Saturday 10 October 2020

On Blu-ray - John Baxter unpacks the restored 4K edition of PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (Albert Lewin, UK/USA, 1950)

James Mason paints Ava Gardner, Pandora and 

the Flying Dutchman


       When poet and novelist Robert Graves visited Australia in 1967, he had just published “the first true translation of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam,” based on a long-lost 12thcentury Afghani manuscript. Dressed for comfort in old tweeds and bedroom slippers, he shuffled on stage at Sydney ‘s Town Hall and spent the next hour deriding Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 version of Khayyam’s Rubiayat,dismissing “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou” as Victorian claptrap. Furious fans who had brought their well-worn Morocco-bound copies to go over treasured passages gathered in the lobby to curse Graves. They were delighted when the new manuscript proved a hoax.

       The slightly musty odour of those limp leather bindings, along with an effluvium of greasepaint, sun-block and mothballs, hangs over Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, newly restored in 4KAudiences in 1951 probably still remembered Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer mooning around the Sahara fifteen years earlier in The Garden of Allah, slumping onto the occasional dune to sigh “Only God and I know what is in my heart.”  When Max Steiner’s score fell silent, they might have heard, faintly, a Palm Court orchestra playing Pale Hands I Love Beside the Shalimar. 

       Fitzgerald also overshadows Pandora. When the drowned lovers are washed ashore at the finale, they clutch in their cold but entwined hands a copy of the Rubiayat, conveniently open at the stanza beginning “The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on.” Elsewhere in the film, if nothing from Omar quite fits a situation, someone quotes a similar piece of potted wisdom. A favourite is “The measure of one’s love is what one is prepared to give up for it.” The narrator, antiquarian Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) attributes this to “some Greek philosopher” but in fact it’s a Lewin creation, probably found in a fortune cookie. 

        Set in 1930, the story was already out of date in 1951. James Mason’s career had slumped since The Man in Grey and The Seventh Veil, but Lewin decided his gallery of scowling villain/heroes, often physically or morally maimed, suited Hendrik van der Zee, the legendary Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail until he finds a woman ready to die for him. 

He encounters her, improbably, in a colony of expatriate layabouts in the coastal village of Esperanza- Spanish for Hope. Given to taunting her lovers into sacrificing their most treasured possessions to prove their devotion, Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) meets in the Dutchman someone who demands the same of her, and of course falls hopelessly in love. Lewin adds a further level of mystic improbability with subplots involving Pandora’s other admirers, including Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), a racing-car driver, determined to break the world’s speed record on the nearby sands (above), whom nevertheless drives his treasured vehicle into the sea at her request. Another, Reggie Demarest (Marius Goring), falls at the first hurdle, downing a tumbler of poison (below) before the story gets going, and expiring at her feet on the floor of a Spanish bar, an event that causes her approximately as much distress as finding a chip in her nail polish.


       Yet another candidate, bullfighter Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabre), has a Tarot-reading mother who, in floods of un-subtitled Spanish, forecasts disaster if her boy’s obsession with Pandora causes him to take his eye off the bull. He does so, of course, in yet another cliché corrida episode, but not before he has demonstrated his expertise at night in a deserted ring, watched only by Pandora and her friends – an atmospheric sequence played, appropriately, in silence and without philosophical commentary.

       Post-war cinema was littered with such hybrids of Hollywood and Shaftesbury Avenue as Pandora, embraced by critics but generally shunned by audiences, who largely ignored attempts to improve their minds by “opening up” ballet or opera or Shakespeare. The urge to educate was endemic. Even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fell victim, marring The Red Shoes’ ballet with dance metaphors of clouds and flowers and ocean waves. Pandora has a correspondingly silly sequence where jazz musicians on a moonlit beach lounge around marble statues of the gods while party-goers Charleston and do handstands.

       Some of the strangest such films of postwar Hollywood were made by Albert Lewin, director/producer/writer of Pandora.He succeeded Paul Bern and Walter Wanger as assistant to MGM’s Irving Thalberg, and, like them, inherited a conviction that Hollywood should give equal time to Art. A master of the headline-capturing gimmick, Lewin updated Maupassant’s Bel Ami to the present day, filming it in black and white but reserving a single shot in colour for a scene of Parisians puzzling (as well they might) over Max Ernst’s  pestilential The Temptation of St. Anthony. To find a suitably phantasmagoric canvas for this scene, Lewin persuaded – well, bribed really – some noted artists to compete. Ernst’s oozing swamp won, but Salvador Dali’s parade of elephants with insect-like legs would become more famous. 

       For The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lewin again played with colour, using it solely for the appearances of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright's portrait of Wilde’s deceptively boyish hero, ravaged by excess. For Pandora, however, his first film entirely in colour, he wisely employed cinematographer Jack Cardiff, fresh from the triumphs of A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. His lighting has seldom looked as good as in this restoration. Earlier prints accentuated the Spanish setting’s postcard gaudiness but the new version restores Cardiff’s subdued palette, keyed to the almost marmoreal pallor of Ava Gardner (below).

       To add some artistic clout, Lewin recruited Man Ray, who had become a friend after fleeing occupied Paris and sitting out the war in Los Angeles. He created van de Zee’s chess set of geometrical metal pieces as well as the painting on which he’s working when Pandora swims out inquisitively to his boat.

       It was a shrewd move on Lewin’s part to involve the Surrealists, the most cinematic of the avant-gardes. They adulated movies, particularly the trashier ones, and, while they might noisily disrupt screenings of such luminaries of the Art Cinema as Germaine Dulac, would turn out en masse to applaud Feuillade’s Fantomas serials and the Keystone Cops. One feels they would have loved Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. It has more than a hint of both.


Editor's note.  A nice copy of the restored version is available if you click through to this streaming service

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