Watching Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is like watching a minor Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film. The three-strip Technicolor cinematography, by Powell-Pressburger favorite Jack Cardiff, is similarly striking. There's a strong fantasy element akin to The Red Shoes and others, while Harold Warrender's role and function in Pandora parallels Roger Livesey's in A Matter of Life and Death - they even look alike.
Written, directed, and co-produced by Brooklyn-born Albert Lewin (Zaza, The Picture of Dorian Gray), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is overlong with a colorful but singularly unnecessary subplot, and some of the film's dreamy logic comes off more screwy than lyrical.
But to liken the film to "minor Powell-Pressburger" is as likening it to sub-par Kubrick or lesser Orson Welles: in other words, almost a supreme compliment. Pandora's look is frequently dazzling; James Mason gives an excellent, subtle performance. Star Ava Gardner was never more beautiful and the film has a half-dozen outstanding scenes.
Kino's Blu-ray of the 2009 restoration is, like Criterion's Red Shoes or ITV's Black Narcissus, stunning, though Kino's transfer does have its share of negative dirt, speckling, and other minor imperfections - just enough to remind the viewer that he's watching something shot on film, not such a bad thing.
And just what is James Mason staring at?
The film takes place around 1930, in the picturesque Spanish town of Esperanza, on the Mediterranean Coast. There, fishermen find the lifeless body of Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and another man. Pandora's fiancé, racecar driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), is among those at the beach when the two bodies are recovered.
Antiquities scholar Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender, whose beard is significantly longer on location than it is in the studio) tells Pandora's story via flashbacks. American nightclub singer Pandora is the social core among the wealthy expatriates in Esperanza. Desired by all men - a quality the naturally beautiful, incredibly alluring Gardner makes entirely believable - Pandora loves none of them, selfishly expressing her own terrible loneliness by destroying her devoted followers. In an early scene she drives her latest boyfriend, troubled alcoholic Reggie (The Red Shoes' Marius Goring), into committing suicide, then goads Stephen into pushing an experimental racecar he's been developing for the last two years off a cliff, as proof of his love. Impressed by his sacrifice, she agrees to marry him.
However, that very same night Pandora is drawn to a yacht owned by mysterious Dutchman Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) who, as the film makes plain from the beginning, may be the immortal 16th century Flying Dutchman, cursed to sail the seas for eternity aboard a ghost ship unless he can find a woman willing to sacrifice her life on his behalf.
At 123 minutes, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman goes on and on with many talky scenes made worse by incessant, flowery narration and several unneeded peripheral characters, including Janet (Shelia Sim), who loves Stephen who loves Pandora who is loved by both Reggie and bullfighter Juan (Mario Cabré) while she loves Hendrik. Instead of the classical love triangle, Pandora's is more like a misshapen hexagon. The jealous bullfighter in the second-half adds nothing but Latin color, with no less than two demonstrations of hotheaded Juan's prowess in the ring.
However, much of the film is extremely impressive, and a good deal of this can be traced back to cinematographer Cardiff, who makes even the dull stretches of dialogue at least interesting to look at. Some individual shots are so clever they can't help but draw attention to themselves: a wide angle peering down on Esperanza's beach from on high, which pulls back, revealing a bell tower; Reggie's suicide, including a subjective angle as he falls unconscious, incredibly done hand-held. (The smallest three-strip camera must have weighed several hundred pounds at least.) Throughout the film are numerous trick shots: flawless matte paintings, more obvious but sometimes-ingenious mattes incorporating miniatures. The film uses painted backdrops and rear-projection better than just about any Hollywood production of the period. In one sequence, a matte line is visible around Mason's head, apparently to darken the day-for-night sky behind him. In another angle of that same scene, what looks like a very fine black curtain is draped in front of the actors in order to achieve a similar effect.
The bullfighting adds little to the story but is undeniably exciting, and Stephen's attempts to set a new speed record in his racecar, zipping headlong on a stretch of beach, is thrillingly photographed and edited.
The film tries hard but never succeeds in making Pandora sympathetic; her obvious pleasure watching men destroy themselves to prove their love dominates the character, a quality Gardner can't shake, and her turnaround with Hendrik never quite comes off.
Video & Audio
The first 2 1/2 minutes of the 1.37:1 pillar-boxed, 1080p Pandora and the Flying Dutchman consist of inferior title elements, but then - POP! - the image ka-chings into extreme crystal clarity. (Yes, you can almost hear the change drawer sliding open....) Dissolves and other opticals are inconsistent, and there's much speckling throughout, but the transfer of this restoration (presented by The Film Foundation, George Eastman House, and Douris UK, Ltd.) is outstanding nonetheless, a real pleasure. (At times the high-def image reveals too much: in a courtroom scene, Mason's mouthful of bad teeth is highly visible.) The mono audio is similarly unprocessed, which some crackles on the mono soundtrack here and there, but overall well above average for a film of this vintage.
Supplements include a restoration demonstration, a bit of a cheat as the "before" images are all in standard-def, but the differences are nonetheless striking. Also included is a very slightly different alternate title sequence, trailers for the MGM and recent theatrical revival, post-restoration, a detailed photo gallery, and El Torero de Cordoba, an English-subtitled Spanish two-reel short about the bullfighter that was Pandora's inspiration.
Though flawed, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a must for its cinematography and the focus of its attentions: James Mason and especially Ava Gardner. The film itself spectacularly springs to life here and there, and the transfer is at times eye-popping. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.