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Pandora & the Flying Dutchman

Albert Lewin


Pandora & the Flying Dutchman 1951 | dir Albert Lewin | writ Albert Lewin | prod Lewin and Josef Kaufman | cine Jack Cardiff | edt xxx | music Alan Rawsthorne |design John Bryan | Technicolor 1.37: 1

star Ava Gardner (Pandora Reynolds) James Mason (Hendrik van der Zee) Nigel Patrick (Stephen Cameron) Harold Warrender (Geoffrey Fielding) Sheila Sim (Janet, G's niece) Mario Cabre (Juan Montalvo) Marius Goring (Reggie Demarest) Margarita d'Alvarez (Juan's mother) La Pillina (flamenco dancer)

§§ 1930. The fishing village of Esperanza on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. An American nightclub singer is hanging out with a group of English friends -- an archaeologist and his niece, a drunken poet, and a racing car driver who is about to attempt a new land speed record on the flat sand beach nearby. The singer, a femme fatale who has come here from London with the poet, is a beautiful bitch who suffers from a love hangover or more accurately too much attention from all the wrong lovers. In short, the men just don't measure up.

And just why is she here on the gypsy coast? Is she drifting into an unwise marriage through boredom or is she here for a unknown, fatal rendezvous? Once again, it's the lost generation playing in a lost land. There's something unreal about Esperanza, as if it exists between now and then in a twilight of broken statues and mythological memory. The characters are from the modern, industrialized world, but Esperanza with its gypsy culture and primitive instinct is like a neo-classical garden replete with follies and supernatural possibility. And what stitches the distant past to the existential present? Why, the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

Pandora & The Flying Dutchman (1951) is a peculiar yet fascinating mix of modern art and romantic mysticism. Its pedigree is film noir -- i.e. the femme fatale and the extensive use of night shadow cinematography -- although the story is literary with its European setting and extensive symbolism. Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) is a reset of Hemingway's Lady Brett -- pure sensuality in a non-intellectual body (Ava Gardner said that she had no idea what the film was about, even after playing her character to the finish), a refugee from the clubs of New York and London as a goddess of urban noir. Her phantom lover, Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), is an intellectual of no fixed address, arrives in a crewless yacht dressed in mystery. He paints, he writes, he reads... but where his money comes from is never part of the conversation. He's the anti-thesis of the film noir hard male protagonist, comes directly from the desperate heroes of Romantic literature. He doesn't need a knife or a gun because, like H.G. Wells' Time Traveller, he gets around, regardless.

Ava Gardener as Pandora Reynolds

the geometrical hinges of death

Evening. Las Dos Tortugas (the Two Turtles), a bodega/cafe on the beach. Pandora is there with her friends, smoking and drinking. A flamenco ensemble performs.

The flamenco interlude might seem to be just a bit of location atmosphere, yet it is more than this. A male dancer takes the floor, then the woman, and then another male, and both males circle the woman. Just as in a stage play where symbolism is used by necessity when verbal exposition won't do, the competition for the woman's attention mirrors exactly the situation at the start of the story. Pandora has two suitors -- Reggie Demarest, the alcoholic poet, now on the way out... and Stephen Cameron, the racing car driver, her latest lover. All that is missing from this Lorca-esque routine is the fourth dancer, Death.

After the flamenco performance, she goes to the piano, sings a slow club song, the sort of piano teaser popular for the period. Reggie leans against the upright, pissed and besotted; he thinks this party is a celebration of their anniversary since meeting in London one year ago and when Pandora finishes, he proposes. Her dismissal isn't so much a rejection as it is a deferral. Anything a drunk says can't be serious. However, he is serious; he spikes his drink with some fatal powder, smiles, downs it all, staggers towards the table where their friends sit, has one final poetic declaration:

Reggie: I know Death has 10,000 special doors for men to make their exits... and they move on such strange geometrical hinges you may open them both ways... and anyway's fine out of your whispering....

He then falls dead in a theatrical flourish. Some gesture, some anniversary.

Again, you might think his final words are mere effect, yet their imagery -- a direct lift from Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi -- fits perfectly with the mystical intent of the story and its surrealist patina. As Geoffrey Fielding recalls, "The moon was at the full, erotic and disturbing." Indeed.

Pandora: in Greek mythology, the first woman. Created by Zeus to punish Man after Prometheus had created the human race (Man). She came with a box or jar in which all sorts of evils and diseases were stored. Bad news woman, and this "Pandora" is no exception. Despite the fact that they should know better, a procession of men compete for her as if she is a mystic trophy in disguise: a poem, a racing car, a bull, or even Jesus Christ. She is a pure sexual lure, a modernist siren who responds to her lovers' sacrifices with the diffidence of a gentle sociopath. Her cool response to Reggie's death seems baffling, or even appalling, yet the speed of the narrative shift doesn't allow much ethical deliberation. I'm a bitch, therefore I am. Janet -- her rival for Stephen Cameron's affections -- attempts to call her on it, yet Janet merely comes across as a jealous hysteric.

Pandora & the Flying Dutchman

the lover as a Futurist racer

As Reggie suspected, Pandora and Stephen Cameron are already an item, even though Janet thinks Stephen belongs to her. Again, here is another lover as an exotic figure, a man who races with Death... although, possibly, Stephen doesn't see it that way. He's a steady man, not easily perturbed or provoked, even if he thinks he's in love with Pandora. He names his racing car "Pandora" -- she's a muse, an inspiration, a mojo.

Stephen Cameron is out of the tradition of British adventurers like Mallory the climber (Everest) Colonel Fawcett the explorer (Amazon) -- a "great man" as Pandora tells the bullfighter, Juan Montalvo, when rationalizing her impending marriage.

As the death of Reggie seems to be no big deal, he passes out-of-frame with little discussion, the first of Pandora Reynold's victims, erased as easily as a wet face on a new painting. "Do you think he killed himself because he knew about us?" says Stephen on the boardwalk outside the bodega. "No," says Pandora. She then demands that Stephen takes her for a moonlight drive in his large racer -- an absurdity really seeing as the cockpit is for a single occupant, and as the Scottish mechanic cautions, "only has a hand-brake."

Nevertheless the monster is rolled from its shack on the beach and Stephen and Pandora roar away into the gloom. It's fantastic, improbable, yet possible. They leave the beach, follow a winding road to a headland where a megalith stands as a reminder of the pagan sanctity of the location. Down on the bay, the mast light of a moored sloop twinkles. Pandora is intrigued by the mysterious boat, but is distracted by Stephen's need to know what he must do to prove his love. Pandora's reply is preposterous, even vicious -- would he be willing to roll his car over the cliff? To sacrifice his ambition is only one step short of sacrificing his life, yet Stephen is willing. He releases the brake, and the car goes over in an elegant moonlit plunge into the sleeping sea below.

Madness? Pandora, like her mythical antecedent, is a natural born destroyer, it seems. The fact that the car -- "Pandora" -- is later salvaged, and Stephen goes on to set a new land speed record watched by Pandora and her friends hardly normalizes the incident. But the men who love this femme fatale are all subject to moments of violence... except the mysterious stranger, Hendrick van der Zee, a.k.a. the Flying Dutchman.

Cars and racing were central to the Futurist obsession with speed. Stephen Cameron is a figure typical of the British racer that emerged in the twenties with Henry Seagrave and Parry Thomas and their record runs on the flat beach at Southport Sands, UK. [both Seagrave & Thomas were killed in separate record attempts in 1930] Sir Malcolm Campbell set a record of 272 mph at Daytona driving the Campbell-Railton Rolls Royce V-12 Bluebird -- a large modernist machine streamed like a missile, not that dissimilar to the car used in Pandora & The Flying Dutchman, which is John Cobb's famous Rapier- Railton .

And the object of all this need for speed? To shrink Time, arrive (paradoxically) at eternal stasis? "And like young lions we ran after Death," says Marinetti, the Italian poet credited with founding Futurism. In the Futurist Manifesto (1909), he says, "We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."

This polemical rhetoric could easily describe Stephen Cameron's record-breaking run on the sands of Esperanza, especially when the engine catches fire and his fate is in doubt.

The racing car, salvaged from the sea just like the statues that lie on the beach at the Hotel Isabella or in the garden of the archaeologist Geoffrey Fielding, becomes part of the mythological zeitgeist that extends through time and space... and in dream.

Pandora & the Flying Dutchman

De Chirico and the Flying Dutchman

Drawn inexorably to the enigma of the mysterious yacht (or sloop) anchored in the bay, Pandora drops her clothes, goes buff into the Mediterranean, swims to within hailing distance. The deck is lit, the portholes too, but no one answers. Naked, she ascends the dingy stairs, moves through the shadows to the skylight above the main cabin, sees a man standing before a large canvas, paint-brush in hand. He is deaf to her calls, oblivious to all except the work at hand. She finds the stairs, descends.

This first encounter is the pivotal scene in the film as it not only introduces the principals but also establishes the symbolism that undertows the story's mystical intent. Is the Dutchman surprised by this visit by a beautiful mermaid who insists on his company, transgressing his solitude? No. Or is he surprised that Pandora Reynolds is the literal embodiment of the woman in his painting? No. In the Romantic world there are no coincidences within the architecture of destiny.

His painting -- a pure plagiarism (or "appropriation") of the early metaphysical style of Giorgio de Chirico -- is drawn by the hand of fate. Giorgio de Chirico (1888--1978) was an influential precursor of surrealism, itself rooted in neo-primitivism and dream. The Dutchman's painting includes the familiar De Chirico classical landscape, an empty plaza with a distant Grecian building... it looks primitive, like a fresco or a print motif for some fabric, and in the foreground the woman is only as real as you allow her to be. It's mythology as expressed in dream, fragments from another dimension. The De Chirico influence in this drama extends not only through the symbolisms and the color scheme but in the "Nietzche Autumn" lighting that pervades much of the action, i.e. the private matador display that Juan Montalvo gives to impress Pandora, or the love scene between Pandora and Hendrik van der Zee on the beach with the statues. Even the idea for the story is pure De Chirico in its metaphysical recasting of the laws of Time and Space.

Pandora -- never shy or particularly well-mannered -- decides she doesn't like herself in this painting (surely van der Zee has seen pictures of her in magazines or perhaps seen her in a nightclub in New York), grabs a paint-brush and like an angry, spoiled child, mutilates her portrait with a few ugly swipes.

The Dutchman is unmoved -- why? "I was angry once," he says. "But not anymore." He examines the painting, has an idea: "No," he says, "you have improved it." He picks up his brush, removes all the details of the face so that the figure has the faceless mystery of a mannequin. This is more De Chirico. The figure has now become the famous "Manichino", a figure De Chirico took from the dramatic poem "The Flute Player of Saint Merry" (1914) by his friend Guillaime Appollinaire, the man generally credited with coming up with the term surrealism.

Appollinaire's faceless flute player, both sinister and ravishing, moves through Paris at night, collecting an entourage of hypnotized citizens and beautiful women, who follow him into an abandoned building and disappear. Here, in the Dutchman's painting, Pandora becomes such a figure -- beautiful, enigmatic, possibly fatal. Behind her sit relics of the ancient world, dreamlike and abandoned.

As a character, Mason plays van der Zee as if he too is part of a painting, and has emerged into this world only by leaving his soul in another. He's usually seen in stasis, intense and other-worldly. When he speaks, he speaks sotto voce. He seems indifferent, yet has the manners of a highly disciplined intellectual. A statue or a figure in a painting, he only moves from his pedestal when surprised. James Mason could always play the role of the understated villain to perfection, so his Dutchman has the faint menace of the wounded beast. When he "translates" the Flying Dutchman's journal for the archaeologist/antiquities collector Geoffrey Fielding -- thereby revealing his tragic secret -- you know he was a villain, a murderer, and his eternal navigation of space and time is his punishment.

But... a genuine bad man ("I was angry once") or a victim? Hendrick van der Zee's story -- a Shakespearean replay of Othello's doubt and despair in the face of blinding moral beauty -- isn't a story about murder for venal advantage but rather madness. So van der Zee is a tragic figure, someone to be pitied, a victim not of hubris but rather the capricious hand of Fate. Condemned to wander, a prisoner of a cruel memory, his solitude is the solitude of all men, regardless of situation. He is, essentially, a Romantic hero, a Byronic figure reincarnating through History. His nemesis was a woman, yet his salvation will be a woman.

"I sing not of this world or other stars/ I sing the possibilities of myself beyond this world and the stars/ I sing the joy of wandering and the pleasure of a wanderer's death" (Appollinaire)

Pandora & the Flying Dutchman

romanticism and madness

Madness or the testing of madness is the vocation of the Romantic. Theatrical Reggie or speed-lust Stephen... or the bullfighter Juan Montalvo.

Montalvo is part of the flamenco expression, a professional dancer with Death as his partner. Feted and famous as Spain's greatest matador, he returns to Esperanza to reclaim Pandora. Full of Latin intensity, this confident man is certain he can forestall her planned wedding to Stephen Cameron. He stages a private nocturnal demonstration of his skills in a local bull ring, and then, following this shadow dance, takes Pandora and her friends to meet his mother, a gypsy who reads the cards. In a dimly lit room with a picture of her deceased husband (Juan's father) on the wall, she deals the cards, doesn't like what she sees. As she and Juan argue, Pandora and the others withdraw. Obviously Senora Montalvo disapproves of Pandora, and the future is doom. Juan, enraged, mutilates his father's portrait in a fated reprise of Pandora's action on the Dutchman's yacht. But he knows what's wrong -- the Dutchman is what's wrong.

Pandora's romance with the Dutchman is like a blank verse drama by Lord Byron. All is poetry, and perhaps this riddling dialogue is too much for the rank and file to absorb. Yet the beauty of the settings and Jack Cardiff's cinematography carries the action regardless of what is said or what is missed. The party on the beach is more surrealist decor, staged in various De Chirico stylistic tableauxs. The musicians are photographed at odd angles, suggesting various vanishing points, as if their co-mingling with the salvaged statues has pulled them into another dimension where the quake rubble of the ancient world has washed up on some mythological beach.

Pandora: (as she wraps her scarf around a statue) What do you see out there? The past and the future? Or some fabulous land... I'm interested in the present tonight, the here and now.

The Dutchman looks at the sea, then answers by reciting Matthew Arnold's famous poem "Dover Beach" ("We are are here as on a darkling plain... where ignorant armies clash by night" etc). She's reaching out to him, yet he's a prisoner of too much memory and too much second sight. "I know where destructiveness comes from," says Pandora. "It's a lack of love." What she says is a paradox of course because, if anything, she has had too much love, so... it must have been the wrong kind of love. Reggie, Juan, Stephen... others unnamed, all wrong, all like the broken statues on the beach.

Pandora & the Fling Dutchman

Night. The Dutchman's garden cabana at the Hotel Isabella. Hendrik van der Zee is surprised by Montalvo, who knifes him in the back, leaves him for dead. Montalvo also kills Pandora's terrier dog whom van der Zee has been minding. The action looks supernatural, is supernatural because when Pandora arrives later -- aware that Montalvo has murder on his mind -- she finds a broken lamp and a fallen hourglass, but no body. The Dutchman appears, goes poetic: "What strange dream have you had to bring you here at night?" He insists he is unharmed, but admits the dog has been killed. It's a resurrection scene, mystical, yet almost without mysticism. A flying 8 inch dagger in the back should be fatal, but then it might cleanly miss any organ that matters. Anyway, the Dutchman lives, and he lives to see Montalvo die.

Like many of the scenes in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the demise of Juan Montalvo by supernatural intervention is excellent. Although warned by his mother, Montalvo insists on yet another corrida to satisfy his local fans and impress upon Pandora that he is a greater man than either The Dutchman or Stephen Cameron. Again the ambiguity between the rational and the irrational is played; Montalvo drinks a good luck potion prepared by his gypsy mother, which doesn't sit well and he seems less than sharp when he meets the bull. He looks at the empty chair beside Pandora with satisfaction, knowing the Dutchman is dead. But then the Dutchman appears... and Montalvo, stunned, takes his eyes off the bull, and is swiftly gored. Even the scene at the hospital where the dying bullfighter confesses the murder and describes the supernatural nature of the Dutchman's appearance at the bullfight is excellent; Montalvo accepts his fate, as apparitions and divine judgement are part of his gypsy code, even if the priest thinks he's mad. Pandora, dressed in green, knows he isn't. He kisses her hand. "Adios," he murmurs. "Adios," she says, leaves, walks towards her fate.

death as a romantic destination

All of Pandora's lovers confront Death as a matter of engagement: Reggie, by poetry; Stephen, by racing; Juan, by bullfighting. And Hendrik van...? Also a poet -- just consider his written confession. Or the lines from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach that he quotes when standing on the twilight beach. And he also paints... why not? He has been cruising the seas a long time in search of the woman who will set him free.

Pandora & the Flying Dutchman is an outstanding expression of modern Romanticism, using the powerful twentieth century styles of metaphysical and surrealist art to a) suggest that existence is multi-dimensional, b) suggest that Death is simply a shadow between these dimensions, c) suggest that true love is fated, d) suggest that beauty is female, e) suggest that solitude is male... and that only through the reconciliation of the male and the female is the immortal soul of human existence possible. Old notions, yes, but expressed with a genuine feel for the mystical complexion of life.

Needless to say, the occasional poetic dialogue interferes with the modern need for simple talk and simple solutions. As such, it is not a pornographic film, or is it narcissistic. The darkened settings -- that "Nietzche Autumn" pallor -- perhaps add to the obscurity of many scenes, yet are essential to the feeling of "enigma". The story core -- the legend of the Flying Dutchman -- is all about enigma. While the narrator/archaeologist Geoffrey Fielding initially considers it "a hoax of the period, a literary invention" he -- like us -- is eventually forced to accept that it might be true. It's a metaphor, and what is a metaphor? A metaphor is one object bonding with another hoping to be real.

While such scenes as the Dutchman's flashback to his renaissance past or even the final scene between him and Pandora on his yacht seem too long and slagged by poetics, it has to be admitted that the narrative structure of the film is superb. Of course it relies on the film noir convention of the frame narrative -- a narrator, who begins the story at the end, ends the story at the beginning; of course it steals a trendy fatalism from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; of course it relies on people who play rather than work, but... scene by scene, the narrative is superb.

The technique of looping -- the use of objects, characters and incidents -- that somehow repeat further along in the story to ironic and/or revelatory effect is used like the gearing of a magic machine. The Dutchman's hourglass, Pandora's dog, the statues, the portrait of Pandora, the disfigurements, the stabbing -- it's all a beautiful blend of metaphor and naturalism. The writer/director Albert Lewin had a Harvard Master's degree in literature, and it shows. Some will say there's too much intellect and not enough action, that whole scenes and certain sequences are merely posing or just talk. If so, the wrong man got Pandora.

© Lawrence Russell / May 2011

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jazz audio evocations by LR:

Flying Dutchman Sea Blues mp3

Manichino mp3

Culture Court © Lawrence Russell 1998-2012