Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie Review: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
directed by Albert Lewin, starring Ava Gardner, James Mason

Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a beautiful, bored singer, lives amongst the expatriates that flit along the European coastline in the 1930s. No man can resist Pandora's charms--one even commits suicide over her--but she remains unmoved. One night, one of her suitors (Nigel Patrick) decides to prove his love by pushing his beloved racing car off a cliff. Pandora is impressed by his sacrifice and agrees to marry him. In the words of her friend Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), "The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it."

But fate has other plans for Pandora. On the night of her engagement, Pandora spots a yacht out in the harbor and impulsively swims out to it (stark naked).  There she meets Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), mysteriously the only man on board. He is completely unsurprised by her entrance, turning away from her so that he can finish painting a portrait. But when Pandora goes to look at the painting, she finds out that it looks exactly like her. How can that be, when she has never met this man, and he claims not to know her?

Intrigued, for probably the first time in her life, Pandora draws this mysterious stranger into her circle of friends. The attraction between Hendrik and Pandora is obvious to everyone, even as the date of Pandora's wedding draws closer. But Pandora's friend Geoffrey starts to suspect that there is something extraordinary about Hendrik van der Zee. 

On a hunch, he asks Hendrik to translate an old Dutch manuscript for him. Hendrik obeys, reciting the dark, strange tale of a sea captain who killed his wife for her infidelity. Arrested for her murder, the captain swore to the heavens that no man could ever find a truly faithful woman, if he sailed the seas for all eternity. That night, the captain found his cell door unlocked and a voice whispered to him the truth: his wife had never been unfaithful. Heartbroken, the man stumbled back to his ship and discovered that it now sailed by itself, manned by a crew he could neither see nor hear. Soon, the captain discovered the true nature of his punishment: he would sail until the end of time, looking for a woman who loved him enough to die for him. Every seven years, he would be allowed to go ashore and spend six months there, looking for such a woman. If he did not find her, he would be cursed to wander, immortal and alone, forever.

The emotion in Hendrik's voice as he reads the story convinces Geoffrey that this is the very same sea captain, the Flying Dutchman of the story. He also suspects that the captain has fallen truly in love with Pandora, that she might be the one to rescue him from his bondage. But even if Pandora were willing to sacrifice herself, how could the Dutchman ever allow her to do it?

Albert Lewin, the man behind Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, was one of the most unusual directors to come out of mid-century filmmaking. He only directed six films, all of which he wrote and produced himself. In defiance of mainstream tastes, his films were erudite, highbrow, and fiercely intellectual. Lewin was also an art collector, with a taste for the surreal (his friends included Man Ray and Max Ernst) and his films frequently reflected this fascination. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was his fourth film and many consider it the culmination of Lewin's obsessions: a proudly romantic, visually fascinating attempt to bring his love for myths and art to cinematic life. 

Talk about an embarrassment of riches--Pandora and the Flying Dutchman might be considered an embarrassment of references. The film takes the original legend of the Flying Dutchman and combines it with the Greek legend of Pandora, the fabled "darling of the gods." The name of the village in which the film is set is Esperanza ("hope"), famously the only thing Pandora had left after she opened the box. And the Dutchman is given a backstory straight out of Othello, with a chance at redemption that hails from Heinrich Heine's classic opera. 

Lewin threads the film with other, smaller details. The film opens with lines from the Rubaiyat. Hendrik the Dutchman recites Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" at one point. Hendrik's painting of Pandora is an actual painting by Man Ray, who also designed a chess set for the film. The cast roams over beaches strewn with broken statuary. This last detail leads to one of the film's more memorable setpieces, as a crowd of partygoers dance and laugh amidst the statues, the new merrily tramping all over the old. It's like a sequence straight out of La Dolce Vita.

As if to complicates matters further, Lewin sets the whole film back in the 1930s and then promptly disregards his chosen time period in order to dress his cast of expats in the latest fashions. The 1930s time period only makes sense as a reference to Hemingway and Fitzgerald's crowd. The way Lewin lingers over a car racing scene and a bullfighting sequence leaves little room for doubt that he had Hemingway in mind. Within this confusion of time and place, Lewin sets the impossible love story of the Dutchman and the nightclub singer. 

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a film that announces from the very first scene that this will be an epic love story, a tale of delirious and sacrificial love that lasts beyond death. Unfortunately, all the delirium exists within Lewin's frenzy of art and myth; when it comes to the real emotional heart of the story, the film falters. The love story between Ava Gardner's Pandora and James Mason's Hendrik is incredibly, epically dull. How can such an ambitious film, beautifully lensed by the legendary Jack Cardiff, fail so miserably on its most important point?

Well for starters, Gardner and Mason have almost no chemistry together. But that's the least of the love story's problems. For reasons best known to himself, Albert Lewin decided to keep the development of Pandora and Hendrik's relationship mostly off-screen. We rack up more minutes on Hendrik's backstory and the shallow lives of Pandora's friends than we do on the lovers themselves. If not for a stray comment by Pandora's friend Geoffrey (who seems to exist for no other reason than to be our narrator, a kind of bargain basement Morgan Freeman), you would never know that Hendrik and Pandora were falling in love. The only hypothesis I can make for this is that Lewin thought the grandeur of their love was best left to the imagination. Unfortunately, this tactic means that the audience doesn't have any emotional stake in their love. We don't know what they talk about, what they're like together, or why they love each other.

In the few moments where they do interact with each other, Lewin saddles the actors with very flat, portentous dialogue. For example:
Hendrik: Perhaps you haven't found what you want yet, perhaps you're unfulfilled. Perhaps you don't even know what you want, perhaps you're discontented. Discontentment often finds vent through fury and destruction.
Pandora: Fury and destruction, is that what you think? Well perhaps I can find something here to destroy...Would you like me to destroy your painting?
Hendrik: If it would help to quiet your soul.
(a few lines later) 
Pandora: You've made me feel ashamed of myself. It's a new emotion, I'm not sure I like it. 
Here's another example:
Pandora: It's as if everything that happened before I met you didn't happen to me at all but to someone else. And in a way that's true. I've changed so since I've known you. I'm not cruel and hateful as I used to be, hurting people because I was so unhappy myself. I know now what destructiveness comes from, it's a lack of love.
These aren't characters talking, these are concepts. It makes me feel like the Robot Devil from Futurama. "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!" It's flat enough on paper, but in the mouths of actors it's just painful. What makes it even worse is that Lewin doesn't bother to leaven it with any humor or uncertainty. It's all formal declarations in tones of deadly seriousness. In his attempt to impress on us the importance of his ideas, Lewin bypasses both realism and poetry and comes up with something that's neither. Mason and Gardner do their best, but you can feel the wheels grinding.

Ava Gardner is heart-stoppingly beautiful in this film; she seems to glow from every angle. It's her beauty more than anything that makes Pandora's La Belle Dame Sans Merci reputation seem utterly plausible. Who wouldn't be tempted to throw their racing car off a cliff for that face? Unfortunately her personality doesn't match up to her looks.  Pandora the person is cold, distant, and callous; you have to wonder if her suitors ever bother to actually listen to anything she says. When one of her smitten gentlemen friends offs himself in her presence, Pandora's response is little more than a shrug ("Reggie was always talking about's over now and I'm not sorry"). 

I can't help wondering, given Lewin's choice of setting, if he wasn't influenced by the Zelda Fitzgeralds and Duff Twysdens that haunt Jazz Age literature. If he was, he forgot to give his protagonist the charm and lust for life that made these women so unforgettable. It's bold of him to make his heroine so unlikable, but the expected payoff of the selfish Pandora being reformed by love isn't convincing. We aren't given any indication that Pandora has the deeper feelings that would make such a transformation possible. 

Gardner's performance doesn't smooth the transition any. She floats through most of this film, speaking her lines in a hypnotized monotone. The few times she struggles for more emotion, she just sounds petulant. This isn't entirely her fault, as Lewin's script doesn't give her many chances to explore her character. Too much is given to exposition and grandeur. Gardner ends up looking lost, unable to find a foothold in her own film.

James Mason fares somewhat better than Gardner if only because he can deliver Lewin's granite-faced dialogue with complete conviction. Hendrik van der Zee is a man out of his time, haunted by past regrets. He is drawn to Pandora, but his tormented face and demeanor don't exactly fit in with her party-loving crowd. Faced with both long stretches of exposition and long stretches of silent glowering, Mason does both admirably.

It's funny, though. Mason cut his teeth on dark, romantic roles (the Gainsborough melodramas and his string of Ophuls films come to mind). If anybody could unlock the swoon-worthy, Gothic-hero potential in Hendrik van der Zee, you'd think Mason could. Instead, he comes across as rather stiff and remote. Lines like, "I was angry once, I can never be angry again," make him seem less like Heathcliff and more like Bruce Banner. If the studio executives were hoping they could market this film on Mason's appeal to women, then this was a serious misfire.

With all the charges I've laid against Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, what could redeem it? Answer: the visuals. This is one of the most stunning Technicolor films I've ever seen. The nighttime scenes glow sapphire blue, purely unreal, while the daytime colors blaze hot. The shadows soften the actor's faces until they seem to shimmer in and out of the fantasy dreamscape that Jack Cardiff crafts from the Spanish coast. Cardiff's cinematography here could stand up alongside any of the films he made with Powell and Pressburger. And when you consider that Cardiff helmed both the on-location photography of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and the largely setbound camerawork of Black Narcissus, well, the time has come to throw up your hands and declare Jack Cardiff the master of all.

This is not to discount Lewin's hand in the visuals. Lewin directs with a painter's eye; he has the ability to wed small details to strong, dynamic lines. Look back to that still of the musician leaning up against the statue, the line of his trombone against the diagonal of the column. Or the one of Mason being held by guards as the floor pattern stretches beyond him to infinity. Actually most of the Dutchman's backstory is cleverly photographed by Lewin and Cardiff to look like a series of Baroque paintings. Lewin wasn't afraid to reach for the obscure or the strange in his visual work and it works greatly to the film's advantage.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a film about timeless passion, the kind that would make a man kill the wife he loves, that would make a faithless woman risk death. And it was a film driven by the passion of one man, Albert Lewin, who wrote, directed, and produced it. How odd then, that the film ultimately feels so empty of passion or feeling. Jack Cardiff's color cinematography is a gift from heaven, but that isn't enough to keep the fires burning. I watched it with clinical, Pandora-like detachment, all through the two-hour running length.

And yet, somehow I can't call it a waste of time. It's a strange mixture of the sublime and the dull. It reaches astonishing heights of beauty through Cardiff's colors, Lewin's compositions and Ava Gardner's genetics. But they're laid at the service of a self-important, humorless script and pacing that just plods along. Still, if Lewin doesn't succeed in making a masterpiece, he does create a memorable and utterly unique film. How can you help but tip your hat to Albert Lewin, the man of many dreams? 

Favorite Quote:

"No work of art is complete until the element of chance is entered into it."

Favorite Scene:

The film's most magical moment comes when Pandora decides to swim to the Dutchman's empty ship. Leaving her bewildered companion behind on the crumbling steps, she slips out of her clothes into the shimmering blue water. When she reaches the ship, she calls out her hellos. Confident, as always, of her welcome. Confused at the lack of response, she swims to the side, peeking her head over and looking, for all the world, like a mermaid. Pandora looks in vain for crew members, but sees only the moonlight glinting off the railings and boards. But then, she sees a light from one doorway. Too curious to back down, Pandora wraps herself in a sail and looks through the window. She sees a man painting, his back to her. A normal woman would leave then and there, but Pandora isn't normal. She saunters through the doorway, only to find the painter, his back to her. He doesn't acknowledge her. She doesn't know what's happening, we don't know what's happening. And in that moment, the film vibrates on the edge of the extraordinary. 

Final Six Words:

This sleeping beauty never wakes up

Note: Astute viewers will note that five of my screencaps come from the DVDBeaver website. Normally, I wouldn't use so many, but I did want to give a sense of Cardiff's visuals and on this occasion, I wasn't able to use my own screencaps.


  1. This film seems really unconventional for its time. I'm going to track down a copy; fingers crossed that my local library comes through:)

    I enjoyed your review; it's very informative without making me feel like I don't need to actually watch the film because I already know everything about it. xx

  2. Ashley: Thanks for commenting. It's worth checking out; it's got quite a cult following.

  3. Rachel,

    Just gave you an award :)


    I agree with you about this movie, by the way. Coulda been great, but failed.

  4. Clara: I'll pop over to your blog to thank you for the award. I suppose Pandora's failures are all the more glaring, because it's so obviously shooting for masterpiece status.

  5. This is a great review, and it's helped to put my feelings about this film in perspective. I recently watched it for the first time, and while Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is unbelievably sumptuous to look at, I couldn't help feeling that it was a bunch of pretentious twaddle. It's a shame, because I really liked the last couple of Lewin's films that I saw; The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Of course, both of those were based on works by acknowledged masters of the written word. I think Lewin was a better director than he was a writer. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman comes off as hopelessly sophomoric. Still, you're right about the visuals ... it's a beautiful film to look at.