Film Notes – February

As our final word on this particular film, here are Mel’s film notes from Sunday’s screening.

“Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”

Written and Directed by Albert Lewin, 1951.

Director of Photography  Jack Cardiff. Starring Ava Gardner and James Mason, with Mario Cabre, Nigel Patrick, Harold Warrender, Sheila Sim.

imagesSupernatural Love

It’s hardly surprising that films of the late 1940s / early 50s went through a lush romantic phase, with a vogue for supernatural tales of love so powerful it could defy time and death.

Cinema was still a relatively young art and had already seen two horrific world wars. In the years following World War 2, rationing was still limiting the supply of luxury goods in Britain, and films of that period reflected a longing for redemption and a need to believe in the sweet hereafter.

And no wonder, with so many dead and two generations ravaged by bereavement and unprecedented bloodshed. These films were more than just a frothy piece of fantasy, for many they represented the strength of love and devotion between the living and their late loved ones.

Other films in this vogue include “Heaven Can Wait” “The Ghost and Mrs Muir” “Portrait of Jennie” “Here Comes Mr Jordan” and what many consider the masterpiece of the genre, “A Matter of Life and Death” – which along with “Pandora” had Jack Cardiff as cinematographer. Both films have a particular luscious look, shot in the new Technicolor.

Both films flirt with the idea of death and speculate on what happens after we die – and the ultimate impossibility of the dead to reconcile with the living, however much both parties want this. David Niven’s character in “A Matter of Life and Death” has to return to life in order to find true love, whereas Hendrik the Dutchman can only find this love in death.

Legend and Myth

The legend of the Flying Dutchman is an old story dating back to the 17th century, when a Dutch captain tried to steer his ship through a storm around the Cape of Good Hope. Vowing that he would rather be doomed than turn back, his stubbornness sent the ship, and every life on board, to a watery grave. It is said that the heavens cursed him for his pride and that to this day he sails the seas for all eternity. Reported sightings of a ghost ship in that area have continued well into the 20th century and the latest incarnation of the story is in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

Here the legend is intertwined with another mythical archetype, the siren who lures men and destroys them, with the story of “Pandora’s Box” as another thread.

The cultural context runs throughout the film, referencing art, literature, and folklore. It’s set amidst an American nostalgia for a romantic, pre-industrialised Spain that by the 1950s was already changing. There are echoes of Hemingway, his life and writing, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Esperanza (another reference to the Cape of Good Hope – and to the underlying theme of hope and redemption).

Ava Gardner actually did have serial affairs with a variety of men, including other actors, jazz musicians, a number of bullfighters and Ernest Hemingway. So there is a ring of truth to her character too, though at the time of making “Pandora” she was in love with, and had just married, Frank Sinatra.

Art Direction and Photography

imagesThe director Albert Lewin was a lover and collector of Surrealist art, and one of the most memorable qualities of the film is its art direction by Man Ray.

It is lit by the master cameraman Jack Cardiff who worked on so many of the Powell and Pressburger films, and won an Academy Award for his work on “Black Narcissus”. He was one of the first lighting cameramen to use Technicolor, and his film work typically referenced fine art, acknowledging the shadow and light effects of the great painters Caravaggio, El Greco and Vermeer.

Many of the scenes are shot “day for night” which gives the film a spectral, off-kilter look that only heightens its weirdness. The beach statuary and the sand running through the hourglass are familiar images from Surrealist art – de Chirico, Dali, Ernst – and the whole film rolls across the screen like a series of paintings.

Not so well received by American critics, the film was beloved in France and despite (or possibly because) of its mannered acting styles, was considered a masterpiece of “le surrealisme” and artistic vision – which, really it is.

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