Ingmar Bergman is among the filmmakers most associated with the idea that the director is a powerful individual voice who is solely associated with the meaning and shape of the finished film, but like anybody else working in the medium, he had collaborators. And those collaborators had a significant impact on the nature of the movies that Bergman directed. We arrive now at a particularly direct example of this principle in practice: Port of Call, Bergman's fifth film in two and a half years, and I would say the best one of those. This does not have very much to do with Bergman himself, as near as I can tell. The screenplay he wrote, adapted from a novel by Olle Länsberg, is certainly not his best: it starts to rattle apart pretty badly in the last third, and the final sequence in particular is somewhat nonsensical. There's one highly impressive performance, but it doesn't otherwise seem like his directing of actors has shifted much - and the fact that there's one impressive performance still puts this behind his debut feature, 1946's Crisis, which had at least three.

Instead, the big shift with Port of Call is that this was the first time Bergman worked with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would go on to shoot a total of twelve features with the director, including some of the most important and influential. It would be a lie to say that Fischer is solely responsible for Port of Call standing out as a clear, marked improvement from what had gone before it - I would hate like hell to rob actor Nine-Christine Jönsson of her own extremely significant contributions to the end result - but the striking visual aesthetic of the film is unmistakably one of the things that's best about it, and it represents such a major break from Bergman's four earlier films that laying the bulk of it at Fischer's feet seems to be the smartest thing to do.

In the broad strokes, this is more of the same quasi-French poetic realism that Bergman (in common with much of the Swedish film industry) had been dabbling in: as the title suggests, we're in a port town, and we're among the working class struggling to keep some measure of their own lives and selves intact amidst the menial drudgery. Pretty much the only cultural center in the town seems to be a dance hall, and this is where Gösta (Bengt Eklund), a sailor newly returned to land and hoping to stay for a while, goes after a long day of emptying out the hold of the cargo ship he works on. Here, after lifelessly flirting with a couple of people, he meets Berit (Jönsson), who sees right through his line, and this ends up amusing both of them enough that they hustle off to her home to have sex. The form enough of a bond that they agree to see more of each other, but Berit's life is quite a bit more complicated than she let on: she's living with her mother (Berta Hall), as part of a process of being released from a reformatory back into the world, and sleeping with men is quite against the rules - her mom's rules or the law's, it's not clear, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of daylight between those two. When her smug caseworker (Birgitta Valberg) shows up to threaten her with innuendo at her awful factory job, Birgit finally loses whatever little patience she's been able to use to stay sane for this last little while, and when she and Gösta have their second date, she takes the opportunity to tell him her entire history of (slightly) wild living. He does not react well.

This could easily be played as yet another understated melodrama, but two things twist it in a different direction. First is its intent focus on the grueling lives of the working class - "tragic, sexually-charged love story on the docks" might suggest a French influence, but it's borrowing much more from the burgeoning Italian Neorealist movement, particularly in its style, and this gets us back to Fischer's incalculable impact on the film. Port of Call isn't devoid of poetry, but it's much more concerned with the grimy everyday fact of the town and how people live their everyday lives.  The luxurious blacks of Bergman's earlier films have been replaced with sharp greys, giving it a slightly pallid feeling, but also a very clear sense of surfaces and texture. It's a bit grubbier, a bit flatter, and this ends up drawing out something rougher and realer from the central romantic conflict. It also makes it a little easier to stomach the substantial portions of the script that feel like a message movie about the horrible way that young women's lives are constrained and dictated by the morally judgmental society around them - the idea that this place and these lives suck has already been read into the film through its cinematography, which makes the turn toward thematic hectoring feel more like an extension of that, rather than an imposition.

Second, this is a very pointed psychological study. Simply put, Berit is the first really terrifically interesting character in Bergman's cinema, and Jönsson is giving the first truly surprising performance. No slight against Eklund, who does perfectly fine work navigating his big internal conflict (he hates himself for judging Berit's past behavior, but does not therefore stop judging it). But Jönsson is up to some fascinating things, in the sixth performance of a very short screen career that would stop after just two more movies. She's not angling for any sympathy, playing Berit as a kind of put-upon avatar of Man's Cruelty to Woman. She's tired and frustrated, and lets her impatience with the world keep jutting out in unguarded moments. In her scenes with Hall, one can see Jönsson threading in not just Berit's righteous anger at her mother, but also making constant calculations as to what bad things will fall upon her if she vents that anger for even a moment; in her scenes with Eklund, this is replaced with something closer to a measured, practiced flatness, a desire to let herself be optimistic and happy, mixed with a strategy that if she doesn't reveal her optimism, nobody can hold it against her later if things go badly. And she also nails the film's big visual flourish, when she starts telling Gösta her story, and the camera tracks in to stare right into her face and her right back, a striking moment of direct address that both implicates the audience and also makes us Berit's understanding co-conspirators. It's a smart, startling moment, one that underscores the degree to which all of Port of Call is about learning more about this young woman and taking her as a fully-developed human, rather than just the victim of a melodramatic message picture.

So does everything else, really. Fischer's cinematography goes beyond neorealist touches, and includes quite a great deal of very thoughtful manipulation of focal depth to center our attention on Berit - even when doing so in a negative sense, as in one especially striking scene, when she's being badgered by her mother her caseworker, and a cop of some manner, and everyone in the frame is in focus but Jönsson. It's a nimble and unexpected way of making the shot less about her interiority per se than about her sense of being diminished, talked-over, and dehumanised.

The film still has its share of issues - the ending keeps tripping over its feet, in particular from the tension between knowing that a happy ending would be unpersuasive and a sad ending would be almost unendurably cruel and pointless. It's also quite blunt and artless in incorporating Berit's flashbacks, and the editing by Oscar Rosander (who cut Crisis, and would do excellent work with Bergman in the future) is surprisingly choppy, especially in some of the early scenes, where it seems almost like he's trying to work around missing footage that properly situates characters in rooms. We're definitely still in "struggling to find a voice and an aesthetic mode", and other than focusing on female psychology under siege and that direct-address shot, there's not much here that anticipates Bergman's later work. Still, this is the first of his films that I found interesting and solid enough to make me curious where his career might be going, even if that's not particularly because of anything he did other than choose to work with the right people.