Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

by maxmosher

Up until this week, I only knew three things about Ava Gardner: she was married to both Mickery Rooney and Frank Sinatra; at the height of her career she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world; and that thin-faced Brit Kate Beckinsale was a ridiculous choice to play her in ‘The Aviator’ (2004). My pick would have been Catherine Zeta-Jones, who shares with the late star facial features, as well as a certain earthy flirtatiousness.

I rented ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ (1951) knowing nothing about it, which is always a fun way to go into an old movie. The film, set in a Spanish fishing village in the 1930’s, is like a feverish dream of a Technicolour MGM drama. The insane plot is based on the old Dutch story about a sailor, doomed to travel the seas forever, who must make a woman love in love with him so his spirit can be released. Hold on, it gets weirder: the ghost sailor is cursed because he killed his original 17th century wife (wrongly suspecting her of infidelity) and the only thing that will lift the spell is for Ava Gardner to kill herself. Because, you know, she loves him so much.

Also, the sailor is played by James Mason.

The wealthy characters, all sumptuously costumed in outfits not-completely-inaccurate for the 1930’s, wander around beaches festooned with crumbling statues, spouting dialogue which is either vague and mysterious or laughingly direct. Many of the scenes appear to take place against the pale blue skies of twilight or dawn. In one scene, at the spur of the moment, Ava slips off her gown to swim out to the phantom boat. Once onboard, naked and dripping, she wraps herself in a rain cover.

The painting the sailor is shown working on near the beginning looks like the work of Giorgio de Chirico, and you begin to notice that the art direction for the entire film has a capital-S Surrealist quality. It comes as little surprise that photographer Man Ray did the painting, as well as designing some of the still photography and the abstract chess set briefly spotted in one scene.

As for La Gardner herself, I don’t know if the gal could really act, but she has a bold forecfulness even when her lines are offensively submissive. And her beauty was not overrated: a classic face made more interesting by a clefted chin.

Unfortunately, it’s one of those romance movies which forgets to show the central characters actually falling in love. One wishes that director Albert Lewin had pushed the melodramatic plot and dream-like atmosphere farther. If the film had been made in the late 1950’s or 1960’s (when movies like ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’ combined histrionic plots with nightmarish imagery) it may have become a camp classic. As it stands, it’s like a nap dream from the late afternoon of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a hazy vision of a style yet to come.