Date: 29 August 2001
Under pressure from the esteemed director of wwr, I offer up a review of one of the strangest and most misunderstood films to come out of the British film industry of the 1950s, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
The setting is a Spain of empty, hidden coves and cool echoing mansions atop olive-laden hills. Early in the film there is an extraordinarily sensuous performance by Spanish dancers and musicians which reeks of danger, rather than hedonistic Costa Brava tourism. It is an unsettling Spain which barely exists now – and perhaps not then either.
James Mason is the Dutchman, whose curses to heaven following the jealous murder of his innocent wife create his doom: to wander the seas forever, alone and undying. Ava Gardner plays Pandora, the incarnation of the murdered wife, the bewitching Everywoman whose sacrifice can provide the Dutchman with the death he craves - by giving her life for him willingly she can wipe out his crime and provide him with salvation. In turn, her own salvation – escape from an empty, hedonistic, loveless world - is provided by her love for the Dutchman.
Written, produced and directed by Albert Lewen, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is very clearly the product of one man’s obsession. It has an intense, dream-like quality, enhanced by the musical score – at once menacing, puzzling and romantic, with sounds of the sea in it – and by the quality of the sound recording – sometimes muffled and subdued, with the central characters speaking in breathy whispers; sometimes sharply highlighted, as when the death of the matador who tries to kill the Dutchman is indicated by the abrupt cessation of his hoarse, desperate breaths.
The film places us – and its characters - under a kind of spell. The extraordinary photography (by Jack Cardiff) suggests hidden shadows even in the glare of the Spanish sunlight. The film is enhanced by the perfect casting of the enigmatic Gardner and Mason – each never more beautiful – as the doomed lovers, and a solid cast of British stalwarts (Nigel Patrick, Marius Goring, Sheila Sim) as the pukka friends caught up in a mysterious world they cannot understand or control. Most extraordinary is the sensation that whole group is becalmed, like the Dutchman’s ship towards the end of the story – timeless, unending, as Pandora herself says, – but the constant image of the hourglass warns us that sands of time are indeed running out.
Has there ever been a film more imbued with a sense of mystery and metaphor? And how did a film about sexual obsession, violence, alcoholism and suicide (not to mention speeding) ever make it past the censors of the 1950s?
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