself (neither of which belongs to them) he suggests that “we ought to keep it.” As a nimbus of cigarette smoke coalesces around him, Maggi answers with a question. The only question.
“What about tomorrow?”
~ ~ ~
Like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 description of pornography—“I know it when I see it”—the definition of film noir is both easy to grasp and arduous to articulate. It’s a loose tangle of specific influences and abstract tones that are often subsumed by a cultural shorthand of surface-level clichés: a shadowy, monochrome world of fedora’d men and sex kitten molls trading bullets and barbs on rain-stained city streets that always terminate with dead ends. Like the works of Ingmar Bergman, noir has frequently fallen prey to lazy categorization. That sometimes slipshod classification belies the depths of noir’s truer, trickier landscape, in which flawed men and women, desperate to escape the dreariness of their lives (often held within the claustrophobe confines of a brutal megalopolis, a City) or to solve a mystery that promises meaning in world made of anything but, are faced with the dehumanizing truth as captured in Jules Dassin’s jailbreak nightmare of noir pulp, Brute Force: “Nobody escapes. Nobody ever really escapes.” At least, not until the final fade to black of mortality. It’s a genre that has as much to do with a grim, pessimistic philosophy as it does a style of photography or specific setting—something filmmaker Paul Schrader considers in his essay, “Notes on Film Noir” from 1972:
In 1946 French critics, seeing the American films they had missed during the war, noticed the new mood of cynicism, pessimism and darkness which had crept into the American cinema…It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood…Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?
For the sake of the discussion that follows, let’s agree upon the following: Aesthetically, as Schrader notes, films noir combine “Warner’s ‘30s gangster films, the French ‘poetic realism’ of Carné and Duvivier, Sternbergian melodrama, and, farthest back, German Expressionist crime films” and are bracketed between the years of 1940 and 1958. As for noir’s tone, writer/TCM host/“the Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller captures it best: “Film noir pointed toward the black core of corruption in our ‘civilized’ society and our primitive essence. The struggle of the individual to transcend or escape provided the emotional tension.”
Inasmuch as the films of this month’s subject are so much more than a famously existential chess match or conversations with a silent God, film noir is not just fedoras and gunmetal cool and life-destroying sex, although they’re all part of it; it’s not just the heightened shadows of Expressionism blanketing the street-level fatalism and blue-collar crimes of French poetic realism, although that’s part of it, too. Noir is all of that and more; it’s a portrait of lives lived at night, even when the sun is shining; it’s a portrait of men and women forever struggling to break free of a möbius midnight and make it to the dawn, if only once. To know, finally, about tomorrow.
And while it was the French critics who, having caught up on a half-decade of hard-boiled Hollywood cinema in the wake of World War II, may have given this murky genre its name and earliest definitions, it should be noted that other European countries and viewers were lucky enough to take in these celluloid fevers of crime, alienation, and moral rot upon their original releases, night after night after shadowy night.
One such country was Sweden. One such viewer was Ingmar Bergman.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE
Before the emotionally-fraught explorations of relationships and loneliness, before the examinations of women, before the studies of humiliation and alienation, before the portraits of dreams and personas and God/the lack thereof, and yes, before the ubiquitous chess match with Death, there was a playwright and theatrical director, barely in his 20s and desperate to transition his storytelling from the stage to the screen. Ingmar Bergman wanted to be a filmmaker.
It wasn’t easy.
Hired as a writer in the early 1940s by Svensk Filmindustri to hack out scripts with mainstream appeal, his first work to be shot was the Alf Sjöberg-directed Torment in 1944. It was on that film that the young Bergman was allowed to first direct a single sequence—albeit one that truncated his dark original ending and forced the main character, mourning the death of his mistress, to suddenly march happily towards a new life in the city. On the strength of Torment, Bergman was recruited to direct his feature-length debut, 1946’s Crisis (wherein he was once again studio-forced to shoot a happy ending with his lead once again marching happily towards a new life, this time away from the city). As he noted in Images, his second autobiography, Torment and Crisis were “apt” descriptions of his first (and very turbulent) decade as a filmmaker.
From 1946 to 1950, Bergman directed a staggering nine films of mostly mixed quality as he struggled to find cinematic styles to realize the scripts he was assigned (and which, in most cases, he had to rewrite). “It was sheer necessity,” he noted in a 1968 interview. “I still had nothing of my own to offer…I just grabbed helplessly at any form that might save me; because I hadn’t any of my own.” Frequently, the form this studio journeyman used to midwife the material was that of the melodrama—a genre in which sensationalized plots lord over simplified, schematic moral debates and thinly sketched character stereotypes, leaving little room for the ambiguities and complexities that would mark Bergman’s later, more assured work. The films were often based on material he found unimpressive (Bergman called the play upon which Crisis is based “an out-an-out bit of whoredom”), and were frequently marred by a young man’s impulse for didactic finger-wagging at his perception of Sweden’s hypocritical social mores.
While in his frantic “grabbing” Bergman was able to shade these early films with at least some nuance via the influence of Marcel Carné’s poetic realism, he went on to view this era as one of helplessness in which he was “a technical half-wit.” With perhaps a bit too much venom, he viewed Crisis (in which a small-town girl tries city life only to return to her rural roots after fleeing urban corruption) as a first film that’s “lousy, through and through,” about which “nothing’s good.” He dubbed his third film, 1947’s powerful but dour family psychodrama A Ship to India, a “major failure.” His fourth effort (and first mainstream success), Music in Darkness, was “a silly little film” and “product.” His writing contribution to his fifth, the neo-realist Port of Call, was “a miserable piece of work.”
However, amidst the turmoil of Bergman’s painful cinematic evolution, there was a brief but foundational moment in which the director, the material, the selected genre, and the nascent ideas that would become recurrent elements in his work—romance disintegrating from pressures both within and without, alienation and loneliness, redemption through love—all merged during the summer of 1946, and resulted in Bergman’s first great film, one that offered a promise of the ceaselessly inquisitive, difficult, funny, and powerful filmography to come.
~ ~ ~
A man in a cheap suit and fedora drinks from a birdbath fountain at night, surrounded by shadow and void. Out of the darkness comes a rush of bodies running to catch a departing train. They whip and pummel the man, pinballing him from person to person, knocking him to the ground and spilling his sole possession—a bag of apples—outward like a billiards break. One of the runners is a woman, who trips over the struggling man, knocking him back down as she hurtles past. The man recovers two of his apples and watches as she misses the howling train. As we first meet them—and they meet each other—David and Maggi have been left behind by city life; the train has literally passed them by.
When revising It Rains on Our Love’s “rather tedious” script by Herbert Grevenius (based on the play Good People by Oskar Braaten), Bergman struggled to find a cinematic form to best tell the story of David and Maggi, two tramps struggling to escape their dark pasts in a rainswept and unnamed City designed to preclude hopeful futures. He required a template that, when borrowed, could act both as the magic lantern to light his way through the material in a way he found interesting, and serve as a genre lens through which his audience could view and contextualize the work. He found his solution in the movie houses he haunted night after night, in a genre tailored to suit a story about individuals struggling to transcend the corruption of their pasts and the world around them.
“At that time, the film noir directors were my gods,” he confessed in 1968, noting the style’s “heavy influence” on It Rains on Our Love. As the American crime movies filled Swedish theaters in the 1940s, Bergman saw “the same films over and over again, evening after evening…It was extremely good for us.” Of particular fascination to Bergman were the noir works of Michael Curtiz (Angels with Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, the noir-adjacent Casablanca) and Raoul Walsh (They Drive by Night, High Sierra, Manpower); “[they] knew how to tell a story quite clearly, simply, and straightforwardly.”
With film noir, Bergman had a readymade cinematic vocabulary to express David and Maggi’s flowering romance and nightmarish journey; a style already so inherently freighted with acidic criticism of urban corruption so as render Bergman’s youthful soapboxing organic to the material rather than didactic; a method of filmmaking apposite to explore and evoke the preoccupations with metropolitan alienation, desperate love, cruel fate, and existential despair that had struggled to take root in Crisis but would fully cohere within It Rains on Our Love and thread throughout the 43-film body of work that was to follow. Noir contextualized the material and gave Bergman a technique for handling it, providing him with an inimitably suited vehicle of expression to voice his concerns about Swedish society and the outcasts within. Its fusion with his own embryonic stylings of theatrical cinema created a fascinating (and, despite its failure at the box office, fascinatingly watchable) cinematic one-off: The Bergman genre film.
~ ~ ~
Like the doomed lovers of Joseph Lewis’ startling noir Gun Crazy, there is an immediate spark between Maggi and David when she wakes at the train station in the middle of the night and finds him next to her, eating an apple. As he offers her his last piece, there is a something of a mutual recognition, two people reflecting in one another the fact that they have nowhere else to go and, as such, should go nowhere together. Following a snap of sexy banter, the streetwise Maggi accepts David’s offer to get a room at a seedy Salvation Army hotel in order to avoid the rain until the morning train returns.
In their hotel, Bergman allows Expressionistic shadows to grow around their bodies like vines tangling them within a fate they can only begin to sense. When David suddenly kisses her, a violent charge erupts between them as she roughly slaps him, then draws him into the darkness of a corner and kisses him passionately back. The scene unfolds like the desperately explosive carnality between John Garfield and Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice played in fast-forward, wherein the instant lust and affection between two people ensnare them within a plot they are now forced to play out; it’s not surprising that, following their love scene, Bergman shoots the bed-bound Maggi and David low from the floor, allowing the brass bars of their first bed together to loom high in the frame like the unyielding bars of a cell they are now trapped within.
And like Garfield and Turner’s fated lovers, these two immediately decide to run away together, to begin a new life. Maggi confesses that she left a humdrum rural existence for dreams of acting in the city, dreams that collapsed with an unspecified “drama” and failure. David is cagier and evasive about his past, but fervently divines what their future could be like together. As they move to the window, he points to the people below:
They’re all off to work. They all come from somewhere, and they’re all going somewhere. It could be that way for us, too. It will be that way for us, too.
Theirs is an immediate love that, while blinding, does not drive them into the shadows like the criminal couples-on-the-run in Gun Crazy and Postman; rather, Bergman presents David and Maggi as both likeably naïve and not without a quiet respectability—rather than violently rail against the society they feel has forgotten them, they hope to rejoin it by living an honest life. Like Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart in Walsh’s High Sierra, they dream of a shared future that is free of the pain of their pasts, and like Lupino and Bogart they even adopt a mangy dog, just one more stray in their growing family of tramps. Unlike the criminal lovers of High Sierra, though, David and Maggi wish to find their future through love and the dignity of work rather than by outright theft; theirs is a dream to simply be normal people. It’s an arc that ultimately hews closest to the lovers of both Fritz Lang’s 1937 proto-noir You Only Live Once and Nicholas Ray’s film noir debut of 1948, They Live by Night. Both films tell stories of former thieves who’ve recently left prison and are hungry to go straight with their newly-pregnant wives, fighting for their love and a chance to live honestly in a hostile world. It’s an arc shared by David and Maggi who, like those disaster-prone couples, want only a second chance at tomorrow and find a world that is unwilling to give it to them.
~ ~ ~
The story of Maggi and David unfolds quickly, laid out for us by a mysterious and umbrella-toting, fourth-wall breaking narrator (Gösta Cederlund, in a nod to the story’s origins as a play and one of the many theatrical framing devices Bergman would carry over to cinema from his playwright days). The two miss yet another train during a torrential storm and break into a small cottage for shelter. It’s there that David confesses to Maggi his past as a criminal, and where a far more devious man torments them both.
Håkansson (Ludde Gentzel), the cottage’s owner, discovers and blackmails the young lovers into paying an exorbitant rent, lest he report them both to the police and David’s criminal history would earn him a minimum one-year sentence. David takes a job at a greenhouse to just barely pay the rent, but like Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once, David’s past hangs around his neck like a noose. Like Fonda in that earlier film, David’s reputation as a criminal casts him under suspicion when local crimes go unsolved, and as things begin to go missing at the greenhouse, David becomes the prime suspect.
Still, David and Maggi fight to maintain their dignity. On a solemn New Year’s Eve (and no day promises a greater, brighter, or more potential-laden “tomorrow” than New Year’s Eve), David meditates on their struggle with pride, even reveling in debt: “A new year has just begun. Things are on the up-and-up. We’re just like everybody else. We have a milk bill. We pay both local and state taxes!” For them, the sweetly banal goal of simply being normal and free of their pasts is everything. Bergman frames their pursuit of “tomorrow” and its promise of a better life like the crisscrossing pursuit for that most famous of noir MacGuffins, the titular statuette in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. And just as Sam Spade described the latter film’s MacGuffin, for Maggi and David, tomorrow is “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
~ ~ ~
In author Vince Keenan’s essay “Marriage in Film Noir,” he notes that “marriage is a unique element in film noir. It can be either the fuse or the powder keg, triggering a life of crime or serving as the last remaining link to the straight and narrow path.” In Bergman’s hands it becomes both Maggi and David’s last shot at the straight life and that which risks all they’ve built together. And like the genre masters from whom he was learning, Bergman knew just when and how to bring the curtain of doom down upon his characters with a ruthless efficiency.
It begins when Maggi confesses to David that she was newly pregnant when they met (the unspecified “drama” of her time in the city), sending him into a furiously childish pique that leads to one of the two most visually sumptuous and arresting setpieces of the film, as David’s psyche and torment are writ large across the screen with German Expressionism gone nova. He staggers into a bar that has descended into a figurative hell of visual noir tropes, a vertiginous phantasmagoria in which its miserable denizens drink beneath plumes of smoke that cascade from the ceiling while the shadows along the floor threaten to swallow them whole. It’s as if this is some kind of Val Lewton purgatory for all of the genre’s failed characters, a place where noir anti-heroes go when they die in films like Double Indemnity and D.O.A. to pay for their sins before passing on.
Bergman handles this b-movie material with a nimble fleetness that might surprise anyone who now sees him only as the chilly, inquisitive arthouse intellect behind films like The Seventh Seal or Persona, or for those at the time who only knew him as the young director of the domestic melodrama Crisis. This is Bergman in full-on Don Siegel mode, embracing the genre with relish while adding his own burgeoning but unique stamp. With an injection of disturbingly surrealistic horror that prefigures subsequent Bergman films like The Devil’s Wanton in 1949 and most especially Hour of the Wolf in 1968, the bar’s record player blares Richard Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” (a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”) as an ironic counterpoint while a patron falls into David’s arms and literally dies from the agony of loneliness. David’s horror expands as the Narrator becomes corporeal from an inky corner and offers him a warning: “Beware of loneliness, David. Take care not to end up alone.”
Stricken, David reconciles and proposes marriage to Maggi, lighting the fuse that triggers a cascade of horrors upon them. The City refuses to grant them a marriage license as Maggi is pregnant out of wedlock, and demands they live separately until childbirth. David works more hours to save money, but local thieves strip the greenhouse where he works and he is blamed for the theft and fired. Finally, Maggi miscarries from the stress of it all, leading to the second of Bergman’s two bravura setpieces: a Fritz Lang nightmare of a hospital room bathed in purest black, illuminated only by a block of blinding light shot through the venetian blinds (of course) of the room’s single window. Bergman once again uses the composition stylings of noir to communicate the agony of David and Maggi’s lives, and once again, the Narrator becomes “real,” materializing out of the black, chiding David and pushing him to do better before transforming back into a shadow against the blackness. Once again, David frantically clings to tomorrow, promising Maggi that “there’s always a next time” to have a child of their own, and that “summer’s just around the corner.”
But that summer never comes. For as soon as Maggi and David begin to heal from the loss of her child, a City bureaucrat arrives to let them know their beloved cottage is set to be destroyed in order to make room for a field of industrial incinerators. Faced with this unbearable setback, David finally shatters, no longer the well-intentioned Henry Fonda hero but now the Bogart heavy, and he violently attacks the bureaucrat, leading to his and Maggi’s arrest. Like in the blackest of noirs, their lives are crushed by the grimmest of reversals: the society they worked so hard to live normally within is the very force that has chipped away at their every chance for a normal life.
WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS
In the 1944 noir thriller When Strangers Marry (a.k.a. Betrayed), Robert Mitchum warns co-star Kim Hunter that “places are all alike. You can’t run away from yourself.”
After watching It Rains on Our Love, that’s a sentiment one might assume Bergman would agree with, for the most striking element of the film may not be how deeply noir bled into Bergman, but rather how much of young Bergman bled into this noir. For all the gloom that permeates the film’s first hour, Love is not purely film noir, but rather a synthesis of it and the thematic and narrative stylings that would later come to define Bergman’s career. Studded throughout the bleak expanse of the film are several surprising tonal leaps into hope and humor, from David’s unyielding belief in tomorrow to the smirking, knowing Narrator’s traipsing back and forth from the film’s reality to ours, from David and Maggi’s bizarre dog that occasionally trails them on its hind legs for attention to the bumbling local gang of thieves who serve as comic relief (as well as the true burglars of David’s greenhouse). Inasmuch as his director heroes like Curtiz and Walsh pulled him noirward, with It Rains on Our Love Bergman pulled the genre towards something that, like film noir, would only become named later, something “Bergmanesque.” And nowhere is Bergman’s tonal daring more evident than in the one major addition he made to the original script: a 15-minute trial sequence that serves as the film’s final act.
In it, a prosecutor becomes the personification of what Bergman sees as The City’s (and Sweden’s) moral rot and hypocrisy, meticulously noting each of Maggi and David’s public and personal failings before proclaiming that “society must protect itself against individuals like these two.” To counter the City, the Narrator once again appears, now in the guise of a lawyer for the couple. As he launches a counterargument, one realizes the Narrator represents Bergman’s sympathies, speaking about and for the two people his film has assailed for the last 90 minutes (and as if to underline with whom Bergman sides, David is given a birthdate of June 14, 1918—the same as Ingmar Bergman).
In his speech, the Narrator notes that despite the City’s best efforts to break Maggi and David, their love for each other, and their willingness to adapt, gives them worth. And in a final surprise of hope and humanity that would send any noir fan reeling, Bergman allows Maggi and David to be found innocent and free of all charges (were this an American film released at the same time, the final shot would likely be of David sitting in a prison cell with only his music box to keep him company). The self-conscious lightness of this ending appears to indicate Bergman knew that noir would be the template required for him to lead these characters (and his audience) into the hell to which their original play predestined them, but that it would also take a knowing empathy to save them, and the film, from it. It’s a movie comprised of so many of the tropes that identify as noir, but one that eventually evolves beyond that template (by virtue of its humor, surrealism, and humanity) into something else entirely.
It’s this unique combination of tones revealed in the final half hour that carries into It Rains on Our Love’s final scene: Maggi and David sadly watch the removal of their cottage from the property on which they once lived and loved; now, as in the beginning, they are tramps set to hit the road. The Narrator appears a final time to say farewell, and even hands them an umbrella as the sky above them darkens, pregnant with ominous thunderclouds. The two lovers turn their backs on The City and find themselves standing at a literal crossroads between it and the rural country beyond.
And so, again: What about tomorrow?
At the crossroads, will David and Maggi turn happily back towards The City, as in Torment? Or will they cheerily march into the country, as in Crisis? Will this be the same tire-chewed road that the doomed couples of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Gun Crazy both rode to a bleak and midnight-black terminus, or will it lead to the studio-mandated happiness of Bergman’s earliest works?
Love’s synthesis of styles between Bergman and noir suggests an ending darker than Bergman’s prior works, but lighter than the exemplars of films noir; instead, it creates something uniquely ambiguous, a starting point for the complexities that would blossom in his works to come. The film does not end with an answer, but only a suggestion: David and Maggi will continue their lives beneath a storm that could break at any time. Whether in this world or the world of noir, life is just as likely to rain on their love in the megalopolis as it is the rural landscape, so where they go is of little interest to Bergman. Instead, he returns back to the question.
What about tomorrow?
Maggi offers a suggestion: “We’ll give it one more try. This time we might do better.”
It’s a sentiment that likely holds as true for them as it did for Bergman, whose rocky decade of filmmaking continued to slowly improve, as did his mastery of the form. He never made anything (or was offered material) this close to true noir again, but its shadings of character, its window into a cruel and unfeeling universe, and its explorations of the individual and his or her place in the world, remained with him throughout the rest of his career.
And so, again: “This time we might do better.”
That’s likely too happy a send-off to allow It Rains on Our Love to be considered as pure a blackhearted noir as something like Double Indemnity, Detour, or In a Lonely Place; like David’s warbly music box, Love ultimately sounds a bit off when compared to the average noir melody, as it follows its own tune. For It Rains on Our Love, and for Bergman, noir was an artistic means to an end rather than the final statement. Because unlike the endless night of purest film noir, in this movie, in the Bergman genre film, there is still a tomorrow.