The name of the game is "let's look at all of Ingmar Bergman's early screenplays", and the Swedish critics of 1947 were certainly willing to play that game just as much as I am over 70 years later: Woman Without a Face, the fourth film with a Bergman script (beating A Ship to India to theaters by a whole week), was widely greeted at the time as part of the exciting rise of the Wunderkind who had been taking both the cinema and theater worlds by storm in post-war Sweden. But in truth, watching the film now, what leaps out at me is not the promising writing of a young genius, but the steady-handed directing by Gustaf Molander that makes a somewhat overheated melodramatic scenario seem a bit more grounded in human emotions than it entirely deserves.

Molander was the opposite of a Wunderkind. He'd been plugging away at Svensk Filmindustri for almost a quarter of a century by this point in time, having never quite risen to the level of a major artist, but he was still a significant name; perhaps most notably, he'd been instrumental in the rise of international star Ingrid Bergman in the '30s. This would be the first of three Ingmar Bergman screenplays he'd direct during the younger filmmaker's early career, and unlike 1944's Torment (also scripted by Bergman), directed by Alf Sjöberg, this doesn't "feel" like a Bergman film, with the benefit of hindsight. And this is true even though Woman Without a Face (a title that, having seen the film, I cannot meaningfully connect to the story's content) is much closer thematically to Bergman's directorial work, centering as it does on marital infidelity and people making awful, self-destructive decisions.

First among Molander's contributions: it is thanks to him, apparently, that the film has been re-arranged to take the form of a flashback, still a relatively fancy way to structure a narrative in 1947 (Bergman would return to the idea a couple of years later as a director, with To Joy and Summer Interlude). And while the flashback is not entirely graceful, it gives the film a whole lot of fatalistic charge that makes its relatively by-the-books story feel more precarious and intense than it other wise might. It's the whole suspense vs. surprise thing, basically, and it pays quite a dividend here. The film initially starts with Ragnar Ekberg (Stig Olin), an affable, relatively carefree man who bumps into his friend Martin Grande (Alf Kjellin) in a hotel restaurant one afternoon. Something is troubling Martin, and Ragnar eventually teases out that it's something to do with his mistress, who was supposedly out of the picture anyway. The encounter leaves Ragnar with a dubious feeling, and he heads to Martin's hotel room to find his friend sitting in a full bathtub, minutes away from slashing his wrists with a straight razor.

So here's what makes this a bit graceless: everything up to this point tells us that Ragnar is the protagonist. He speaks directly to us, setting the stage (it is the waning months of the war, a fact that isn't completely neglected by the rest of the film, but certainly could have been removed without any special effort), telling us his feelings and impressions, and we know Martin solely through what he perceives. Thus it's a bit of a wrench when it turns out that this will be Martin's story going forward. Or going backwards, to be precise. I suppose that this exchange from a storyteller to the person he's telling a story about feels a bit like Continental fiction of the early 20th Century, in contrast to the more urgently direct first-person flashback narration of a contemporary American film noir, where the device was become more and more common. It still feels pretty clunky, and the jump back is handled with singular infelicity.

Still, it does the most important thing of all: it gets to wondering what could go so shockingly wrong for Martin that he'd try to kill himself. And so we get our look at him and his life, married lovelessly (on both sides) to Frida (Anita Björk) with a child as the only glue holding the couple together. As well as being the only reason they got together in the first place. Into this staid situation comes the mistress, a woman name Rut Köhler (Gunn Wållgren), who is introduced as a full-on femme fatale, sexually hungry and not afraid to show it; one of her first big scenes is a lengthy conversation with a chimney sweep (Carl Reinholdz) in which one of them seduces the other, though it's not entirely clear which direction that flows. It's a small masterpiece of mildly rueful wit and utterly frank adult attitudes - both traits that will dominate the film going forward. It's not at all the case that the film is "funny", but there is a point at which frankness shades into a certain "well, you gotta laugh" pragmatism, and that's where Rut's character resides, as well as Wållgren's superb performance.

We've had Martin and Ragnar as apparent main characters; the trick the film plays is to finally center on the woman without a face, if not as a "protagonist" in the strict sense, then at least as the most interesting psychological presence in the film by far. Indeed, Rut is the first of Bergman's great female characters, an apparently unknowable object of lust and desire (if the title is to have any meaning at all, I think it's pointing at this from a fairly obtuse angle) who is revealed over the course of 102 steady, thoughtful minutes to have depths and layers barely even suggested by her role in the explicit drama. There's a bit of a pat explanation for her behavior - she was sexually abused as a child - but Molander and Wållgren collaborate to make sure this stays out of cheap pop-Freudianism. There's a substantial amount of desperation and even terror in Wållgren's performance, helped out considerably by her very open face and large eyes (she's a dead ringer for Kristen Scott Thomas), which are themselves accentuated by the make-up that artifically widens the space between her eye socket and eyebrows; what at first appears to be simply a way of visually indicating "The Vamp" in contrast with the deliberately plain, unadorned features of Björk increasingly feels like a way of giving Wållgren the facial expressivity of a cartoon character, somehow amplifying her emotions while permitting her to do very small, subtle work. She was a highly regarded stage actor with very few films to her name (the last being Bergman's own career-capping Fanny and Alexander, three and a half decades after this); this is a real loss to cinema, if all her work was as deep and difficult as she could be here, with what isn't that rich of a role on paper.

Wållgren knocks the film off its axis; Kjellin is very good as the conflicted, in-over-his-head Martin, but he's playing the morally grey hero of a melodrama, not a complicated psychological study, and the more we get to know Rut, the harder it is to give any shits about Martin. Molander and cinematographer Åke Dahlqvist compensate for this by shooting the film as, essentially, a thriller: lots of chiaroscuro and intense pols of shadow all over the place. On top of this, the camera constantly prowls through the sets, lunging forward to turn wide shots into medium shots and arcing back to create establishing shots out of inserts. It's a very living, sinewy form of camera movement, and I couldn't disagree with anyone who claimed that it's too self-conscious and overly-visible; but given the sense of nervousness infused right at the start with that suicide attempt that we know is coming back, the restless camerawork feels a little bit electrifying and nerve-wracking in its own right. It's, again, none too graceful, but it works well enough.

And that's basically what the film does: while Bergman was busy experimenting with turning melodramas into plainspoken realism in the films he directed, Molander has turned this melodrama into a psychological thriller. I won't say that one approach is superior to the other, except that, as of 1947, Molander was better at it; Woman Without a Face isn't high art, but it's damned effective character study laced through with style and foreboding.