Thursday, July 07, 2011

catching an old classic — pandora and the flying dutchman

TCM recently ran an oddball classic, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, from 1951. I'm so glad that I was able to catch this strange, wonderful movie. It starred Ava Gardner at the height of her beauty as femme fatale Pandora Reynolds and James Mason, looking pretty damn beautiful himself, as Hendrik van der Zee, the legendary Flying Dutchman.

The movie had so many elements — love story, mythology, art film. Hendrik is the Flying Dutchman, a  17th c. sailor who has been cursed to roam the oceans until the end of the world. The only thing that will free him from his fate is meeting a woman willing to die for him. Pandora is the archetypal "bad woman." Every man she meets falls hopelessly in love with her, but she can care for no one. Men even die for her and she could care less. She is like the fabled Siren, craving the danger and destruction of the men she lures into her sights. Her two latest conquests leading lives of danger are race car driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) and bullfighter Juan Montalvo (played by real-life matador Mario Cabr√©). Neither man is thrilled that Hendrik is also on the scene and that Pandora finds him fascinating.

The movie dives immediately and unapologetically into the supernatural when Pandora first meets Hendrick, who is on his boat painting her portrait. They've never met before (and she doesn't know that his past love was her doppelganger and the reason behind his curse — he murdered her, mistakingly believing that she was unfaithful, and denounced God, bringing the curse upon him.) Pandora and Hendrik form an instant (eternal) bond. They resist each other as long as possible, but mythic love stories can only have one ending, which is basically revealed in the film's first shot, as two drowned bodies, of a man and a woman, with hands clasped, are found in Spanish fishermen's nets.

The movie is luscious to look at, with the colors green and red everywhere. Bold compositions including classical statues and architecture and the drama of the bullring add to the overall beauty of the film. The movie is completely over-the-top, but somehow manages to avoid becoming campy. Helping in that regard is the fact that it was beautifully filmed by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who is also famous for such films as The Red Shoes (1948), The African Queen (1951), and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Director Albert Lewin, who in his long Hollywood career was also a producer, scriptwriter and worked with Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg, also directed The Moon and Sixpence (1942) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is definitely a curiosity. It's probably not a great movie, but it's a lot of fun to watch. They don't make movies like this anymore. A character like Pandora seems impossible today. She is not just beautiful but strong, with the entire world of the movie whirling around her. She is also frequently unsympathetic. And she doesn't have to wield a gun or fight (or hide from) enormous CGI robots. Can an actress in current movies even play a femme fatale? Even if some scriptwriter was brave enough to write such a part for a woman today, there are few who could convince the audience, as Ava Gardner does in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, that "goddess" is a suitable description.
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