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Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman(1952)

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teaser Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1952)

When World War II became the dominant public concern for the first half of the 1940s, horror and fantasy films faced the considerable task of appealing to a public constantly shaken by the world events around them. By the time the war ended, the public had developed an appetite for dark romantic fantasies which explored the relationship between a flawed, fatalistic existence on earth and a mysterious spiritual plane which ultimately awaits all great loves. Thus were born such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) as well as their lighter cousins like The Bishop's Wife (1947) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Arriving at the tail end of this trend as fantasy began to segue into science fiction, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) loosely injects elements of the nautical legend of the Flying Dutchman, a cursed ghost ship that can never make port and often foretells of impending death. Much of the source legend here is a combination of Richard Wagner's 1843 opera, The Flying Dutchman, and the writings of Heinrich Heine, which introduced the concept of a captain who can only set foot on land every seven years to find redemption through a faithful woman. (The same idea was later used in two of the films in Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series.)

In this case, the Flying Dutchman is actually the name given to the cursed captain himself, Hendrick van der Zee, played by James Mason. His boat moored on the shores of La Esperanza, Spain, attracts the interest of free-spirited American performer Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), a siren who goads her lovers into extreme acts of sacrifice ranging from dumping a valuable sports car into the sea to suicide. One night while out with her fiance, race car driver Stephen (Nigel Patrick) and the film's English archaeologist narrator, Geoffrey (Harold Warrender), she decides to swim out to the mystery ship where she encounters Hendrick painting a woman who looks just like her - with the same name. Thus begins a tragic romance in which the captain's dark past becomes a test of Pandora's own character.

Pandora's Brooklyn-born producer-turned-director, Albert Lewin, never became a household name thanks to the fact that he only directed seven films, but the four titles he helmed in the 1940s were all distinctive, stylish entertainments which have inspired considerable reappraisal. His first film, The Moon and Sixpence (1942), gave George Sanders (a Lewin regular) one of his best leading roles in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's fictionalized version of the life of Gauguin, while his 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray for MGM is still regarded by many as the definitive adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic novel. The theme of a cad stepping outside the boundaries of society repeated again in 1947's The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, with Sanders as the social-climbing antihero of Guy de Maupassant's novel. All three of these films were marked by the striking stylistic choice of black and white photography punctuated with brief but powerful bursts of color, often used to depict paintings.

The leap to a complete feature film in color proved effortless here thanks to the canny decision to spotlight rising star Ava Gardner, and to hand cinematographer duties to Jack Cardiff, who had won an Academy Award in 1948 for Michael Powell's Black Narcissus (1947) and revolutionized the use of Technicolor with the following year's The Red Shoes. (It was Gardner's star marking role in 1951's Show Boat that caused Pandora's release to be delayed by MGM to cash in on that musical's success, making Pandora technically her first appearance in color). After completing Pandora, he immediately embarked on one of the most challenging assignments of his career with The African Queen (1951), which was shot largely on location. The combination of Gardner's beauty and Cardiff's masterful use of light and hue gives the film much of its intoxicating appeal, with avowed Powell follower Martin Scorsese admiring the film so much his Film Foundation along with the George Eastman House embarked on a Technicolor restoration along with two European co-financiers, shortly after Scorsese also performed similar duties refurbishing The Red Shoes (1948).

One of the most unexpected names associated with Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was Man Ray, the American painter and photographer whose innovative work with the Surrealist and Dada movements ran alongside his occasional short films and collaborations with filmmakers like Marcel Duchamp and Ren Clair. For Pandora, Lewin (an admirer of the artist) recruited him to shoot the film's publicity photos of Gardner (achieved using a telephoto lens from a great distance to enhance her unearthly aura). Furthermore, the artist designed a striking chess set for the film and even created the memorable Pandora painting, which is given a delicious Surrealist flourish when her head is transformed into a large egg. Hollywood's love for Surrealist artists had begun to wane by the time of this film, but the previous decade had seen the wildly experimental short films of the movement (epitomized by 1929's short film, Un Chien Andalou) influencing a number of productions as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound in 1945 (with its Salvador Dali dream sequence) and Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast in 1946. While director Luis Buuel kept the Surrealist torch burning throughout his career into the 1970s, the movement's commercial prospects had become more uncertain. Thus in Pandora, these elements are handled in an understated fashion, often extending subtly into the production design such as the optical illusions created around Mason during his pivotal "condemned" flashback and the wild beach party which finds revelers and musicians becoming compositional tools alongside half-buried ancient statues.

A contract star with MGM since 1941, North Carolina-born Gardner first gained critical notice in 1946's The Killers (adapted from a story by Ernest Hemingway, who later became a friend of Gardner's during an extended stay in Spain during the 1950s). Already divorced from Artie Shaw and Mickey Rooney, she was engaged to singer Frank Sinatra during the filming of Pandora, and the pair wed the year of its release. The marriage caused a press scandal due to Sinatra's decision to leave his current wife, Nancy, though ultimately Gardner and Sinatra's careers and friendship thrived even when the marriage dissolved in 1957. Her reputation as a temptress certainly helped Pandora, which was picked up for release by MGM as the project was independently financed by Romulus Films, a then-fledgling British company which went on to such films as Beat the Devil (1953) and Oliver! (1968).

Stepping into George Sanders' shoes as Lewin's leading man of choice for this film, English actor James Mason had already earned a reputation as one of the screen's most magnetic brooding protagonists in films like The Seventh Veil (1945) and a recent move to Hollywood with Caught (1949) and an unusual turn as Gustave Flaubert for the framing story in Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949). After Pandora, he remained extremely busy and became a genuine A-list name in 1954 with the double punch of A Star Is Born opposite Judy Garland and his indelible turn as Captain Nemo in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He remained in demand for the rest of his acting career, including such highlights as North by Northwest (1959), Lolita (1962), Georgy Girl (1966), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and The Verdict (1982). He passed away in 1984, while Gardner followed him to "the other side of time" six years later.

Producer: Joe Kaufmann, Albert Lewin
Director: Albert Lewin
Screenplay: Albert Lewin
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Production Design: John Bryan
Music: Alan Rawsthorne
Film Editing: Ralph Kemplen, Clive Donner (uncredited)
Cast: James Mason (Hendrik van der Zee), Ava Gardner (Pandora Reynolds), Nigel Patrick (Stephen Cameron), Sheila Sim (Janet), Harold Warrender (Geoffrey Fielding), Mario Cabr (Juan Montalvo), Pamela Mason (Jenny), Marius Goring (Reggie Demarest), John Laurie (Angus), Abraham Sofaer (Judge).

by Nathaniel Thompson

Man Ray: American Artist by Neil Baldwin, Da Capo Press (2000)
Botticelli in Hollywood: The Films of Albert Lewin by Susan Felleman, Twayne Publishers (1997)
Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing by Lee Server, St. Martin's Griffin (2007)
Internet Movie Database (

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