1948's Music in Darkness is the first film directed by Ingmar Bergman to genuinely make me sit up and take notice, and wonder to myself if this kid might have a good future for himself. Each of his three previous films had at least one genuinely excellent scene, but in every case, it was the kind of excellent scene that many filmmakers could have directed. In the first five minutes of Music in Darkness, we get something else: an excellent scene that feels genuinely strange and radical. It is, in retrospect, very much what one would hope to see a the juvenalia of a 29-year-old director who would, many years in the future, gift the world with the likes of Wild Strawberries and Persona, but in keeping with this retrospective's ongoing decision to view Bergman "forward" rather than "backwards", I don't think we need to go too far into that. Rather, it's enough simply to appreciate that a young filmmaker whose work does not seem to have been particularly noteworthy would decide that he could shake up one of his solid, unmelodramatic melodramas with an infusion of bizarre subjective formalism.

For, let us not mince words, Music in Darkness is generally more of the same from the director of the softly weakening run of films from Crisis to It Rains on Our Love to A Ship to India (though it is, no matter what else we might say, more successful than the last of these). Once again, we have the material of a broad sentimental weepy love story, stripped of any overt sentimentality - and I am beginning to wonder if this is a strength or a weakness, considering the films in and of themselves. Crisis, still the best of the director's films to this point, replaces sentiment with psychological precision, examining four individuals and the society of which they are a part with an unblinking attention in the writing and acting that fills the gap where melodrama might otherwise reside. The three later films don't do that nearly as well, which means that they end up having sort of nothing at all - there is a debate to be had as to whether a big emotionally soap opera is better or worse than an austere, tightly focused character drama, but there is I, should think, no debate at all that the soap opera is better than a loosey-goosey character drama with limited interiority. And this is sort of where Bergman's early films end up residing.

In the particular case of Music in Darkness, the story (adapted by Dagmar Edqvist from her novel - the first film directed by Bergman for which he did not receive a writing credit) goes like this: Bengt Vyldeke (Birger Malmsten) is a young pianist with promising talent, the son of a reasonably well-to-do family. He's also a military trainee of some sort (the context isn't entirely clear), and during military training exercises, he spots a dog wandering into the shooting range. He impulsively rushes out to save it, and takes a bullet for his trouble; the net effect of this is that he loses his eyesight, which seems like one of the less likely side effects of being shot, but let's not make a big deal about it. Because the point is, he needs to lose his sight somehow, so that he can be sullen and self-loathing, so that all his well-to-do friends can be uncomfortable around him, and so that the only good soul to care about his fate can be Ingrid (Mai Zetterling), a maid in the Vyldeke household. She's the one who encourages him to embrace music as an outlet for all his complicated and unsettled emotions, and to learn to live actively with his condition, rather than shut himself up to wait for death. Obviously, he falls in love with here as a result of all this.

The execution of that scenario is no less pat and straightforward than the scenario itself. It's a perfectly well-built movie, both narratively and stylistically: as the third of Bergman's films shot by cinematographer Göran Strindberg, it finds the two artist "clicking" really well for the first time, effectively using the amount of negative black space in the frame not just for atmospherics, but to chart the ebb and flow of Bengt's emotions. This culminates in a very ambivalent, dreamy sequence near the end that seems made up entirely of flat grey backdrops, but throughout the movie, there has been a consistent and impressive contrast between moments that are highly stylised and boldly expressionistic, and moments that are more quietly realistic. It's the first Bergman film that feels like it has an aesthetic agenda, not just a few lucky moments.

That being said, the opening sequence that I was raving about a while back does complicate this - it's not really like anything else in the rest of the movie at all, and feels like an insert from a much more interesting film by a much more interesting filmmaker. Basically, what we have is a two-part introduction: first, the training sequence, which is constructed entirely out of wordless moments that only make sense because of the way the editing grafts a relationship between shots - it has an almost primitive feeling, like the movie is stripping out all of the add-ons that help contextualise and clarify images, leaving only the images themselves, with the feeling of inchoate, surprising violence they carry with them. It feels like something out of an early Soviet sound film, trying (not always gracefully) to marry the lessons of montage to a melodramatic scenario.

The raw bluntness of this scene leads right into the film's real bravura moment, Bengt's hallucinatory dreams as he recovers from his injury with no sense of what's going on. Viewed on the far side of the great mid-century art film boom, this all seems pretty straightforward: lots of chaotic but basically transparent symbolic imagery, cut together at a high-speed pace to instill a sense of madness and violence. Even by 1948, the basic stuff we're seeing here wasn't unimaginable, even in mainstream cinema: it's not that far afield from things that had shown up three years earlier in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. Still, for it to show up in such an unexpected place as a formulaic romantic melodrama is pretty bracing, no matter that it ends up having nothing to with the rest of the movie.

The rest of the movie is not, after all, much to write home about. Three films into their collaboration, I think it's become clear to me that Malmsten is a net negative for Bergman's films: he provides very little beyond his unexceptionally handsome movie star features, and when he has to evoke strong feelings, it seems to require a great deal of inorganic effort. Music in Darkness demonstrates just how much of a limit the actor puts on the psychological depths the film can plumb by giving a small but potent role to future Bergman mainstay Gunnar Björnstrand, who'd already had a small and fairly adequate role in It Rains on Our Love: he plays another musician irritated with Bengt, and the layers that Björnstrand can bring to deepen and enrich a character who could fairly easily be described solely using the adjective "surly" make it that much clearer how little Malmsten is doing with an entire film and a whole character arc to make an impression. I don't want to shovel all the blame for Bergman's early limitations on the actor - it is, after all a director's job to get the actors where he needs them to be. And the film doesn't really do much with its generic scenario other than to execute it faithfully, and without over-indulging the "blind people are people too!" preaching that creeps in towards the middle. Still, I am pleased to know to know that Malmsten and Bergman were about to take a shot break from each other.