#232. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Whereas normally I need an actor’s fame to be explained to me, and I end up having seen them in two or three movies before realizing, “Oh, wait, that dude’s famous, and (s)he’s been around,” I already knew about Ava Gardner’s fame when I saw her in The Killers. It was cool just generally to see her looking so young, handling not-so-interesting material, but it was double exciting cuz I’d been reading James Kaplan’s two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra for a couple months at that point and one of the most surprising threads of his life story was seeing how desperately he loved her (though I’m sure there are lots of people who’d be quick to question the veracity of that love, and if it wasn’t maybe more like infatuation and projection), and how fucked up he was by their separation—which also, coincidentally, is kinda what made The Killers disappointing, on account of Gardner, though delightful just to be there in the flesh and sporting some talent, doesn’t get much screen time at all and, even when she’s up there, plays a slightly too-conventional film noir-type femme fatale.

Felt like we weren’t really seeing her.

Gardner and Mason

With Pandora and the Flying Dutchman there’s no question that we’re seeing Gardner in full starlight as the film’s lead, opposite James Mason, but I’ve got a gripe about it, and about her, which I know is super fucking stupid, I know it, but I can’t help succumbing. I’ve voiced it before (I think in reference to Mason, coincidentally), and it’s this: she’s doing such a good job of being an odious narcissist that I find myself disliking her, registering the performance as like an extension of her personality.

Obviously that’s a stupid way of looking at it. The persuasiveness of her narcissism on screen is a testament to her talent.

It’s making me wonder, though, about the intrusion of star power on a film and its lead. perhaps it’s best to be a character actor whose personal life and brand aren’t so visible. It’d be easier to repeatedly wipe the slate of impressions clean.

It’s kinda only tangentially interesting, but I dug this passage from Bret Easton Ellis‘s new book of nonfiction, White (which I reviewed here for Open Letters Review):

But being an actor involves turning into a blank, hollowing yourself out so you can replace whatever was there with the character you’re playing next. What does it mean to be real as an actor? What does transparency mean if you’re essentially a vessel waiting to be filled again and again and again…If you get to know an actor intimately you might or might not have access to that true self in private, but rarely will you see it in public, where the actor always continues to play a part.

Bret Easton Ellis, White

But yeah: Gardner is super talented here and so too is the hand of director Albert Lewin, who here employs what’s probably the most mesmerizing use of color on the List to date—it was so striking that I thought it’d been filmed by the Archers, the writer/director duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who made similarly dazzling shit like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death (which, motherfucker, I forgot to review and now I’m gonna have to go back and change all the numbers on the past couple dozen essays), and Black Narcissus and I Know Where I’m Going!—in the same way that all of those movies look distinctly different while feeling like products of the same artistic hand, I’m thinking of how, int he hype leading up to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, lots of prospective viewers, myself included, were kinda bowled over when the trailer and poster showed beach warfare.

The Archers’ logo.

Nerd shit. I know. But it’s interesting how something so simple as relocating your long-familiar story to a different locale can make it look strikingly new. I remember Chris Rock saying the same thing of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona: Allen had been telling this exact kinda story of light, comedic, romantic entanglement for forty years. Now, suddenly, he does it in a different country, in a different language, and it feels fresh.

So yeah: I thought that the beach setting here was a matter of the Archers, like the people behind Star Wars, just mixing things up because, save for the fact that Pandora is a little more earnest and reaching than their usual fare, it looks and feels like an Archer film.

Pero no. It’s this other guy.

Gardner plays the impossibly beautiful Pandora, with whom everybody is in love, and one day, while she’s hanging around some island resort, she swims out to a big idling ship and climbs aboard and finds that it’s inhabited by one person, James Mason, the titular Flying Dutchman who, having killed his wife some few hundred years ago in a jealous rage, is subjected to what I think is called a “contrapasso,” a poetic justice-type fate, whereby, in lieu of being executed for the crime, he’s forced to roam the seas of the world until he finds a mate who’s willing to die for him (the Archers, with Matter of Life and Death, dipped a toe into this kinda metaphysical/spiritual fare; fuck; can’t believe I forgot to review that).

Hence the drama, though, of his finding, in a narcissist like Pandora, a person who is, ultimately, so in love with him she’s willing to die for it.

Much like The Red Shoes, an Archer movie that keeps digressing from the story in order to build upon characters with long dinner scenes and chamber drama-type stuff, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a romantic character study that’s both sweeping (in terms of mythological scope) while also relatively confined in the sense that, save for a far-reaching flashback, we pretty much stay planted here with our bougie heroes in an idyllic setting.

It’s a feast of a movie, though. Slow(ish) and cerebral and heartfelt and tragic. I think it counts as melodrama, but I’m still not sure I can wield that word with like an authoritative grasp of exactly what it means. Same way I never totally figured out the tenets of German expressionism with like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse and Last Laugh.

Another thing I don’t quite know how to address is James Mason—again, it’s the likeability thing. He’s proven with Man in Grey and Odd Man Out and Reckless Moment (the last movie still kinda haunts me, on account of the circumstances in which I watched it) that he’s a formidable actor but, like the issue I’m having with Gardner here, he plays such an asshole, time after time, that I have a hard time really warming to him—in fact I get kinda jaded toward his character the moment he shows up.

But: if you were to measure Mason’s characters’ likeability on a line graph, or something like that, you’ll definitely see it going up with each picture. His first role on the List, as the Man in Grey, is his most odious. Then in his last picture, Reckless Moment, he presented himself as an unlikeable dude with some redeeming attributes. Downright admirable at the end.


Goring, stealing the show right in the beginning…at least for me.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is easily in the top five most beautifully shot films on the List to date (joining the ranks of Red Shoes and Grapes of Wrath and…ahdunno what others; Citizen Kane comes to mind, and I do think that it’s a beautiful and stirring movie, but the camerawork there does strike me as being more clever and inventive than beautiful). The story here isn’t quite my thing, but it’s enjoyable, and there’s a mind-fuckingly memorable appearance my Marius Goring, in the very beginning (he’s also a recurring star of the Archer movies), who conducts himself exactly as I conducted myself while dating Marianne. Not so pleased to acknowledge it.


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