Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, from 1951, marks the final gasp of an odd 1940s micro-vogue for romantic movies about the afterlife. Hollywood, that most doggedly carnal of places, has produced these little fantasies from the early days (Smilin' Through from 1922 and 1932, Outward Bound from 1930, 1934's Death Takes a Holiday) to our time (Martin Brest's 1998 remake of Death Takes a Holiday, Meet Joe Black, which should have been called Death Now Takes Three Hours).
The 1940s, however, were the years when the theme reached its zenith. There's A Guy Named Joe, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Matter of Life and Death, Cabin in the Sky, Between Two Worlds, Heaven Can Wait (the Lubitsch one), Portrait of Jennie, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ... the Siren may be forgetting a few, feel free to jog her memory. There are obvious reasons why supernatural themes might appeal during a decade when the world was first an abbatoir and later struggling for a way to cleanse. And the films range from pretty good, to highly entertaining, to at least one (admittedly English) masterpiece. The idea of love that vaults time and even death seems to have drawn good work from the decade's directors and screenwriters.
These are movies for specialized tastes, but if you happen to have those tastes, Pandora is a doozy. If you are an ardent admirer of more than one of the following, then by all means, rent it:
1. Directors With Highly Eccentric Visions. Albert Lewin had already made an unforgettable film from a delicate supernatural theme when he directed The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945. (The final scene in that one never fails to terrify the Siren.) Pandora, however, was what he had waited for, the one he was determined to pour heart and soul into. Lewin wrote, directed and produced in an effort to craft a different kind of movie, one that would take the surrealist art he collected and fuse it with the cinema. He wanted a movie that was not merely romantic, but mythic. For that reason one wishes this were a truly great film, instead of a mesmerizing collection of the great, the singular and the ludicrous.
2. Love That Transcends Our Earthbound State. Pandora opens with a simple scene of fishermen hauling their nets and joking around in Catalan, until one of them looks down at his catch and blanches. Cut to a majestic shot from the top of a bell tower. In the foreground, the bell tolling grim news; far below on the beach, the tiny figures of people gathering, slowly then faster and faster, to see what has been hauled from the sea.We cut to the scene on the beach, where Nigel Patrick (playing a narrative device named Stephen Cameron) has stopped his car to look. The camera shows a tangle of fishnet, and two entwined hands, one male and one female.
So we know from the beginning that our main characters will love unto death. This is not a movie where suspense is important--you are watching a great love unfold, and that is supposed to suffice.
2. Plots Which Jettison All Pretense of Realism. The Siren is a skeptical mortal who believes in neither ghosts, nor psychics, nor ancient curses, nor Flying Dutchmen. Paradoxically, however, she loves a good ghostly plot. Pandora Reynolds, nightclub singer, has a bad case of anhedonia. So she runs around Spain ensnaring men, then breaking their hearts. One night she sees a tall-masted ship anchored in the bay, and she skinny-dips out to see who's on board. Lo, it is Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), painting a picture, utterly nonchalant as Ava walks in wrapped in nothing but insouciance and a sail. That's because he already knows Ava's face--it is the one he is painting. Hendrik has been waiting for her, alone of all women, down through the lonely centuries. He is, of course, the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail the seas of the world until he can find a woman who will love him enough to die for him. Pandora and Hendrik do fall in love, but will it be enough to save Hendrik?
3. The Beauty of Ava Gardner.
In case you still care after drinking in that screen shot, she doesn't give a good performance, which was typical of Gardner until relatively late in her career. In her daily life she was a Siren's siren, a woman who could take a bounder like Frank Sinatra and reduce him to warbling "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." The part of Pandora Reynolds, for whom a man (Marius Goring from The Red Shoes, in a nice bit of cross-movie irony) kills himself only minutes after the movie starts, was practically autobiography. But just because you are something doesn't mean you can act it. Gardner was never very confident about her acting ability, and it shows. She doesn't suggest the banked-up fires of a passionate woman searching for love and meaning. Instead, Gardner seems apathetic, a risky acting choice even for a great talent. During a scene in which a man pushes his beloved racecar over a cliff for her, Ava recites her lines like she's playing Trilby instead of an all-gifted woman.
Later, when Pandora falls in love, Gardner is somewhat better, but still has an oddly girlish and tentative quality to her lines. Mason, unable to get any real chemistry going with his leading lady, retreats into conveying inner torment at every turn. This was his signature ability as an actor (see Lolita, A Star is Born, Odd Man Out, and probably Bigger Than Life if Fox would ever release the damn DVD), so Mason is quite effective, but the central love affair never soars as it should.
4. Spain's Costa Brava (in a Less Crowded and Touristy Era). Oh my, how the cast and crew must have loved filming this one. The beach, the mountains, the waters, the villas. The Siren is sure the area must be long since built up and despoiled, but seeing it here is pure pleasure.
5. Technicolor. Used by cinematographer Jack Cardiff (another Red Shoes connection) to film nos. 3 and 4 to spectacular effect. There are lots of day-for-night scenes, which can be even worse than lousy rear projection for breaking the mood of a picture. Here, the "night" shots glitter silver and blue, adding to the otherworldly aura instead of killing the viewer's belief in the story. Many compositions are as striking as a Man Ray photograph, as the shot at left demonstrates. Lewin and Cardiff use their location for everything it is worth, skimming over the water, putting you in the lap of a racecar trying to set a speed record on a beach, soaring up into the mountains behind the coast. For beauty and visual originality, Pandora can compare with any other landmark of Technicolor. If you love the process, the Siren would go so far as to say this film is indispensable.
6. Bullfighting. The Siren hates bullfighting. She always cheers for the bull. Despite this very American attitude, she was wowed by the bullfighting scenes, which are filmed with a grace and rhythm that at last gave her a glimpse of what others see in this spectacle. Mario Cabré, a bullfighter in real life, plays one here, his noisy, narcissistic love for Pandora acting as the catalyst for the final pact between her and Hendrik. Cabré can't act worth a damn, but he looks great, his character has a mother fixation that is the funniest thing in the movie, and somehow he strikes more sparks off Mason than does the lovely Ava.
7. Movies That the French Love More Than We Do.
If Pandora reminded the Siren of anything else, it was The Barefoot Contessa, another gorgeously shot movie where the characters talk incessantly and behave in self-destructive ways. (I thought so even before I realized Cardiff also was the DP on Contessa.) Mankiewicz's movie was beloved of the Cahiers crowd even as it was judged lacking by American critics. Pandora, as it happens, had the same fate. Mr. C. entered toward the end of Lewin's movie and recognized it immediately as a film he had seen in childhood on French TV's weekly screenings, complete with a lovingly detailed introduction explaining its importance as a pinnacle of "le surréalisme." The Siren thinks the French are onto something with both movies. Neither is a true masterpiece, but the Contessa and Pandora are both highly worthwhile films, as beautiful, individual and as slightly insane as their heroines.