Brink of Life is an overlooked film in Ingmar Bergman's career, possibly because he later stepped away from it, but it feels to me like a crucial example of his developing career at the end of the 1950s. On top of being, in its own right, a terrific acting showcase, which by this point was just to be expected from a Bergman film. But this one is so terrific at it that it picked up a Best Actress award at the 1958 Cannes International Film Festival that functionally served as best ensemble: the citation was split four ways between Bibi Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, and Ingrid Thulin.

Beyond its Cannes success (Bergman also won Best Director, his only such award from that festival), the professional significance of Brink of Life comes thanks to its privileged position in Bergman's filmography: this was the first movie he directed entirely after it became clear that The Seventh Seal had made him an international star. Whether this had even the slightest impact on his artistic process is unclear (he doesn't speak about it in his memoirs), and it can hardly be said that this was "cashing in his chips with a major financial success" production. Indeed, it was more on the lines of a reluctant bit of completing a contract. Still, 1958 couldn't help but be a transitional year in his career, and I think it is no accident that this is the form the transition took.

The other stream of Bergman's career that feeds into Brink of Life was his recent embrace of television production, in the form of made-for-TV versions of stage plays. Information on these is scant in English, and I do not know how successful the first of these, Mr. Sleeman Is Coming, had been (the second, The Venetian, premiered only weeks before Brink of Life, and I am not certain which was shot first), but it seems to have given the director a new insight into how he might put his character studies together, with pared-down production and a stronger emphasis on performance per se rather than performance in the context of a narrative. Within a few years, he'd refine this approach into making his celebrated chamber dramas of the early 1960s, and while it's undoubtedly possible to get too excited in drawing a direct line from Mr. Sleeman to Brink of Life to Through a Glass Darkly, it's certainly interesting that Bergman would immediately follow his expansive, sprawling 1957 hits, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, with something that scales back to mostly just one space. Swedish critics at the time noted this connection, some more approvingly than others, but the sense seems to be that Bergman was regarded as trying to go back to basics. If this is so, I find it fascinating to ponder that Bergman was inspired by his TV work to scale things back so soon before Alfred Hitchcock had exactly the same process in the making of his 1960 film Psycho - I can hardly think of two less-similar major auteurs from this period, and for them to have the same impulse at roughly the same time implies fascinating things about the changing nature of cinema in the wake of television.

This line of thinking takes us away from Brink of Life, however, so let's circle around back. The film is an outlier in Bergman's career for two reasons: first, it was his first film in a very long time for which he didn't contribute to the screenplay. It was instead written by author Ulla Isaksson, adapting two of her own short stories. It was also one of his rare films shot away from Svensk Filmindustri; he had promised a film to Sverige Folkbiografer, and this was his way of fulfilling that promise. Brink of Life was thus made with a largely unfamiliar crew in an unfamiliar space, and the stories from the production do not suggest that it was a fun shoot: the studio was in a filthy old basement, extremely uncomfortable for everybody involved.

Both of these quirks have a detectable negative impact on the film. As far as the change in studio goes, it feels like a quick, tossed-together production, with a largely unpersuasive hospital set that has been lit with a proficient flatness that doesn't do anything to create the illusion of reality. This was Bergman's first and only collaboration with cinematographer Max Wilén, and it was not an inspiring relationship: the film's look is as flat in its institutional whiteness as, well, as hospital. So at least it's an appropriate fit for the narrative, which is in a small way about how these kinds of places offer no comfort to the fearful and weary souls who end up there. It's still a relatively inert piece of visual storytelling, and this is a significant part of why Bergman never had much of a kind word to say about the film; it does, however, continue to showcase his evolving comfort in using close-ups to push the viewer into troubling emotional states, trusting the actors to do the work necessary to justify those close-ups.

And boy, do they ever do that here. Isaksson's script places three pregnant women into a maternity ward: Cecilia Ellius (Thulin), who has started bleeding, and on the trip over to the hospital has realised to her existential terror that her boring, condescending husband (Erland Josephson, making his unassuming first credited appearance in a Bergman film, and playing a pathetic, tedious little nothing of a man with an admirable lack of ego) doesn't want the baby, and their marriage has been collapsing anyway; Stina Andersson (Dahlbeck), optimistic and high-spirited and very excited for the baby that is at this point worryingly overdue; and Hjördis Petterson (Andersson), who doesn't want to have her baby, is on the outs with her mother over it, and is disgusted by everything around her, especially the tough but sympathetic nurse Brita (Hiort af Ornäs), who represents the closest thing to human warmth in the ward. To be sure, if I had to be subjected the same "the more you know" lecture about the services available for modern Sweden that Hjördis hs to sit through, I would also be tetchy (thankfully, this level of message movie bluntness only happens in one scene, but it is by leaps and bounds the worst scene in the film).

There's much to admire in the script, which takes great pains to represent with honest and precision the physical travails of pregnant woman, a subject that had never been seen onscreen in such detail, and which raised tidal waves of controversy, particularly over a late scene where Stina undergoes a painful, difficult labor, and Dahlbeck's cheery good nature gives way to guttural, animalistic bellows of raw terror and agony. But Isaksson wasn't by trade a screenwriter, and it shows in large and small ways throughout Brink of Life. Probably the first sign that something is amiss comes early on, when Cecilia is purging herself of all her terrors and doubts in the form of a grand monologue, delivered through sweat and tears on a merciless close-up of Thulin thrashing on a hospital bed. Thulin does terrific things with it; she's not as invested as Dahlbeck and Andersson in finding multiple ways into the character, instead choosing to intensify one dreadfully powerful approach of filling Cecilia with painfully self-aware despair. But even as she's ripping pure miserable horror out of her guts and screaming it into the camera, there's a persistent sense that this is all kind of... articulate, I guess? We're watching a woman in the throes of realising that her life, as it has existed, is not going to keep working, and the terror she feels at confronting that in all its rawness, and she's, like, very good at putting that into words.

This feeling, that the characters talk and act a little bit too much like characters in a well-made screenplay and a little bit not enough like individual people having emotional experiences, never quite goes away, though Dahlbeck has found a way to make it about Stina's aggressive need to perform cheerfulness, rather than simply being over-written (it was her last film with the director, and a good reminder of the bright energy, mingled with unexpressed sadness, that she was so good at bringing to his films. This isn't one of the most celebrated collaborations between Bergman and an actor, but it's a great one, and Dahlbeck's presence in his films will be missed). Isaksson also plots this like a short story more than a movie, with the feeling that the whole point is to get to the punch at the end, rather than allow the situation to develop and the characters along with it. It feels fundamentally literay, rather than dramatic, I guess I mean to say; I don't think that Bergman's own version of this scenario would have been any less gloomy and miserable, but I think it would have felt a bit less arbitrary about getting us there.

Still, it's enough to give the cast fuel to work with, and this proves to be enough. Brink of Life feels like it shouldn't work nearly this well - on top of everything else, I haven't mentioned that Bergman was actively uncertain about taking ownership of directing material that he didn't write, and so intimately connected to a woman's experience of the world, and that slight detachment is tangible here and there - and yet, the experience completely leveled me. This is almost entirely down to Dahlbeck, Thulin, and Andersson, who are working through the script to find the characters' emotional centers, rather than moving along the surface of the script to deal with the problems it has laid out for them.  All Bergman really needs to do is to place the camera in front of their faces, and simply watch.

In this respect, Brink of Life is basically the simplest version of what will become the dominant Bergman style over the next several years: watch a human face and see what you find there. This isn't nearly as good at it as some of the later masterpieces will be, if only because it's such a generic-looking film. But in 1958, taking this approach to this material and simply letting the audience stew in it, it's hard to imagine how unexpected and powerful it must have seemed - powerful enough to trigger waves of censorship from boards nervous about the unsparing potrayal of female pain, powerful enough to win two awards at Cannes. It's not top-tier Bergman, and it already wasn't top-tier Bergman at the moment of its creation, but it's far more interesting and potent and woundingly honest than its reputation as a minor in-between film suggests.