Based on a novella by Stefan Zweig, “Fear” stars Ingrid Bergman in one of her most striking collaborations with then-husband Roberto Rossellini. Considering the nature of their intense and illicit love affair that led to Bergman’s divorce from her first husband in 1950, it’s no surprise that Bergman’s performance as Irene Wagner, a married woman whose life is upturned after her affair is discovered by her lover’s jealous ex-girlfriend, ranks among her best. At first upset by the intrusion of another woman into her private life, what begins as simple blackmail turns into true psychological torture as Bergman’s slowly unraveling Irene is pushed to her limits. Giving a surprisingly stripped-down performance underneath layers of stylistic noir and some careful direction from Rossellini, “Fear” is one of Bergman’s most startling, if under-seen performances.
Though the famous “Play it again, Sam” was never actually uttered either by Bogey or Bergman, Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca” is unquestionably one of the most iconic films in American history and remains the first and only film to bring Bergman and Bogart together for the screen. Though the two never did another film together, they reportedly had so much chemistry on screen that Bogart’s then-wife was convinced they were having a real-life affair, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Bergman’s career-making turn as the misunderstood temptress turned devoted lover helped cement Bergman as a viable star, and her powerful, understated Ilsa worked to redefine the noir femme fatale and to humanize the oft-rote female love interest of the romantic melodrama.
“Autumn Sonata” (1978)
Beginning its shoot just as Bergman was diagnosed with the cancer that would tragically end her life, “Autumn Sonata” marked her first collaboration with the unrelated but similarly Swedish Ingmar Bergman. Following Eva (a remarkable Liv Ullman) as she attempts to finally connect with her historically neglectful mother Charlotte (Bergman), the film runs eerily close to elements of Bergman’s own life, who became a celebrity herself when she left her husband and children to pursue her love for director Roberto Rossellini. “Autumn Sonata” is an unsettling and devastating study of the weeds that grow when relationships are left untended, and Bergman’s coldly powerful Charlotte unquestionably stands as one of her greatest achievements.
Though the political hinge of the film (a plot to uncover hidden uranium) is certainly forgettable, Hitchcock’s power coupling of Bergman and Grant makes “Notorious” one of his most memorable works. Trading alternately in the striking chemistry between Devlin (Grant) and Alicia (Bergman) and his iconic and masterful camerawork, Hitchcock’s richly realized spy film finds Bergman in one of her most intriguing roles: A woman set on infiltrating a cell of German ex-pats whose investment in honesty, desire and her collective vices threaten to betray her at every turn. Bergman’s take on the contradictory and sexually liberated Alicia satisfyingly plays against the virginal type she set with her work in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Arguably a career high for both Hitchcock and Bergman, the film’s classic status is largely a testament to the two being at the top of their game, bringing beautifully realized directing and a passionate performance together with glorious results.
“The Visit” (1964)
Proving that sometimes genius can come from rancor is the fabulously antagonistic Bernard Wicki-helmed “The Visit.” Bergman is in rare vengeance mode as a now-fabulously wealthy woman who returns to her small hometown to charm the local townspeople in the hopes of getting them to take aim on a man (Anthony Quinn) who once left her scorned. Based on a play rather unflatteringly titled “The Visit of the Old Lady,” Bergman’s performance recalls the glorious malevolence of Bette Davis’ late-career work as the now gloriously rich and incredibly stylish (the film received an Oscar nomination for its lush costume design) sadistic woman with a cause.
So famous that its title has developed a definition, “Gaslight” is another instance of a film where true dynamism comes not from the plot but from Bergman’s incredibly expressive performance. Bergman appears as a young woman, Paula, whose husband (Charles Boyer) convinces her to move back into the house her aunt was found murdered in years before. It’s little time before that home begins displaying signs of a haunting: Strange sounds begin to ring through the halls and small trinkets begin to go missing around the house. But is Paula being haunted, losing her mind or is something far more sinister at play? Despite a rather hulking premise, Bergman maintains the film as her own through and through, straddling the line between sharp and helpless as she allows you to see, through her iconically expressive eyes, the terror and paranoia of a woman on the edge.
“The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945)
The ringingly wholesome “The Bells of St. Mary’s” stars Bergman as squeaky-clean but remarkably stubborn Sister Superior, whose singular goal is to keep the school at which she serves up and running. Despite its sugar-coated and arguably unrealistic representation of Catholic schooling, Bergman gives a prodigious performance as the pure-hearted and beautifully bright-eyed young nun. Intended as a vehicle for Bing Crosby’s singing Priest O’Malley, Bergman’s peaceful but tough-as-nails nun charms, cajoles and boxes her way through this heartwarming film, earning herself an Oscar nomination while proving that she’s got a great left hook.
“A Woman’s Face” (1938)
Though less well-known than the 1941 American Joan Crawford-starring adaptation, Bergman stars in the original Swedish “A Woman’s Face” as a disfigured woman who heads up a notorious gang of female criminals. When a blackmailing scheme connects Anna with a plastic surgeon willing to repair her face, she takes advantage of the opportunity to reinvent her life, but she soon learns that the past rarely stays behind you. Gustav Molander, who previously worked with Bergman in the charming “Intermezzo,” directs Bergman in one of the most labyrinthine and malevolent roles of her entire career, trading what could be a flamboyant performance for something much more understated. Acting beyond impressive facial prosthesis, Bergman’s early explorations of duality and darkness is an indispensable early performance that helped assert her position as a viable and impressive actress.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1943)
Handpicked by Hemingway himself to play Maria, the damaged young woman with an admirably pure soul, Bergman shines in this unquestionable classic against Gary Cooper’s good-hearted American soldier. Almost barred by studio contracts from appearing in the film, Bergman delivers a performance that would merit her her first Oscar nomination. Though some critics took issue with the amount of time spent on Maria and Jordan’s relationship, the film (along with “Casablanca” the year prior) helped to cement Bergman as one of the film’s most enduring and affective women in melodrama.