With Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann in lead roles, The Night Visitor (1971) feels a little bit like Psycho-a-Bergman. And this peculiar little film occasionally seems to think it’s in that league, judging by the length of some of Ullmann’s close-ups. Alas, Laslo Benedek is no Bergman. He’s best known for knocking out TV shows, and The Night Visitor bears evidence of this. Originally marketed as a horror film, the movie made little impact—perhaps because, as a horror picture (which it really isn’t), it’s an amazingly tepid one, especially for 1971. Yeah, it has several murders—including an ax one—but it’s mostly a rather plodding police drama involving Trevor Howard as a somewhat improbable Swedish inspector working out how Salem (von Sydow) could possibly be getting in and out of an impregnable insane asylum to kill off his enemies. Since we find out early on, it’s mostly a case of whether or not he’ll be caught.
The film strikes me as more of a curio than anything else. The cast is an awful lot of star power for such a slight project. I suppose it’s barely possible that those involved thought it was more than just a weak mystery/cat-and-mouse affair, but what they thought that “more” might be is a little baffling. No, make that a lot baffling. The whole thing is handled oddly. We know from the onset that von Sydow is out of the asylum—in his underwear, no less—and committing really unexcitingly executed mayhem. (Probably the most exciting thing in the movie is Per Oscarsson chasing a parrot—a parrot that turns out to be a cheesy polly-ex-machina—around a room.)
It’s not much longer till you know the reason for his inhospitable actions. Shortly after that, the film shows you how von Sydow is getting in and out of his cell and the supposedly impregnable loony bin. There are, in fact, only two things the film doesn’t explain. The first is exactly why von Sydow strips down to his underpants and t-shirt to go out in the frozen tundra, or why—until it suits the needs of the plot—he never puts on anything warmer once he’s out. (Surely, this wasn’t because anyone wanted to ogle his gams?) The other question is—who precisely was this made for?