Broodingly romantic, hauntingly original and eerily unsettling even under contemporary scrutiny, director Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is pure fantasy spanning the boundless depths of reckless emotion and feckless time. The film seeks to answer the question of what is love in a world that worships only the pleasures of the flesh without first fully comprehending any union of lost souls.
That this magnificent fable has remained absent from public view for so many years is almost as great a tragedy as the story the film itself attempts to tell - on the whole, successfully and thanks in large part to the talents of James Mason and Ava Gardner; both giving outstanding performances in their respective careers.
Loosely based on an old mythology, the screenplay by Lewin begins in earnest with the gruesome discovery of two bodies entwined in a mesh of sea netting cast across the beach head in the small Spanish town of Cordoba. Amidst the gathering flock of curious onlookers, philosopher Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) and his niece, Janet (Sheila Sim) recognize the remains as Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and Hendrik Van Der Zee (James Mason). They are hastily joined by race car enthusiast, Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) who was to have wed Pandora that very afternoon.
From here, the story takes a minor skip into the past; several months before. Pandora is entertaining Stephen, Geoffrey, Janet and Reggie Demerast (Marius Goring) at The Two Turtles - a local watering hole. Reggie is Pandora's fiancée; a onetime worthy playboy, so it is suggested, utterly driven to alcoholic ruin by his all consuming love for Pandora. In a drunken emotional decline, Reggie asks Pandora to sing to him. She obliges, but then quietly tells Reggie that she cannot marry him; a decision Reggie seems already to have begrudgingly accepted. He poisons his drink and commits suicide before Pandora and the other onlookers.
Unmoved by the gesture, Pandora quietly leaves the bar. Geoffrey naturally assumes that Pandora is in mourning, but her attentions have heartlessly shifted to Stephen whom Janet is passionately in love with. However, Stephen's first love is auto racing. As a test of his commitment to her, Pandora promises to marry Stephen if he pushes his race car over the edge of a frightfully steep cliff. Having obliged Pandora's request, Stephen and Pandora become engaged - an awkward union almost as incongruous as Pandora's sudden interest in a large yacht moored just off the coast of Cordoba. By moonlight, Pandora sheds her clothes and swims out to the vessel, finding it seemingly deserted.
However, deep within the ship's lower stateroom, Pandora discovers Hendrik painting a portrait of the ancient mythological figure of her namesake. Naturally, Pandora is flattered, but her obvious advances are thwarted by Hendrik who remains cool and aloof. Even after Pandora destroys his portrait, Hendrik seems quite unable to bring himself to hate. To compensate for her wicked behavior, Pandora invites Hendrik to a dinner party with Stephen and Geoffrey.
Later, Geoffrey reveals to Hendrik a manuscript he has discovered, reportedly written by the Flying Dutchman - a 1600 a.d. mariner who, upon killing his faithful wife because he merely suspected her of infidelity, was sentenced to death by the courts but escaped such a fate by cursing God.
Although Geoffrey cannot decipher the text, Hendrik reads it as though he were receipting his own biography, setting the manuscript aside but continuing the tale in the first person - thus revealing himself to be the Flying Dutchman. Hendrik confides to Geoffrey that Pandora is the reincarnation of his dead wife, but to reunite with him in the next world, she must be willing to die for him in this one. Naturally, Geoffrey would rather see Pandora marry Stephen.
Meanwhile, Cordoba's citizens welcomes star bullfighter, Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabre). Once a year, Juan returns to visit his mother (Margarita D'Alverez); a resolute tarot card reader who fears that her son is destined to meet with an untimely end. Juan is a jealous man, possessive and self destructive. He was also once Pandora's lover. Juan wisely deduces that Hendrik holds the key to Pandora's heart. So, after a late night party on the beach, Juan waits for Hendrik in his hotel room , stabbing both Hendrik and the terrier dog given to him by Pandora.
The Dutchman, however, cannot be killed and, after Juan's departure, rises again. He tells a bewildered Pandora - who has come to his room - that only the dog has met with an untimely end. The next day, Juan enters the bull ring to a packed arena. At first, his prowess against the beast is unmatched. But then Hendrik arrives to sit at Pandora's side. Juan loses his concentration in the ring and is repeatedly gored by the bull; succumbing to his wounds, thus leaving Pandora free to pursue Hendrik as her lover.
Convinced that Pandora's pending marriage to Stephen is a foregone conclusion, Geoffrey produces his translation of the manuscript of the Dutchman to ease Pandora's curiosities and apprehensions about her pending nuptials. Even he cannot fathom that Pandora will forsake Stephen on the eve before their wedding to swim out to Hendrik's yacht. There, Pandora confession of everlasting love stops the hourglass of time for a brief moment. The skies rip apart with a violent gale and Geoffrey returns to his home just in time to witness the Dutchman's yacht capsize and break apart on the craggy shoreline rocks. After centuries apart, the Dutchman and his bride are once more united - for all time.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a sumptuous dream - startlingly true to life while retaining an ethereal timeless sheen. Cinematographer, Jack Cardiff extols the virtues of Spain with his inimitably lush Technicolor photography. Ava Gardner has never looked more luminous, nor James Mason as disturbingly handsome. The screenplay is first rate and the cast inspired with haunting performances. This is one classic that needs to be seen and re-seen by younger generations - its flights into fancy grounded by a dark realism that stirs the soul, the heart and the mind.
Kino Home Video's Deluxe Blu-Ray leaves something to be desired. Although restoration efforts have yielded a lush color palette that at times positively glows, a goodly number of scenes have a decidedly soft characteristic - exhibiting all the shortcomings of being sourced from second or third generation elements rather than a complete three strip Technicolor negative. Worse, no attempt has been made to clean up the barrage of age related nicks, chips and scratches that consistently plague the image and occasionally distract.
Flesh tones vary greatly - sometimes within a single scene. Fine details are realized in some scenes and waxen in others, while grain wavers from relatively consistent to extremely intense.So, is the film watchable in its current state? Yes, definitely and again, this Blu-ray is a quantum leap forward in home video quality. But the results are hardly stellar and certainly nowhere near reference quality. At best, this is a middle of the road transfer with imperfections that need addressing - perhaps in a future release.
The audio is mono as originally recorded but also has been greatly improved for this presentation. Although hiss and pop are still present, they have been greatly tempered. Clearly, the original source material for this title was less than perfect and Kino ought to be commended for the work begun. However, more needs to be done! Kino - take note.
Extras are perhaps the biggest disappointment. We get a restoration comparison featurette, the U.S. release print of alterations made to opening credits, a featurette on El Torero de Cordoba and three theatrical trailers for the film. Not bad, but it would have been nice to have either an audio commentary or featurette on the making of the film too!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)4