Pandora and the Flying Dutchman Review

An ode to myths and legends and romance and Ava Gardner, sprinkled with dirt in this Dual Format edition.

I can’t quite find the masterpiece lurking inside Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman but there’s a spell the film weaves that’s close to unique, perhaps comparable to things like the pictures of Powell and Pressburger and William Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (though markedly inferior on the whole). For whatever reason, parts of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button also came to mind while watching the Technicolor fantasy romance. Where Pandora rises and falls the most is in its self-serious tone that rejects whimsy, playfulness and any hint of humor. “We live in a time that has no faith in legends,” remarks one of the characters near the end of the film. The line is extremely telling as to Lewin’s approach to the material. It is presented as mythology, a story inherently lacking in logic but nonetheless told with no irony or appreciation for the deviations from reality. Regardless of how successful this is, the effort is refreshing. And unlike some pictures that try to buck cynicism and quickly fail, Pandora gives the viewer absolutely nothing at which to smirk.

The title characters are played, respectively, by Ava Gardner and James Mason, though the latter doesn’t appear until well into the film. Lewin’s story was derived from ancient tales of the Flying Dutchman, a figure forced into eternal purgatory until he can find a woman who will die for him. Mason plays the role with defeat and calm, and gives a wonderfully subdued performance. Gardner has never been considered a great actress but I tend to find her effortless and effective in pictures. She doesn’t emote or resort to histrionics but something in her delivery contains a relic of having escaped the world’s nonsense. Here Gardner struggles to sell the monument of her romance, yet it seems to increase the tragedy of having a woman so cold to the mere idea of love that even when she finds it she’s apparently at a loss to understand the extent of what’s happening. The romance suffers as a result but an ambiguity is created. Mason loves another version of Gardner’s character while she remains confused and oddly helpless to something that appears to be much bigger than herself.

Pandora clearly inspires wild sacrifices and actions from men. A quick victim stabs himself to death for her. Another man, Stephen (Nigel Patrick), pushes his beloved automobile over a cliff into the Spanish shores simply because she asks him to, an act that leads to their engagement. Then there’s the mysterious bullfighter. He and Pandora had a fling in the past and he’s never been able to forget her. He’d like her back, and he’s willing to go to some serious extremes. The bullfighter is a passionate fellow who seems to represent the dark side of fate. He’s turned into an example of suffering after failing to heed the call of destiny. The beginning of the film portends the end and the heavy slant favoring legends, mythology and folklore goes a great deal toward preparing the viewer for a rather unorthodox foray into storytelling.

Albert Lewin, who wrote, directed and served as a producer on Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, was an admirable figure in Hollywood history. Only this and The Picture of Dorian Gray hold much name recognition today, but Lewin managed to write and direct a total of six features over fifteen years. While it’s probably fair to say he wasn’t a great filmmaker, Lewin clearly had a passion that he admirably tried to translate to the screen. Pandora is, above all else, filled with idiosyncrasies that separate it from so much of the cinema of its time. There’s nothing artificial about the film, at least in terms of feeling and perception. Both Gardner and Mason display emptiness and the overwhelming sense of emotional loss with such believability that regardless of how convincing their characters’ romance is – and that’s probably the main detriment of the film when examining what’s there, versus what isn’t – one can buy completely into those empty pieces. It gives the film an air of haunting loneliness that it’s desperately in need of given how shallow much of the interaction can be.

The great Jack Cardiff reconfirmed his status as the best there ever was at using Technicolor. Pandora during the same period as The African Queen and just a few years removed from Cardiff lensing Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Perhaps there’s no fair comparison to those pictures, but the Spanish beachfront and having one of the most gorgeous women ever captured on film at your disposal allowed Cardiff to certainly make the most of the scenery. Lewin doesn’t seem to have been a particularly creative visualist but the default cut to Gardner in medium close-up works pretty much every time. There actually is a quite nice shot, about 23 minutes in, with Gardner lying at the bottom of the frame and Nigel Patrick standing in the background. He’s sort of at a loss while she’s feeling at the height of her powers. The photographing of Stephen’s record-breaking drive is another highlight, as it seems to capture the rejection of the impossible that the film holds near.

The Disc(s)

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman underwent a major restoration recently that was supervised by the George Eastman House in cooperation with The Douris Corporation. The original camera negative is presumed lost so the starting point was a nitrate separation positive, with several other sources also being used.

The dual-layered disc reviewed here is from Park Circus and restricted to Region B. The Dual Format edition release also contains a dual-layered PAL DVD in the package. In the U.S., Kino holds the rights to the film and it put out separate DVD and Blu-ray editions of the new transfer. The Kino Blu-ray is not region-locked.

My viewing of the Park Circus disc was met with no small amount of surprise given the glowing reviews I’d read of Kino’s Blu-ray. I wondered if there was any way the two transfers might differ and sought out a borrowed copy of the Kino version for a rough comparison. What I found were far more similarities than possible differences, and it seems that the transfers probably use the same telecine. Damage marks look to be identical.

To heavily criticize the restoration work done seems, quite honestly, beyond my expertise. I’m not fully aware of the limitations that restricted the finished product. Even so, what Park Circus has released is a tad below reasonable expectations of a new high definition transfer on Blu-ray, regardless of the source materials. I realize this was filmed in Technicolor and thus fluctuations in color tones and the like are normal but the inconsistencies here seem to go beyond any expected level of such imperfection. Skin tones alternate between overly red to almost ashen at times. Darker scenes lose a great amount of detail and exhibit rather poor levels of contrast. Some scenes can look dipped in a rosy pink color. A sickly, yellowish green cast is noticeable at times, often making its home on the left edge of the frame.

Most unfortunate, though, is the disturbing amount of dirt that remains in this restoration, indicating a lack of digital cleanup at every turn. There are frequent specks and bits of debris swirling around the image almost from start to finish, and in multiple colors (blue, green, red). The problem with this is that the viewing experience becomes poor. Screen captures remain an unreliable judge in determining how a digital transfer actually plays on one’s home viewing system because they fail to convey how the image looks in motion. In this instance, the Park Circus Blu-ray is a significant disappointment in my mind. It’s surely an improvement on the previous DVD releases around the world, but that’s simply not enough to honestly float comparisons to, for example, the other recent restorations of Jack Cardiff’s work brought to the marketplace like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The African Queen. It’s an insult to those various releases to place Pandora on the same plane.

Some good does exist in the Blu-ray. At times, particularly if you can ignore the damage marks, the detail and sharpness can seem very strong. James Mason’s pores are on display to impressive effect. Ava Gardner has rarely looked better than at certain moments in this film. Yet, as a contrast, other scenes appear too fuzzy and drab. Spot-checking this transfer simply won’t give an accurate representation of how it looks because there are too many instances where damage, which almost certainly could have been eliminated with a bit more care, becomes an intrusion or the day for night scenes suffer from recurring loss of detail. The grain, too, can be heavier than I’d prefer.

No real trouble with the audio. Some very light hiss seems to exist in the track in a few places but it isn’t a nagging concern. The English LPCM mono largely satisfies. Volume remains reasonable and consistent throughout, without any major problems. Dialogue can be heard clearly. The two channels used expand the sound quite well, and do seem to be an improvement over the previously available options. The Blu-ray’s lossless option makes for an obviously superior listen over the DVD. What I do find to be infuriating is that Park Circus, and Kino too for that matter, failed to include subtitles. This reeks of laziness, not to mention a lack of basic decency.

Not having any meaningful supplements reignites how much of a letdown this overall release turned out to be. There’s a documentary short about a famous Spanish bullfighter entitled “Death of Manolete” (17.25). It’s in HD, matted to 1.33:1 and has burned-in English subtitles. Apparently Manolete was the inspiration behind the film’s matador character, a piece of context provided by the Kino disc but not by Park Circus. Beyond that, there are only three trailers, alternate opening titles, and some image galleries here.

The Hedda Hopper trailer (3:00) has the famous gossip columnist introduce the film by way of predicting Ava Gardner to be a glamour queen of 1951. The post-Hopper parts of that preview are carried over to a black and white version (1:58). Also included is a trailer (1:31) for the 2010 UK theatrical re-release. An alternate opening titles (2:23) sequences includes an extra screen of text, one from the Dutchman’s book that is found in the film. The photo galleries aren’t done very well in comparison to Kino’s much better presentation. For example, a document signed by James Mason and Albert Lewin is too small in the Park Circus one but can be made out easier on Kino’s image gallery, which also seems to include more stills overall.

Absent from the Park Circus offering but found on the Kino disc is a six-minute restoration comparison.

Final Thoughts

Given the lack of digital cleanup and not always appealing color tones, plus the dearth of extras and omission of subtitles, the Park Circus release of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman feels like one of the bigger Blu-ray disappointments of late. The Kino equivalent from the U.S. is a slightly more thoughtful presentation that seems to have the same image issues, though it’s at least region-free.

clydefro jones

Updated: Aug 23, 2010

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