In the wake of Smiles of a Summer Night, a major international hit that had been dismissed by Swedish critics (thereby setting up a pattern that would persist for the rest of his career; my instinct is to accuse the Swedish critics of snobbery), Ingmar Bergman took a year to regroup. In the ten years from 1946 to 1955, he had released 16 feature films as a director; now, for the first time since the Swedish film industry went on strike in 1950, he sat out a year. During this time, he reevaluated where his career was going, and if he believed in the path he was on, deciding ultimately that he wasn't; the result was a startling swerve into cosmic darkness, religion, and death that arrived in theaters in early 1957 under the title The Seventh Seal. Before we arrive at that point, though, there's one final curiosity to deal with, a film that pretty much nobody much noticed when it was new, and hasn't given much attention to in all the decades since. Yet it's a pretty intriguing bit of ephemera, precisely because of what it tells us of where Bergman's career had arrived.

The film I am referring to is 1956's Last Pair Out, directed by Alf Sjöberg, the elder statesman of Swedish cinema who had worked with Bergman 12 years prior on the latter's first produced screenplay, Torment. The script for the film was first written by Bergman in 1951, while he was looking to keep himself busy; it had floated around the industry, attracting a good deal of acclaim and attention, without ever getting produced. Finally, in early '56, Bergman agreed to polish it up with a new draft for Sjöberg, and the finished film came out late that year to reviews that largely regarded it as Bergman Lite, and a shrug from audiences to match.

I am not here to disagree with those audiences or critics. Last Pair Out has excellent material within it, and it has such a bold, lively opening sequence that I was initially prepared to write the whole "this is a lost masterpiece!" review. But the body of it is fairly routine stuff, making an inexplicable decision about where to focus its attention that makes the routine seem even more banal than it might otherwise. At the same time, it feels very much like it wants to be a Bergman film, particularly thanks to its use of Bergman's stock company: five of the six top-billed actors had roles in Smiles of a Summer Night. One of these Bergman's mistress at the time, Bibi Andersson, who'd had a bit part in Smiles, and got her first substantial part in one of his films here; this would be enough to give it some point of interest even if it had nothing else to recommend it.

On the other hand, it seems extremely clear why Bergman didn't direct this script himself: because he didn't believe in it. The film is very much an exercise in going through the motions, putting several vaguely-defined characters in a fraught situation and shaking them: the Dahlins, Susanna (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hans (Olof Widgren, the one who wasn't in Smiles), are either freshly divorced or still in the process of divorcing, and this is causing no end of emotional woes for their high school-aged son, Bo (Björn Bjelfvenstam). For one thing, he is in that most horribly mature of places, thinking that each of them had fair reasons for their behaviors that led to the divorce, and not finding it within himself to apportion blame or pick a favorite. Moreover, he's in an especially tender part of late adolescence, where being soured against romance - by, say, being at the epicenter of a chilly divorce - is uniquely bad for him: he's dating Kerstin (Bibi Andersson), and they seem to have some manner of pre-engagement going on, but he's falling for Anita (Harriet Andersson). Cue an anti-coming-of-age story, in which Bo's attempts to grapple with all of the above cause him to grow increasingly lost, confused, and miserable.

The biggest problem with the film couldn't be more straightforward: the best material is all of the teen melodrama, and it spends most of its time focused on the strife between the Dahlins. Sjöberg is certainly more energised by the former: the most creative and exciting part of the movie is its opening sequence, where we see the rhythms of life at school, the tense relationship between Bo and his teacher, Jacobi (Hugo Björne), and the way that Bo interacts with his peers during this time of stress. It is a film that opens with, as God is my witness, a musical number, of all the kids joyfully pushing back against the rules and constraints of the school bureaucracy, a celebratory do-over of Torment that achieves in two scenes what that film achieved in a whole feature. Here, and in all of the material focused on teenagers (other than Bo, the focal point of virtually every scene), Sjöberg demonstrates a very non-Bergman way of approaching this material. The screenwriter would, I am sure, have treated this all with utmost gravity; particularly at the point in his career where this story wouldn't have felt like a throwback pulled out of a trunk. Sjöberg is willing to let it breath, even willing to let it sneer a little bit; he brings in a loose, playfully anarchic tone that even threatens to flirt with comedy - the musical number is, at least, blatantly comic. Over the course of the story, this approach proves untenable, and so the director has to start shading in tragedy, till he arrives at the flustered desperation of the last scene, and this is indeed one of my disappointments with Last Pair Out: it has a bright, fresh energy that it doesn't end up committing to.

That being said, the scenes with Bjelfvenstam and the Anderssons hit with a force that the scenes with Bjelfvenstam and literally any adult never do (the film even finds a way to make Dahlbeck, whom I've come to regard as a genuinely great actor, seem flat and perfunctory). There's an urgency to these moments that more than slightly brings to mind the contemporaneous juvenile delinqunency thrillers that America's B-movie studios were cranking out, especially when Harriet Andersson is involved: her self-loathing rich girl act is a swerve for her, but a good one, the dark and melancholy counterpart to the vivacity she used in her performances under Bergman's direction.

It's a real pity some more time couldn't be used to rebalance the film in favor of her and Bibi Andersson, because it feels like there might be something great in that. Presumably, neither Sjöberg nor Bergman were interested in teenagers per se; Bergman, for his part, was actively transitioning from stories about youthful sexuality to more measured stories about adult relationships during the exact five years between Last Pair Out's first draft and the time it hit theaters. But there's no missing how much the film's energy dissipates when it favors Dahlbeck or (much less commonly) Widgren. Not just in the acting and characterisation, either. Sjöberg and cinematographer Martin Bodin rely on a deep-focus, deep staging aesthetic for the domestic scenes more than in the scenes involving Bo's two romantic interests, and it's typically too fussy for its own good; there's a mechanical primness to these scenes that's simply not very exciting to watch. Bodin sometimes trots out high-contrast lighting and throws some deep shadows into the sets, and this at least gives them some dramatic heft, but the overall effect of many of the scenes is of a kind of choking stasis.

It is, of course, entirely possible that this is the point: choking stasis is one of the film's themes. Still, it's no good if that makes the film less interesting to watch, and Last Pair Out is rather often not very interesting. The good parts, though fewer in number than the mediocre parts, stick out more, and Bjelfvenstam fortunately gets stronger as the film goes on, so the film does seem to build across its running time. But it never shakes the feeling of being a bit of an afterthought: explicitly so for its screenwriter, but nobody else but the two Anderssons consistently seem to care all that much about this project.