Sparkling and expressive, Ingrid Bergman should stand alongside Garbo as one of the brightest foreign-born stars of the classic era. Pulled from the Swedish film industry by super-producer David O. Selznick, Bergman refused to switch studio, maintaining an unadorned appearance by the standards of the 1940s from Hollywood glamor. As an actress, she was a consummate professional – eager to challenge herself and collaborate closely with her directors. These collaborations even extended to Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most famous actors as Cattle.
Her public image – that of the world’s weary but impeccable “good” woman – was shattered in the early 1950s when she left America – and her family – in an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. In the vicious media circus that followed, Bergman was vilified at all angles for his “decrepitude”. However, she flourished in a few Rossellini-directed films, and went on to work with Jean Renoir and yet another great Bergman in a stunning belated career reversal. Here are 10 of Ingrid Bergman’s essential films.
Get the latest from BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Director: Michael Cortez
An almost perfect blend of wit, irony and romance, Casablanca remains a perfect example of Hollywood serendipity. The movie hardly seemed a potential contender to become one of the most beloved of all time. The shooting was a mixed and frustrating process. A large number of certified and unaccredited writers have rewrote the script on a daily basis. Bergman complained to producer Hal Wallis, wondering how to describe a reluctant Elsa while the screenwriters had yet to decide her fate. Even after being appreciated on the last day, Bergman couldn’t fully comprehend his allure. And somehow, despite all of that, Casablanca has moved beyond the realm of wartime propaganda – and has become the defining pinnacle of the entire studio system.
Set in Victoria, London, George Cukor’s psychological thriller stars Bergman as the unwitting new wife of a manipulative, intelligent killer (Charles Boyer) who begins to convince her she’s going crazy. Torn between affection for her husband and growing terror, Bergman avoids playing the vulnerable victim, maintaining a simple nervous demeanor instead. Her slow decline into hysteria led to her winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress. Her frenzy dressed up in the final sequence, where she refuses to help a bound Boyer, is almost elemental in her vengeful glee. Gaslight is a material of complex and high-rise type; Gothic melodrama with all shades of long noir, aided and abetted by a very powerful cast.
St. Mary’s Bells (1945)
This cutesy comedy starring Bing Crosby as a stuttering parish priest trying to reform an inner-city Catholic school — with Bergman as a tough young nun — is an audience favorite. It’s certainly a far cry from the philosophical seriousness of her work with Rossellini—but the stars were in good hands with McCurry, whose comedic credentials included Duck Soup (1933) and The Awful Truth (1937). It’s a meringue that feels like a blissful respite for the often-serious Bergman – and he’s got some pretty cool gags.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
If it’s for Salvador Dali’s dream sequence alone, Spellbound deserves a place in any celebration of Bergman’s film career. It just so happens that it was the first of her three tours with Hitchcock, who portrayed her as a smitten psychoanalyst. He races to solve a murder in an effort to protect the stricken Gregory Peck, the object of her desire. According to Bergman, Dali’s further sequence lasted for a masterful 20 minutes before producer David Selznick called it “nonsense” and cut it completely. Spellbound has a lot going in Freud’s way, and the pent-up memories at the core of the narrative are only that side of the absurd, but the film slips through its most intelligent talents on the charm and strength of its threads.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Hech imagined his lead lady as “Mata Hari” in this romantic spy thriller. Bergmann is Alicia Hubermann, the corrupt and guilty daughter of a German spy. American agent Devlin (Carrie Grant) uses her guilt to his advantage, as he sends her undercover to Rio to thwart a Nazi plot. The government is happy to take advantage of Alicia’s much-notes for easy virtue to seduce an old acquaintance (the Aristocrat, Claude Rains) for their secret plans. It’s a completely adult and psychologically complex portrayal of a love triangle – with Grant and Bergman’s longing to be sensual and exciting. Some of the most effective romantic scenes Hitchcock ever committed with celluloid can be found here, including the censorship-defying kisses.
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Stromboli was a product of Bergmann and Rossellini’s initial courting correspondence, and became the first film to bring the couple together, technically and otherwise. Bergman plays Karen, a Lithuanian war refugee so desperate to escape her circumstances that she marries an Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) and moves with him to the remote, traditional island of Stromboli. The couple lives under the ominous shadow of an active volcano, with Karen, a beautiful stranger, the target of village bigotry and marginalization. Solitude and despair suffer from a spiritual crisis. Rossellini explores ideas of belonging and alienation that might have been well suited to an actor at the time; But it does not provide easy answers.
A trip to Italy (1954)
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Rossellini’s mysterious story centers on an unraveling marriage in the coastal holiday destination known as the Napoliten Riviera. It’s such a stunningly beautiful place that one wonders how even the most unhappy bourgeois couple might be there, but Alex (George Sanders) and Catherine (Bergman), an English vacationing couple, seemed to fit the bill. There seems to be something in the Italian mood that amplifies their malaise, and makes them realize their loss of vitality after eight years of marriage. The conversations are airy and sarcastic. They take trips in solitude and wander through art museums and nightclubs with a distinct lack of purpose. When the couple finally meets at a sensitive moment, one wonders how much fidelity motivates him, and how mere palpable horror of their own mortality is.
Director: Anatole Litvak
Somewhat fittingly, Bergman’s return to Hollywood after years of exile is in a film about returning a deposed princess to her rightful place. (And most fittingly, she should win an Oscar for her efforts.) However, the house was no longer the home of Grand Duchess Anastasia, who, perhaps like a star, was irrevocably changed by her exile; The gilded cage has no real appeal. Yul Brenner is a former general who has his eye on the remaining inheritance of any surviving member of the Romanov family. Bergman is a princess who has lost her memory – a hungry tramp when she is discovered by Brenner. It’s a larger-than-life theatrical role launched by lavish CinemaScope, but Bergman does well to cement it — and to make the horrific shock of her family’s execution real.
Director: Stanley Donen
This British reunion allowed Cary Grant and his infamous partner to resume a friendly working relationship, and the couple’s chemistry was still palpable. Donin elevates the ordinary here, portraying Bergman as a beloved woman and Grant as the married man she falls in love with. They’re exquisitely directed, effortlessly behaving, and brimming with sparkling charm – Lanvin, Dior, and Balmain dresses designed for Ingrid alone are worth the price of admission. A hilarious acknowledgment of Bergman’s reputation in real life, the film assumes her character as a would-be housekeeper before easily dispensing with the moral predicament—Grant in a false marriage. However, it leaves her with an unforgettable sinister sentence: “How dare he make love to me and not be a married man!”
Autumn Sonata (1978)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman’s softly lit room piece stars Liv Ullmann as Eva, the mature, angry daughter of Ingrid’s elegant pianist Charlotte. The film rebounds after a seven-year gap between hits. In that period of time, Eva lost a child that her mother did not bother to meet. Over the course of a healing day and night, the facade of affection between the two women slides into agonizing blame and accusations. The Swedish master takes a scalpel into the charged mother-daughter dynamic and offers an uncompromising look into the bitter cycle of guilt, interdependence, and anger in it. Accusations of infidelity and family desertion can’t help but remember the star’s extramarital drama, making for a gritty and outspoken performance late in Bergman’s career.