' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Fear (1954)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Fear (1954)

“Fear” opens as an unfaithful wife, Irene Wagner (Ingrid Bergman), decides to maybe re-find her faith, shunning her lover-on-the-side (Kurt Kreuger) only to immediately be blackmailed by the former lover, Luisa (Renate Mannhardt) of the lothario she just ditched. Escalating demands for money and then for a priceless ring yield increased desperation for Irene as she tries to prevent her husband, Albert (Mathias Wieman), a scientist with whom she runs a pharmaceutical plant, from learning the truth. That all sounds fairly straight-forward but this was one of Bergman’s four collaborations with her second husband, Roberto Rossellini, and nothing in their films was ever quite so simple.


The twist is that Irene’s husband is actually something of a mad scientist, pulling the strings behind the scenes, hiring the woman blackmailing her wife to do that blackmailing, a means to induce hysteria, to deliberately instill fear. His grand experiment, it turns out, is to see if he can drive his wife to the brink of suicide. Why is never precisely explicated, the cynicism in which the film itself is shrouded essentially acting as its own explanation. This is human nature in the context of “Fear”.

Bergman, of course, was no stranger to extra-marital affairs. She had one with Rossellini, who would become her second husband but not after she saw him on the sly while still wed to her first husband. That became something of a Puritanical American scandal when Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado took to the Senate floor, that bastion of upstanding chivalry, and called for the licensing of Hollywood’s finest in order to morally police them, denouncing Bergman as a “powerful influence of evil.” He was trying to browbeat Bergman with fear, of course. Unlike Irene Wagner, however, Ingrid wasn’t having it. She renounced Hollywood and then they gave her an Oscar in 1956 anyway, like penance. Edwin C. Johnson may have the Eastbound Bore of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel named after him but please; Academy Award covers Tunnel.

“Fear” comes across as a stringent reaction to this insidious witchhunt. After all, there is a sequence in which Irene’s son and daughter have an adolescent dispute when it turns out the latter has absconded with the former’s toy rifle and hidden it. The young girl gets a talking-to and fesses up to the misdemeanor. This little side story ostensibly works as a device to illuminate in Irene’s mind what she’s done wrong, to prod at her soul for a confession. Yet it’s also a mocking of the main story, equating it to an adolescent dispute of pouting and foot-stomping.

Guilt impresses itself upon Irene which, in turn, is supposed to yield her confession by way of taking her own life. And she almost does...before her husband swoops in to save her. He seems genuinely torn up about his actions, apologizing, and the whole thing plays absurdly strange, a happy ending so sudden that you can’t comprehend it. But that happiness seems almost like a kiss off.


There is something of suspense blended with horror in “Fear” akin to Bergman’s “Gaslight”, yes, but this conclusion comes across so satirical it completely counteracts every real “ooh” and “ah” you unleash while Irene goes about deciding to end it all. When it’s prevented, it’s like the gods of machine have intervened if only to save these characters from such morally righteous stupidity.

INT. PHARMACEUTICAL LAB – NIGHT

GODS OF MACHINE descend from the rafters, waving their arms frantically with looks of disbelieving disdain.

GODS OF MACHINE: Really? You were gonna end it all because of this? The fuck is wrong with you people?

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