Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Every now and than an executive from a major movie studio has a moment of temporary insanity and gives the go-ahead for a movie like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, a movie that is going to cost the studio a lot of money but has no chance of mainstream success. We should be grateful for those moments of temporary insanity, because otherwise we would never get odd, quirky and rather magical movies like this one.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Ava Gardner’s performance as Pandora, which leavers me mystified. I think she’s perfectly cast, and I think her performance is spot on. She’s not supposed to be an ordinary everyday person. She’s the sort of woman who can turn down a marriage proposal by telling the man that she’s already in love, but she can’t tell him who the man is that she’s in love with because she hasn’t met him yet.

This is not a realist movie about real people, it’s a piece of story-telling, it’s a legend, and she’s a woman of legend. Early on she asks Stephen, who loves her, to push his car over a cliff to prove his love. This is a car he’s built himself and devoted several years of his life to, a car in which he hopes to break the Land Speed Record. Gardner has established Pandora’s character so well that you know she really does intend to let him do it. If you want to win a woman like Pandora you have to be prepared to pay a price. In fact you have to be prepared to pay any price she asks.

I had no difficulty in accepting that she would ask something like that. And I had no difficulty in believing that the price was worthwhile. Reggie, who also loves her, pays an even higher price, a much higher price.

The movie is told in flashback, which enhances the feeling that this is a tale we’re being told, and whether we believe it to be true or not is up to us. A Dutchman (played by James Mason) arrives at a Spanish seaport in the 1920s. Geoffrey, an antiquarian who tells the story, comes to believe that this Dutchman is in fact the Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander the oceans of the world for all eternity, and who can be released from his curse only if he can find a woman willing to die for him.

It’s gorgeously photographed by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. I loved the statuary on the beach, and they’re used to great effect to achieve the feeling of the mundane world intersecting with the world of myth and legend. It’s also an incredibly romantic film – it’s all about love, and the price we’re willing to pay for it. It’s an unusual movie, but if you accept it on its own terms it really is a magical one. I loved it.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchmanis available on DVD, and is about to be released on Blu-Ray (if you don’t mind paying the extortionate prices being asked by Kino).

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