1950's This Can't Happen Here (first released in English under the much less meaningful title High Tension) is certainly not the only film directed by Ingmar Bergman that he would later describe in unflattering terms as an artistic failure. But it is the only one of his films that he hated so much that, for the rest of his life, he actively attempted to bury it. And while I don't agree with that gesture, it's hard not to be sympathetic. The film is pretty crummy, and clearly a terrible fit for Bergman's skill set. It exists only because of commercial calculations: following the release, early in 1950, of the relationship drama To Joy, Bergman followed it with a story of love and loss set against the ethereal glow of a Swedish summer. It was titled Summer Interlude, and it was filmed from April to June in 1950, and Bergman was extremely happy with the whole experience of making it, for the first time in his career.

However, the Swedish film industry was in bad shape at that point, and Svensk Filmindustri, Bergman's production company, didn't see good commercial prospects for the film that autumn. Instead, the company encouraged him to make something a bit more generically digestible. Thus, almost as soon as the shoot was finished, he jumped right into a Cold War spy thriller written by Herbert Grevenius, with whom he had co-written Summer Interlude (it was the last time Bergman would direct a Grevenius script; their last collaboration would be to co-write Divorced, a 1951 film directed by Gustaf Molander). And This Can't Happen Here was that very same thriller.

The film went from the start of production to release in only about three and a half months; that feels about right, based on the finished project. Bergman would claim, perhaps facetiously, that the illness he suffered during the shoot seemed to be his body's way of rejecting the project as fundamentally unsuitable for him; more seriously, he claimed that meeting some of the Balkan refugees who served as extras caused him to completely lose faith in the material, which presented a crass and sensational version of the story of their own lives. And that also feels about right, because maybe the most tangible aspect of This Can't Happen Here is that it wants to be very serious and melancholy, despite not really having the script to justify that approach.

The story, stripped to its essentials, is that Vera (Signe Hasso, making her return to her native Sweden after spending a decade in Hollywood) has been living as an exiled refugee in a European nation that is said by the narrator (Stig Olin) at the start to very specifically not be anywhere in particular, though later the film will forget this and make it extremely clear that its not just Sweden, but Stockholm. Vera has left her entire family behind in the totalitarian country of Liquidatzia, a name that I pray sounds less fucking goofy in Swedish than in English. Among those she left behind is her husband, Atkä Natas (Ulf Palme), who has just arrived in Sweden THIS VERY ANONYMOUS, NONDESCRIPT EUROPEAN COUNTRY, in part to reconnect with Vera, but not because he loves and misses her. It's because he's a Liquidatzian agent looking to forcibly repatriate as many of the refugees as he can, including his erstwhile spouse. She, meanwhile, elects to play the very dangerous game of trying to convince him that she's ready to back while extracting information that she can feed to the resistance cell she works with; in so doing, she inevitably drags in Björn Almkvist (Alf Kjellin), a local cop she's been having an affair with.

There's no particular reason this can't work, it just doesn't. In all of his films preceding this one, and in all of the films to follow, Bergman demonstrates a very clear set of priorities: he cares about personal moral crisis and tensions within romantic relationships. He like theatrical character dramas, spiritual allegory, and close-ups. What he never demonstrates is the slightest affinity for generating suspense, unless it is the suspense of wondering what tragic mysteries can be wrenched from the human heart. Certainly, he's not an action-thriller director, and This Can't Happen Here is an exemplary demonstration of why that's a good thing. It is an extremely hapless thriller, enough so that multiple Swedish critics when it was new openly wondered if Bergman and Grevenius could possibly meant for it to be taken seriously, or if it was some kind of straight-faced joke. That's a fair bit of speculation, particularly since we know what this would look like if it were being played with tongue-in-cheek humor; this is, in fact, very much like an Alfred Hitchcock film. Except that where Hitchcock is puckish and ironic, Bergman is gravely sincere.

There's a scene where it's extremely easy to directly compare them. At one point, Vera goes to meet with the rest of the Liquidatzian resistance, in the back of a movie theater. The theater is playing the Donald Duck & Goofy short Crazy with the Heat, and throughout the whole of the meeting, a very fraught affair where Vera is accused of being a collaborator, but a different collaborator is ferreted out, the audio from the cartoon keeps playing. It's always a bit distracting, filling the tense silences with the bouncy music and sound effects of a silly comedy, but it reaches a hilariously misguided nadir when the actual collaborator is revealed, and right exactly then Donald goes on one of his spluttering rages, and it seems very likely that the filmmakers timed it so that the duck's inarticulate wrath would speak for the traitor's panic. It is, I cannot emphasise this enough, ridiculous as shit. Now, I can absolutely imagine Hitchcock nailing this scene: it would probably be played for deadpan laughs, and the point would be to deflate the stakes of the moment and make the traitor seem pathetic and miserable. Bergman does not nail this scene at all; it seems like he's going for a bitter ironic contrast, but he doesn't come even a little bit close to landing it.

That same sense that maybe this could have worked if it embraced the absurdity and fundamentally pathetic haplessness of the characters permeates the film's second half, which includes a tremendously limp and indifferently-shot car chase, and a remarkably strange scene in which Natas and Almkvist sit pleasantly on a couch having the kind of tumbling, esoteric conversation about idea that Bergman had already demonstrated a passion for, only they're doing it at gunpoint. A few times throughout the scene, one man will slap the gun out of the other man's hand and grab it for himself, only to have the tables turned about 30 seconds later. It feels like something out of a Pink Panther sequel.

Also, the main villain is a sly, demonic figure with the last name "Natas", a dumbass writing trick that somehow becomes even more ridiculous when we hear Liquidatzian being spoken, and it is literally just running the soundtrack backwards.

So: the film is too ludicrous to be a completely straight thriller, and doesn't have remotely the necessary self-awareness to be a playful Hitchcockian thriller. It is slightly better when it focuses on the relationships at the center of the plot, and Bergman can move into his comfort zone, but given the focus on politics, thriller mechanics, and offering the moral lesson about how Sweden should support the Balkan refugees that the U.S.S.R. wanted to repatriate, there's little room in the script left over for character psychology. And even if that wasn't true, Natas is such a reptilian monster that there would be very little use in giving him a complex, nuanced characterisation. So we have here the first Bergman film with no good characters and no particularly interesting performances to flesh them out. If it weren't for Erik Nordgren's aggressive score, there'd be no cue to feel any feelings at all.

The film isn't completely without merit! It looks terrific: cinematographer Gunnar Fischer is borrowing from American urban crime movies of the same period to create a world of inky film noir shadows, particularly in the splendidly dark and atmospheric opening, as Natas skulks into town. Later, he handles the large quantity of location photography very well, shifting smoothly from expressionism into realism, and making the film a successful compendium of Stockholm backdrops. It's nothing particularly bold or original, but it's something - the only thing the film has. I'm grateful for it: the flat-footed, thoroughly unexciting thriller with trivial political commentary that it plainly doesn't believe in is all bad enough, but just imagine if it were ugly on top of it!