As the star of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries, Victor Sjöström, then in his late 70s, gives a radiant performance as an august professor pondering his life and impending death, one that is still treasured by devotees of international film. Unfortunately, the extraordinary work that Sjöström created as a director some 40 years earlier is less well known. The Outlaw and His Wife, the 1917 tragedy that established the Swedish master as a cinematic force to be reckoned with, remains as impressive in its visual strategies as it is bleak in its dramatic dimensions. Sjöström again stars, but here, in the early heyday of the silent screen era, his rugged physique and virile presence practically flood the frame. His future wife, Edith Erastoff, also gives a stirring performance, but both actors are, in effect, humbly costarring with the magnificent and often terrifying Scandinavian terrain, which the director so powerfully exploits. Nature overflows: imposing mountains, relentless rivers, steaming hot springs, chilling ravines, and violent snowstorms act as visual counterparts to the hapless protagonists, dwarfing and eventually overcoming them. It’s the moody Scandinavian temperament made manifest. Uplifting, though, is Sjöström’s impressive command of film technique; powerfully composed deep-focus shots that unite man and his imposing surroundings work in tandem with sharp editing to bring this elemental tale to its inevitable, wrenching conclusion. It’s little wonder that Hollywood soon called. Sjöström’s American silents of the 1920s, including The Wind with Lillian Gish, are further affirmations of his ability to conjure haunting drama from unforgettable visuals.
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.