More than a curiosity but less than a classic, Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is one of those off-the-beaten-path numbers that you'll probably be glad you saw but won't exactly have you writing home to Mother. Then, again Mother would probably like it more than you, given its old-fashioned (and, it must be said, stilted) notions of romantic melodrama.
Still, in a time when "romantic melodrama" means "Nicholas Sparks," the idiosyncracies of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman cannot help but be refreshing. Chiefly, Lewin's film is a visual experience, and though it's headlined by Ava Gardner and James Mason, there's no question that the true star is cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes). Surely, more than anything or anyone, it's Cardiff that drew Martin Scorsese to lend his name to a 2009 restoration of this 1951 Technicolor picture. Scorsese speaks to Cardiff's skill with Technicolor and rakish sense of composition when he says of Pandora, "Watching this film is like entering a strange and wonderful dream." One suspects writer/director Lewin was more focused on the film's literary merits than anything else; a former English professor, he threads literary and historical allusions throughout the story: primary narrator Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) is a professorial archeologist and poetry lover that can only be Lewin's surrogate.
Fielding is one of many, many men who long obsessively for Pandora Reynolds (Gardner), a former nightclub singer now living in Esperanza, a Spanish seaport on the Mediterranean coast. In her first scene, Gardner establishes her siren status by singing the hauntingly beautiful song "How Am I to Know?" (The song was also recorded by Frank Sinatra, who married Gardner in 1951 and divorced her in 1957; knowing she was Sinatra's "one that got away" adds to Gardner's mystique, in hindsight.) These were the days, of course, when "feminine mystique" was not a feminist buzz-phrase but an unironic expression of the "goddess" archetype that put women on pedestals; though winningly couched here in Lewin's classicism (the coast is dotted with statuary and fragmentary relics that Fielding studies), one wishes Pandora were a more fully painted character. As it is, she's a horridly cruel, cynical dream-killer who knows her power and misuses it until destiny intervenes by plopping her rehabilitative true love in front of her.
The true love in question is Hendrick van der Zee (Mason), a Dutchman who sails up on a schooner and whose hypnotic magnetism pulls Pandora immediately to take a night swim to him. Lewin doesn't play coy: this is the Flying Dutchman of legend, doomed to eternal wandering unless and until a woman loves him enough to be willing to die for him. When she boards his yacht, Pandora discovers that Hendrick is painting her portrait—inexplicably, as they've never met. We're to take on faith that the two fall instantly in love, as they're eternal lovers in a kind of past-life time warp. She's a dead ringer for the woman he killed (the inciting incident that led to his metaphysical punishment), and she begins to feel the echoes of having loved this man before. That presents a problem for her newly settled life: she's scheduled to marry racecar driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick). Further complicating matters is another new acquaintance: Spain's star bullfighter Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré), who proves determined to have Pandora for himself.
Fielding laments, "We live in a time that has no faith in legends. We live in a time that has no faith." It's a convincing argument to meet the film where it lives; too langorous for its own good, Lewin's film isn't as thrilling as, say, Dead Again or as lush in its dream imagery as, say, Mulholland Drive, but its unique oddball blend of fatalistic Hemingway-esque masculinity, swoony romance and mythology, literary allusions ("Dover Beach" and The Rubaiyat) used as pick-up lines, and grab bag of styles (including, at one point, a highly theatrical use of soliloquy) makes Pandora and the Flying Dutchman nearly as hypnotic as the romance it retells.
Kino delivers an outstanding hi-def transfer of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman on Blu-ray, one that makes the most of the film's 2009 restoration. Unfortunately, that restoration has its limits, particularly in the stability of the Technicolor. Color saturation is good, but wavers pretty much constantly with slight fluctuations of hue; it seems like the sort of problem that, by now, there ought to be a digital tool to correct—oh well. Certainly, this is the best the film has looked in years, and the disc's "Comparison of Restoration" (5:49, HD) vividly displays the great improvements this transfer provides over the previous standard-def master of a dark and murky print. Bright and tight, the new image yields exceptional detail; the print damage in the form of a scratch here or bit of dirt there is hardly noticeable—it's only the color issue that keeps this from being a grand slam. The uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 audio sounds much better than I would have thought: music and effects are richly rendered, and dialogue is certainly clear enough (though Kino has fallen down on the job by failing to provide subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing).
Bonus features are understandably limited. We get the "Alternate Opening Titles" (2:25, HD) from the U.K. cut and Stills Galleries. Theatrical Trailers include "U.S. Release" (2:58, HD), "U.S. Release (Abridged, B&W)" (2:00, HD) and "U.K. 2010 Re-Release" (1:32, HD). Other than the restoration comparison, that leaves "El Torero de Cordoba" (17:26, HD) as the most significant extra; it's a 1947 documentary on Spanish bullfighter Manuel Rodriguez Manolete, who inspired the character of Montalvo. Fans of Ava Gardner, James Mason, and Jack Cardiff should run, not walk to pick up Kino's Blu-ray of the restored Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
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