Thursday, 26 April 2012
1,001 Films: "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" (1951)
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was a pretty singular reverie to have escaped from the tightly regulated confines of the Hollywood dream factory, offering as it did a fevered mash-up of the Flying Dutchman myth, Omar Khayyám's Rubaiyat, and several other poems and legends; only personal taste will decide how much of it takes. It's the one in which destructive beauty Ava Gardner sees off one suitor (self-sacrifice) and one race car (pushed off a cliff) before crossing paths with the eponymous Hollander (James Mason), who's moored himself off the Spanish coastal resort of Esperanza, convinced he's going to have to spend centuries searching for the one woman who truly loves him. (Some days, I know exactly how he feels.)
Emerging from the same period that brought us such studio-backed follies as Spellbound and The Fountainhead, Albert Lewin's melodrama casts its net far and wide - that Pandora should be distracted so is no surprise, given the plot crams in bullfighting, Tarot cards, magic potions and attempts on the land speed record - and not all of it hangs together: Mason, in an unusually dour assignment, looks vaguely uncomfortable, and your response to the film as a whole may very well depend on your response to the passing of his dog. Surrender to it whole, though, and you'll discover a rare intensity of feeling, colour and mood: exactly what one might expect from having Gardner, at her loveliest, before the camera, and the ultra-literate Lewin, not to mention a technical genius of cameraman Jack Cardiff's standing, behind it.
As Pandora confronts the portrait of her the Dutchman has completed, breathlessly uttering "It's not me as I am at all; it's what I'd like to be," we finally realise what Lewin is striving so damn hard to get at here: the ability of art, and of the image in particular, to move us to a higher place. You can tell the gamble didn't quite pay off from the failure of its location to pass into lore the way Shangri-La or Brigadoon did, but there's still plenty for the committed romantic to swoon at here: not least the sight of characters who - no matter what tragedy befalls them, and that it might be easier for them to haul anchor and sail away - continue to live in Hope.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is available on DVD through Park Circus.