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.


Karen said...

"And the films range from pretty good, to highly entertaining, to at least one (admittedly English) masterpiece."

Ah. Thanks, Siren. It always makes me happy to see people giving love to one of my three favorite films of all time (the other two being "Sullivan's Travels" and "A Man for All Seasons"). "A Matter of Life and Death" doesn't seem to appeal to all tastes (as I've discovered, to my chagrin, when I screen it for friends), but it thrills and confounds me anew every time I watch it (why IS that piping shepherd boy naked on the beach??), and I would put it right up with "The Red Shoes" as Powell and Pressburger at their most confident and creative.

The Siren said...

If I am not mistaken, it was Powell's personal favorite. I know a lot of critics and other filmmakers, including Scorsese, have a lot of admiration for Matter of Life and Death. David Thomson called it "pretentious and tedious" but on THAT matter I give a big ol' raspberry to him.

Uncle Gustav said...

Excellent piece, Siren, on a film few remember.

Yes...Ava. Indeed. ~sigh~

No great talent as an "actress" (Bhowani Junction — I rest my case), but the camera, as they say, loved her. I'll take Ava over Marilyn any day.

But she was a memorable dramatic presence under the right conditions. I'm thinking of the scene in Night of the Iguana when Deborah Kerr complains of being a spinster pushing forty, to which Ava replies, "Aw, honey, who isn't?!?"

The Siren said...

Thanks Flickhead! More people should see this one, it has a lot to offer I think. Night of the Iguana is definitely Ava's best performance. (I have a lot of affection for Bhowani Junction, but hesitate to defend her acting there without re-viewing. I saw it as a teenager and I was a pushover at that age.)

BTW, since you are here, I recently saw The Bridesmaid and enjoyed it. I may do a short piece on it at some point, not a long one since yours covers all the bases. (Except maybe Benoit Magimel. Rowr.) Anyway, thanks to you my Netflix queue is riddled with Chabrol.

Aris_T said...

For a little variation on a theme, but also from 1951, how about adding to your list the marvellous "You Never Can Tell" which in a touching variant on "Here Comes Mr Jordan" has Dick Powell as a murdered dog given a second chance as a private detective in order to track down his own killer.

The Siren said...

Aris_T, I had only vaguely heard of your movie and I confess that I checked IMDB to make sure I was not the victim of a practical joke here. That is one hell of a premise and definitely deserves some sort of immortality. I am disappointed to see that it apparently isn't available at the moment. I am also wondering why this daffy plot hasn't caught the eye of comedians looking for properties to recycle.

Uncle Gustav said...

Glad you liked The Bridesmaid. Earlier you'd mentioned you were looking forward to seeing Violette, but be warned the DVD is not widescreen. Since it's such a powerful and entertaining film, however, the full frame isn't too annoying.

The Siren said...

Scan and pan? for heaven's sakes, WHY?

Dan Leo said...

I've always loved Ava Gardner in "Night of the Iguana" too. Ava and Burton, now there was a team, the "live not wisely but well" team.

Didja know, Bette Davis originated that part on Broadway. Then Shelley Winters took over when Davis left the show. But I think Ava Gardner was right for the movie. She was just so damned lusty.

Uncle Gustav said...

Not only is Violette full frame, but the image is rather grainy. I'd blame it on Koch Lorber, but this kind of carelessness and inconsideration isn't limited to them.

I just rented Sony's recently released DVD of MacKenna's Gold (1969) from Netflix, but that was pan-and-scan too, despite its glorious Utah locations. I looked on Amazon and DeepDiscountDVD, but all they sell is a full frame version of this. Meanwhile, Peter at Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee found a widescreen DVD of it in the public library. Go figure!

Peter Nellhaus said...

I can't wait to get my unseen DVD of Pandora out of storage. I saw it on videotape originally. Had it not been distracted by my own Netflix queue I would have seen it again a couple of years ago. Anyway, I like the film because of Ava, but also because the film works for me as post-war "modern art" visually. As far as I'm concerned, Lewin's pretenses are a virtue.

I am awaiting a wide screen release of Bhowani Junction even though it is impossible to take this vision of India seriously.

The Siren said...

'the film works for me as post-war "modern art" visually. As far as I'm concerned, Lewin's pretenses are a virtue.'

Well, I am embarrassed, because you just summed up my feelings and took only two sentences to do it. Yes, Pandora's virtues are the visuals, definitely, although Mason is quite good in places.

Gloria said...

Well, This was one of the very first films I saw in the original English version, and I've been in love with it ever since. I even got a 40s copy Fitzgerald's version of Khayyam because of it. It is gorgeously illustrated by Robert S. Sherriffs. And, hey, do I dig James Mason :D

Incidentally, the language the fishermen are talking is not Spanish, but catalan. For Catalans it is a source of fun to see the mix between the Catalan site and "Typical Spanish" topics in the film - like bullfighting and gypsy fortune tellers, ha, ha. However, it's all played to good effect: I'm not fond of bullfighting myself, but you're right, it is played to good effect.

Albert Lewin was a good friend and loyal assistant of Irving Thalberg, and very like-minded, too. Thalberg just loved books (and had that unhealthy inclination to adapt them LOL). No wonder his is a film with a strong literary flavour.

Mario Cabre was quite a character, he was a bullfighter, acted in stage and wrote poetry. He was mad about Ava.

The costa Brava is still beautiful in the less crowded spots. You might be curious to learn that Tossa de Mar (where the film was shot) has a statue of Ava.

She's indeed great in "Night of the Iguana".

"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" was pretty good too (and it had Gene Tierney, Rex Garrison and George Sanders!)

The Siren said...

Ah, I stand corrected on the Catalan, Gloria. I will fix the mistake. I was enthralled by this movie but at the same time I had to be honest about its faults. It is obviously the work of a man with a highly original vision. Re: the Khayyam--one of my favorite books in my library is a facsimile edition of the Fitzgerald translation, with beautiful illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I had not thought of it till you mentioned it, but there is a certain Dulac-ish feel to the look of the movie.

Cabre has no acting craft at all but he has presence to spare.

If I ever go to the Costa Brava (and I certainly hope I do) I will email for advice on locating those less crowded spots!

Gloria said...

Well, it seems that Khayyam and Fitzgerald had one hell of a salesman with Lewin! LOL: I'm tempted to get the Dulac-illustrated version now!

Re Costa Brava: It is really a matter of "less crowded" places rather than "non crowded", alas. However, the formula "go there, but not on a weekend or during a holiday season" works as well as in the rest of the world. A bit of distance from a road or a parking place also gives results (people don't like walking nowadays, it seems)

The Siren said...

Fitzgerald & Omar pop up in The Shanghai Gesture as well, in fact Victor Mature spends much of the movie quoting him. That "moving finger writes" quatrain got quite a workout in Hollywood. There is a different quatrain quoted in Duel in the Sun. That world-weariness translates quite well to screen. One of these days I should catch Cornel Wilde in the biopic.

David Stafford said...

From the first frame Pandora definitely has the flavor of a labor of love and the loopier the plot gets the more you forgive Lewin his passionate embrace. He deserves a medal for romantic bravery, undone here by Ava's unself-confidence in her own otherworldly status as a goddess. I think that's what forms the basis of her appeal in "Iguana." Cast off the pedestal by middle-age she becomes a real woman (Shades of One Touch of Venus). Still, I'm glad I saw Pandora. It reminds me, once again, how pinched and cowardly modern movies are when it comes to romance.

John Hastings said...

hi Siren,
I love the way that you make sentences. I immediately grasped that I was reading something crafted by a male. Can a siren be either a man or a woman? I haven't seen Pandora since I was a child, but I think about the movie often. Of course it is the surrealismo that will not let me forget. You honor the film with your critique.
Ava was so wrong for Barefoot Contessa. The film would have worked if Linda Darnell had gotten the part. Joe M really shot himself in by foot by not casting Linda. The script didn't make sense without her. Ava was so FLAT, so absolutely onenote, so one shoe on and one shoe off: not quite barefoot, not quite anything. I love film but I love poetry more--Neruda, Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, Dante and the sonnets of Miss Millay most notably among others.
I'm new to cyberspace. Friends forced a computer on me. I'll be reading more of you.

The Siren said...

John, thank you very much for stopping by. I am in fact a woman, with three kids yet, but I'm glad my writing isn't easily gender-typed. I also think Darnell might have been much better in Contessa. Mank got such a good performance out of her in Letter to Three Wives.

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Ben Alpers said...

Adding a comment to this very old thread, since I just saw the restored version of this at the Walter Reade in NYC last week. I agree entirely with the Siren's write up of it, and wanted to add that there are at least two other important Archers involved in this one: Abraham Sofaer, who plays the Judge in the flashback trial of the Flying Dutchman, played the Judge (and Surgeon) in A Matter of Life and Death (oddly, his cousin, also named Abraham Sofaer, was an actual US District Judge, appointed by Jimmy Carter) and Sheila Sim, best known, I think, for her lead role in A Canterbury Tale, plays Janet, who competes unsuccessfully with Pandora for the love of the racecar driver. Sofaer is fine in a very minor role. Sim, like so many of the other actors in this film, falls somewhat short of the mark (indeed, I left the theater marveling at what a good performance Powell coaxed out of her in that earlier film). But as the Siren suggested, the pleasures of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman do not rest in its performances.

JUAN. said...

Not exactly afterlife romance, but another supernatural romance I like is "Peter Ibbetson".

JUAN. said...

Not exactly afterlife romance, but another supernatural romance I like is "Peter Ibbetson".

Unknown said...

"Which should have been called Death Now Takes Three Hours." Priceless. Strangely enough I just watched "Meet Joe Black" for the first time yesterday. I started getting testy and wondering why this thing was taking so damn long. I also thought "I could have watched two-and-a-half Joan Blondell movies by now..."

manderstoke said...

Why is everyone talking about Ava Gardner's beauty? The beautiful one in this movie is James Mason. He takes my breath away in some of the close-ups. And, to put it bluntly, he was the only one who could act in the movie. Another Mason film in which the camera is in love with his face is Odd Man Out. His beauty is almost otherworldly.

Nocti said...

Nice to see some attention paid to a movie that ought to be better known than it is.

It's funny to read all the talk of Surrealism without any mention of the film's direct connection to it (the contributions of Man Ray).

Finally, a quibble: The masterpiece you speak of is not Stairway to Heaven but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which I will go to the mat defending as not merely a very good film, but a great one. De gustibus, of course.