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DVD: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
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1 (NTSC)

May 23, 2000




Genre: Drama / Romance / Fantasy  
The captain of a ghost ship must convince a beautiful woman to sacrifice herself for him in order to be mortal once again.  



Directed by:

Albert Lewin
Screenplay by: Albert Lewin
Music by: Alan Rawsthorne
Produced by: Joe Kaufmann, Albert Lewin

James Mason, Ava Gadner, Nigel Patrick, Sheila Sim, Harold Warrender, Mario Cabre, Marius Goring, John Laurie, and Pamela Mason.

Film Length: 122 mins
Process/Ratio: 1.33:1
Anamorphic DVD: No
Languages:  English Dolby Mono
Special Features :  

Theatrical Trailer

Comments :

The best description of writer/director/producer Albert Lewin was made by Leslie Halliwell in his forgotten but once indispensible guidebook on filmmakers, actors, etc.: an odd writer/producer who would periodically leave his office at MGM and make a film with imagery and words culled from art, in particular the words of Persian poet Omar Khayyam.

Lewin’s best-known (and deservedly celebrated) film is what’s still the definitive edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); Lewin’s translation evoked Wilde’s prose, as well as the character’s extended state of ennui as immortality gave Gray little to do except wander London in search of excitement, only to be foiled by a heady love for a beautiful, idyllic woman. Love – and its consummation – would be his undoing, and Gray’s painting was key to discerning the character’s weird past.

The success of Gray in 1945 – Lewin’s second film as direction – maybe validated whatever little obsession he put into that film, and throughout his directorial career (consisting of three more films) involved the imagery and prose from Gray.

If Hitchcock conformed scripts to suite his worldview of murder, romance, and perpetuate archetypes (as in his own haunting murder myth Vertigo), than Lewin fashioned his scripts to include themes of immortality, ennui, painting, a dark past, rebelling against a starchy moral order, and Khayyam. And if there was a murder, it too consisted of a stabbing, a hand flaying and striking a lighting, and a bar bulb swinging back and forth while the death of a character was depicted in flittering shadowplay.

These obsession became fetishes in later work like Saadia (1953), but in Pandora he managed to make his quirks work, mostly due to a haunting myth about a lonely sailor who can only achieve peace by finding, romancing, and dying with an earthly goddess willing to sacrifice her life as a sign of sublime devotion.

Pandora doesn’t open a box and unleash countless terrors; she’s a self-aware, horribly confident seductress who feels the wreckage of scorned and suicidal lovers are simply part of her path, a life quest designed to never achieve happiness unless some force draws her into the uber-passion she’s been unable to experience with her coterie of men.

First she dumps a fan, who promptly poisons himself in public. Then she woos a wealthy playboy who’s initially willing to sacrifice his test race car and current love, but eventually gravitates back to their emotional security. When a bullfighter (real-life torero Mario Cabre) returns into her life and demands her hand in marriage, her rejection leads to a murder (hence Lewin’s excuse to stage another light bulb killing), but he too dies when the object of his rage – Pandora’s rival – returns from the dead and distracts the torero long enough to be gored several times by a raging stud more steamed up than himself.

The torero’s rival manages to accomplish everything other men haven’t: he perks up her curiosity. One night she swims naked to his sailboat that’s moored in the local harbor, and wrapped in a canvas sail, steps into his ship where she finds him painting a portrait of abstraction, including a Grecian goddess bearing her face.

He initially shows little interest in Pandora (and certainly has no reaction as she stands naked under the sail), but it’s part of a sleek seduction he uses to test her willingness to make him her obsession, and when she’s engorged in his aura, agrees to sacrifice her life, freeing the Dutchman and allowing fate to drown them after their consummation.

Lewin’s crafted a weird, dreamy myth that blazes with extraordinary colours; it’s as though the starkness of black & white was maximized to his delight in Gray, leaving little to explore except in Technicolour. Using Jack Cardiff as his cinematographer, Pandora’s look is filled with layers of colours, faces often numb in emotion yet shot like giant facial friezes, and extreme objects that fill the screen, like a giant chiming bell from which Cardiff’s camera tracks back and reveals the picturesque bay where the bodies of Pandora and her lover, Hendrik van der Zee lie entangled in seaweed.

The town’s discovery and the identity of their bodies star the after Lewin quotes from Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, and he makes sure their dead hands also include a copy of Khayyam’s book. The book’s also seen in the house of the archeologist/historian who quickly discovers Hendrik’s identity when the Dutchman is able to perfectly translate am old Dutch diary attributed to the figure of the old Flying Dutchman myth: in Lewis reworking, the Dutchman, believing his wife to be unfaithful during his merchant travels, murders his wife, and is condemned by fate to roam the seas in a ship manned by ghosts, until he seeks union and acquiescence with the reincarnated wife.

Lewin’s use of the Spanish coast adds to the film’s exotica, as well as the introduction of the priapic torero who’s no match for the immortal Henrik. Alan Rawthorne’s score doesn’t feel fully thematic, and plays like waves of rhapsodic statements when the characters aren’t spouting self-important observations, and ruminations on fate.

James Mason is quite powerful as the haunted Hendrik; his moments in the courtroom flashbacks remind one of his power in voice and body, exhibiting rage among conservative judges and peers. Ava Gardner may well be giving her finest performance because Lewin seems to have chose to reduce the actress to a haunted; her dialogue delivery is monotone and whispery; her face and figure glow in every massive close-up, and under Cardiff’s lens Gardner’s extraordinary physicality is hypnotic. It’s no surprise many men who saw the film during its release were bowled over, and the movie’s evolved into an arty cult film that’s been hard to see for years.

VCI’s DVD uses a worn copy that’s adequate, and while not a public domain transfer, one is nevertheless disappointed by how desperately this film needs to be restored. The recent 2009 action to return the film back to its visual splendor and release it to audiences will ensure the film will influence more film fans, particularly those fond of Powell & Pressburger’s myth-styled films of the forties and fifties

Pandora’s link to P&P’s The Red Shoes (1948) isn’t accidental. Both films were shot by Cardiff, co-starred Marius Goring, and it’s not unfair to say Lewin wanted to craft his own Red Shoes for modern audiences, minus the ballet. The focus on an elaborate ballet becomes the words of Khayyam, quoted, recapped and transformed into a life lesson that’s learned the hard way.

Even Hendrik isn’t different from the red shoes that propel the heroine to burn out and sacrifice herself. He is an object that attracts Pandora, and their consummation is the dance that destroys the two, with Khayyam’s book surviving their death much like the red shoes survive after they destroy the dancer.

Included on VCI’s disc is a trailer, which begins with evil gossip columnist Hedda Hopper spouting nonsense about glamour, and the trailer’s selling angle completely downplays the film’s myth, and the dreamy mood Lewin created in his second-greatest work.

Lewin’s canon as director is very brief, and spans The Moon and the Sixpence (1942), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Saadia (1953), and The Living Idol (1957). Ava Gardner also appeared in The Naked Maja (1958), a film whose script was reportedly begun by Lewin before he left filmmaking and turned to novel writing.


© 2010 Mark R. Hasan

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