Sunday, 30 June 2013

Art of darkness… The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Unique and, as it transpired, un-repeatable, yet so influential… It’s difficult to write “new” about one of the established silent film canon but that’s not what these blogs are really about: it’s your personal interaction with the subject, your discovery and not your opinion where the work should stand as an objectively verifiable “great film”.

With Caligari and a select few, it’s also not a question of when you should watch it but where... The DVD’s long been burning a mark on my shelf but I leapt at the chance to watch the film in the bowels of London’s neoclassical marvel Somerset House.

A select mix of middle-aged cognoscenti and film studies undergrads were ushered into the comfort of the House’s screening room to watch what many consider to be the first true “art” film and the most important horror film of its age.

Cesare carries Jane
Caligari did not disappoint and it did, indeed, surprise… the cause of which I won’t go into here: if I can hold out long enough to see this film as nature intended then so should you…

Its enduring popularity can be attributable to this robust narrative but also to the most artfully artful mis-en-scene in cinematic history. We all know how Caligari looks even if we haven’t seen the film and the image of its central character, Cesare, the somnambulistic seer, is etched across a thousand t-shirts (Bela Lugosi's Dead* but Conrad Veidt is only sleeping…).

Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Lil Dagover
Produced by Erich Pommer and directed by Robert Wiene - as Fritz Lang was busy (on Die Spinnen) - Caligari utilised the stunning art direction of Hermann Warm and his painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig. Whilst this work was highly stylised there is logic in the way it was used with almost the whole tale told against a backdrop of demented splashes of white on distorted angular black. Only the Asylum looks anything like a real  space along with the garden at the film’s beginning... but there’s a reason for that…

The story was written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and controversially the film toned down their anti-establishment, post-war, pacifist narrative… but, if millions of soldiers could be convinced into killing each other, surely one man could be hypnotised into murder on demand?

Friedrich Fehér in the garden
The story begins with a young man, Francis (Friedrich Fehér) talking to an older friend in a sparse winter garden. A young woman appears dressed in a nightgown; she looks deeply disturbed and walks past as in a dream, oblivious to her surroundings. Francis says that she is his fiancée and starts to tell the tale of how she came to be so afflicted.

The scenery shifts to impressionistic landscapes with mad lines, rough swathes of white and black paint and uniform irregularity – there’s hardly a right angle in sight and the world seems moulded around the characters. The title cards are also similarly wrought, fully integrated with the style of the sets, mini-artworks in their own right.

Whether this was a popularisation of expressionist art or a daring innovation in cinema is beside the point: nothing else looks like this and it works supremely well in reflecting the psychic state of the narrator… The film melds the emerging science of psychiatry with expressionist art to question the reliability of human perception and will.

Werner Krauss at the fair
Back in the town where Francis lived he was involved in a contest with his best friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) for the heart of the local beauty Jane Olsen (Lil Dagover). The boys visit a travelling fair and witness Cesare the somnambulist (young Conrad Veidt) who emerges from Cailigari's cabinet, mysteriously controlled by the strange Doctor (Werner Krauss).

Cesare has slept for most of his 23 years and this has seemingly given him the power to see the future. He forecasts Alan’s death by “dawn tomorrow”, the two laugh it off – cheered by meeting Jane on their way home – but a notice concerning the murder of a local bureaucrat shakes them.

Caligari un-boxes Cesare
The prophecy of Cesare comes true and we see a figure shadowed against Alan’s bedroom wall, strike a dagger into the young man. Francis is distraught and begins to investigate Caligari and his sleeping partner with the help of Jane’s father and the police.

An attempted murder elsewhere in the town provides a temporary alibi for Caligari and Francis realises his original suspicions may still be accurate. By this point Jane has gone to the fair in search of her father but only finds Cailgari who delights in introducing her to Cesare, Jane flees in terror and the Doctor has his next target.

After Alan’s funeral Francis goes in search of his suspects and as he stakes out Caligari’s caravan, a dummy lying in the cabinet makes it appear that Cesare is still there... yet the somnambulist has already been sent to murder Jane.

Can Cesare control himself?
This sequence is probably the most iconic in the film as Veidt snakes his way along moonlit walls and into Jane’s room – all soft edges and pure white. But Cesare is captivated by Jane and cannot kill her… instead he abducts her, carrying her off over rooftops and alongside wonky roads as a growing army of townsfolk pursue.

Cesare has to drop Jane and runs on alone… as Francis uncovers the Doctor’s ruse and follows him into the grounds of a mental hospital where the real secret of Dr Caligari will be revealed not once but twice or even possibly three times…

Caligari confronted
For a film with such an uncompromisingly stylised look, Caligari’s narrative is surprisingly conventional as you can probably tell from my convoluted summary above. But this is what makes it work so well: the natural flow of human events in stark contrast to the fear and loathing evident in much of the stage sets. If the exterior play of the actors was as deranged as much of the landscape it would be less… un-nerving.

Robert Wiene’s direction is superb and very disciplined. Even with a fixed camera the story telling is dynamic and the director cuts quickly between emotionally charged scenes, often using an off-centre iris shot to open and close each act.

Friedrich Fehér, Rudolf Lettinger and Lil Dagover
The actors are also excellent, with Friedrich Fehér having to achieve a huge amount as the heroic Francis – our main connection to this uncertain world whilst Lil Dagover fulfils the role of damaged heroine with aplomb and is also very good at being carried  when catatonic...

Caligari assailed by obsessive compulsion...
Werner Krauss is wonderfully malevolent as the Doctor driven by an obsession to understand the psychology of slaughter – is he the epitome of unrelenting militaristic-scientific advancement? But it’s Conrad Veidt who creates the icon, his Cesare being a balletic forerunner of so many scissor-handed, Frankenstein monsters with hearts of gold… and you can’t really blame him for Goth.

The version we saw was the 1996 restoration which was enhanced by the excellent but unrelenting score from Timothy Brock which was just that little bit louder than would have been comfortable… or at least it felt that way.

Both are available on the Eureka DVD (available from Movie Mail) which has an informative audio essay/commentary from film historian Mike Budd as well as Wiene’s Caligari follow-up Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire (1920).

Mrs Joyce takes in the view at Somerset House before the film begins...

*Northampton goth band, Bauhaus' debut single from 1979...

Monday, 24 June 2013

Louise Dresser in Clarence Brown's The Goose Woman (1925)

At the recent showing  of The Eagle (reviewed below…), Kevin Brownlow showcased the magnificent opening ten minutes of Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman and I’ve been keen to see the full film ever since.

This deceptively simple tale was instrumental in showing Brownlow what magic existed in American silent films and set his career on course to uncover as much as he could of the rest. In particular, it also sparked his interest in Clarence Brown, a director who still demands more attention.

The Goose Woman is certainly a film that demonstrates the range of Brown’s abilities with a satisfyingly consistent atmosphere perhaps reflecting his debt to Maurice Tournier. Shots flow together quickly and there are some deft moving shots, the camera tracking before Dresser and her goose as she stomps towards the murder scene and alongside the printing press as the rapid-response media of the day begins to circulate the story.

In another clever move she enters the front of her shack and the camera pans round to see her throwing an empty gin bottle into a bin overflowing with similar items: in a time of prohibition, Brown had to be careful how much apparent drinking he actually showed.

Pickford and the charming Constance...
There are some marvelous performances not least from Mary’s kid brother Jack Pickford and the utterly charming Constance Bennett who went on to become a major talking star in the thirties. There’s also excellent light relief from a strong under-card including Gustav von Seyfertitz and George Nichols as the heads of the police investigation.

But it’s Dresser’s film…if they’d invented the Oscars a couple of years early, it would have been nailed on. The dramatic shifts for her character are a gift to an actor of her ability and she grabs the opportunity with both hands, even with a bottle of gin stuck under one arm and a goose under the other.

Louise Dresser
Opera star to geese-keeper is one heck of a fall but that’s where we find Mary Holmes at the film’s start. Brown deftly establishes her heart-breaking back story as she shuffles drunkenly around her ramshackle shack, gazing in pain at pictures of her past as Marie de Nardi, rising opera star who lost everything after becoming pregnant.

The full details of the loss of her voice are not clear but the disgrace weighs heavily on her shoulders…at that time there was no coming back.

Home discomforts
The source of her shame, son Gerald (Pickford), arrives in his new motorcar, one light blinking off as he crosses a bridge. He tries to fix it but the engine gives him a shock… in exasperation he makes his way to his mother’s home…

Gerald is fresh-faced (strange to see the Pickford features and energy in another context) and seems a decent sort but he doesn’t appear to spend much time with mom. He can’t hide his disappointment at Mary’s dishevelled state and her attempt to disguise her drinking can’t mask the stench of gin.

She has one precious shellac recording of her former glories but this is accidentally knocked onto the floor by Gerald… it says it all, will he never stop hurting her? She resents every maternal bone in her body and the object of her instinctive affection…

Dresser and Pickford
There’s some vibrant scene setting as Gerald arrives at the theatre where his sweetheart, Hazel (Bennett) is rehearsing, off-stage sound-effects showing the comical artifice and all manner of scene shifting stage-work getting in the way of the young couple.

A bunch of flowers also arrives for Hazel but these are intercepted by Jacob Rigg (Spottiswoode Aitken) who throws them away in disgust… They are from the theatre owner, Amos Ethridge (Marc McDermott) and Jacob obviously doesn’t want to see his boss abuse his position… yet again.

Gerald thinks he’s got it made with his new car (plans to become a taxi driver?) and proposes to Hazel. As he slips on the ring her eyes are drawn to a cartoon showing the evolution of an engagement ring into a crying baby, an echo of Mary’s disappointment but a gamble the young actress is willing to make.

The deed ...
So far so domestic but events are about to take a serious turn. Ethridge is found shot dead and the fates begin to conspire as, in addition to being Hazel’s sexual harasser, Ethridge just happens to be Mary’s neighbour – his splendid mansion in sharp contrast to her crumbling shack… Legend has it that Brown found the shack on a scouting mission and had it transported, lock, stock and crumbling roof onto the backlot.

A paper boy breaks the news and Mary marches to investigate, accompanied by her most loyal goose. She finds the murder scene crawling with journalists who instantly buttonhole her as an untrustworthy drunken joke… as she reads about herself in the next day’s papers; Mary’s remaining self-esteem is crushed.

She fights off further incursions form the paparazzi hordes but is more receptive to the forces of the law as she is quizzed by Mr Vogel, the erudite States Attorney (von Seyfertitz) and his rather more down-to-earth colleague Detective Lopez (Nichols).

The polite force...
There’s a great comic undercurrent between the well-educated Vogel and career cop Lopez, but Brown balances this with the melodrama. Vogel discovers that Mary is in fact Marie de Nardi and decides she can be trusted and rescued at the same time. He was a fan in his younger years having seen her perform in Paris… But we’re a long way from France and none more so than Lopez who smells a rat… or is it a goose?

Mary senses her chance to regain her lost prestige and encouraged by the attorney’s interest sees a way of coming back to the public eye… I won’t go any further with the plot, needless to say that all is interlinked and redemption can only come through suffering… this is a Hollywood film after all!

Dresser’s theatrical experience makes her shine from the first moment she’s on screen, her character utterly believable and even likeable through all her deceit and weakness. She salutes her gin bottle in absolute recognition of her own culpability: she knows who’s really to blame for her situation.

Being all of us similarly responsible, we hope for the best as it’s the best we can hope for… as Pete Wylie once said. I can see why this was such an inspiration for Kevin Brownlow.

The Goose Woman also provided one other poignant signifier for Brownlow who used it as a way of meeting Mary Pickford. She was keen to see her brother once more in the film; poor Jack died aged 36 after living his life far too fast… but so began a major strand in the reclamation of her own fame.

The Goose Woman is – frustratingly – only available in a so-so DVD transfer – you can buy it here. There’s also versions of various length and quality on the inter-web if you’ve the patience but it’s crying out for a proper release of the re-mastered print shown at film festivals over the last few years.

Clarence directs Jack and Constance

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Borzage directs Boardman… The Circle (1925)

This film, stylishly directed by Frank Borzage, finds Eleanor Boardman’s character trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of previous generations, just as she was in the previous year’s Wine of Youth. Kenneth B. Clarke’s script was based on W. Somerset Maugham’s successful stage play from 1921 so, it was very much a comedy of contemporary concerns.

Post war(s), with the century still young, generational politics were arguably broader and more entrenched than at any previous time… after all, there was so much freedom wasn’t there  and, for some, the means to take advantage of it.

Young Joan Crawford
The film starts thirty years in the past as the young wife of Lord Clive Cheney (Derek Glynne) decides to run away with his best friend – the “best man” at their wedding - Hugh Porteous (Frank Braidwood). Young Lady Catherine is played by a very young Joan Crawford in one of her very first film appearances… fresh faced and wide-eyed, Joan looks a million miles away from Johnny Guitar and Baby Jane

She takes the fateful step and abandons her husband and their son Arnold to follow her heart… Hard not to feel heartbroken those she leaves behind especially as Clive seems a decent – if distracted - sort.

The family seat
Fast forward three decades and we see her son’s wife, Elizabeth (the eruditely elegant Eleanor Boardman…), contemplating the same escape. Young Arnold has somehow grown up into Creighton Hale (who always reminds me of an effete Ernie Wise… sorry Little Ern and sorry Mr Hale…) who seems entirely detached from his own marriage, squinting cluelessly behind his monocle.

Creighton Hale and Alec B. Francis
The object of Elizabeth’s affection is the altogether more dashing Edward 'Teddy' Luton (Malcolm McGregor) who has won her heart with his readiness to act and masculine wiles.

But, aware of the family history, Elizabeth has arranged for Lady Catherine to visit in order to see what thirty years have done to her relationship: has true love endured or fermented into middle-aged bitterness?

Arnold is all a jitter having not seen his mother for so long and Elizabeth is anxious to know how her potential choices might pan out… neither has told Lord Clive…

On their way...
Borzage’s delicate touch enlivens the tension as he cuts with increasing frequency to shots of the back of the older couple’s car as they speed towards the meeting… a bit like the shark in Jaws.

Then, stone me, Lord Clive has returned from hunting, deciding that he can get better shooting done at home. There’s a lovely confusion as the family try to rest his loaded shotgun from his hands… a foretaste of the anger that surely  must about to be unleashed.

Eleanor Boardman and Alec B. Francis
But, as Lord Clive (Alec B. Francis) gradually learns the truth about his impending house guests, his mood remains cheery… perhaps his experience of the last thirty years hasn’t been the bitter one we expected. Certainly he views this as an opportunity to set his daughter-in-law on the right track… even though we can’t really believe bumbling Arnold has any chance.

Lady Catherine "Kitty" Cheney (Eugenie Besserer) and Lord Hugh "Hughie" Porteous (George Fawcett) duly arrive and before long start to pick holes… and argue… is this what has become of their pure passion?

Lord Clive takes it all in his stride as a game of bridge descends into bickering, Elizabeth is distraught and starts to worry that this is how she’ll end up. Teddy gets frustrated whilst Arnold grins on the side lines… but we’re sure young love will win out in the end… or will it?

It’s hard not to view Maugham’s tale as smart-Alec with its twists and deliberate turns and maybe things would have been more believable had it been Glynne playing Arnold instead of Hale. He has his moments but it’s difficult to credit his later change in character and, frankly, Elizabeth would have been unlikely to succumb to his new-found macho charms.

Eleanor Boardman
But… go with the flow. Boardman is excellent as always, blowing everyone else of screen with her intelligence and control. But credit must also go to Eugenie Besserer who is very moving when forced to gaze upon the photographs of her younger self… George Fawcett grumps along splendidly for most of the movie but he excels in this moment: confronted with the cause of their love and reminded of its enduring truth.

George Fawcett and Eugenie Besserer
I watched the Warner Archives DVD which comes from a very clear print and is accompanied by a new orchestral score from Garth Neustadter which is very effective overall and rather spritely, sometimes too much so, when it threatens to leave the story behind as it hurries to whip us along with the narrative.

Essential viewing for fans of Borzage and Boardman and for those who have to see more of the young woman who came to be the biggest star… After all, unlike the audiences of the time we all know exactly what Joan Crawford looked like thirty years later…
Yes, well... it's not exactly post-feminist...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Gothic Pickford… Sparrows (1926)

" of the eight wonders of the World..." Ernst Lubitsch

It’s no surprise that, Sparrows’ obsessive art director, Harry Oliver, also worked on films with FW Murnau and Frank Borzage. The controlled claustrophobia of these directors marked a high-point for that period of cinema when the means of expression was perfectly controlled on the silent stage. The surprise though was in seeing a Mary Pickford film capturing the same atmosphere… before Sunrise, City Girl and The River.

Apparently Mary, along with husband Douglas Fairbanks, had visited Germany in 1925 and been so impressed with the working methods at UFA that they wanted to try them back home... They had plenty of like-minded support, not just Harry Oliver, who if anything influenced expressionism and not the other way round, but also cameramen Charles Rosher and Karl Struss who both went on to win Oscars for their cinematography on Sunrise.

This model shot captures the set atmosphere
The result was a film that kept reminding me not just of the great expressionist silents but also Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter - even if the “feel” is more through shared influences than anything else.

A tense modern adventure, Sparrows is easily one of the most striking Hollywood silent films I’ve seen and certainly up there with Mary Pickford’s best.

Before I’d ever really watched Mary Pickford, the idea of a 30-something actress playing a child wasn’t an obvious winner but here, as  in her other “child” roles, you soon forget how old she’s supposed to be – she’s just Mary or in this case  Molly a young woman of unspecific vintage.

The opening of Sparrows is so smart you know you’re onto something very quickly… a group of children are seen flying a kite and it’s only after the camera closes in that you realise this is not a bit of fun but a desperate attempt to send a message for help. But the kite is shown snagged in a tree and it’s clear that theirs is a helpless situation: held against their will as worker slaves in a “baby farm”, with no chance of escape…surrounded by deadly sinking sand and under the watchful eye of some of the wickedest captors in cinematic history.

In fact, this is a very un-child-like story, Mr Grimes (the superb Gustav von Seyffertitz) is not just cruel he’s psychotic: these children are mere animals to him and he cares only about their worth as slaves. Could a man be reduced to such callous indifference? We surely know that he could…and he's unrelentingly evil.

Mr Grimes points the finger...
His character is revealed in similar fashion to the kite… he’s seen opening letters from hard-up parents to the children under his care. There’s a moments uncertainty as he looks at a doll sent for one of the children, he glances at the toy then silently crushes its head before dropping it into the swamp and watching the sand pull it under just as it would suck down any child that would attempt escape.

One of the letters had mentioned how the parent was glad as at least their child wasn’t being exploited at a “baby farm”, but that is exactly what is happening… and things are not good at all.

Molly uses her head
The children live in total fear of Grimes, his oddly compliant wife (Charlotte Mineau) and their craven son Ambrose (Spec O'Donnell) – constantly out-witted by Pickford’s Molly, his “PA-MA-PA!” cry would be humorous were it not for the lives at stake.

Molly leads the gang of “babies” which includes a boy with a crutch, a stammerer called “Splutters” and the kind of kids who were missed out by the draft for Fagin’s little helpers or The Wild Boys… There is also a very young one who is severely ill.

This child passes away in Molly’s arms as she dreams a vision of Christ come to rescue him. This sequence was controversial at a time when representing Christ with an actor was frowned upon (see the “white light” in Ben Hur) but represents Pickford strength of religious feeling.

Famously the sheep had to face a sheer drop to keep them in shot...
Molly keeps on promising her sparrows that God will save them and, whilst there are dissenting voices – “ah, hop-turtles!” says the most cynical child – what else have these unfortunates got?

Things step up a gear as Grimes is involved in hiding the kidnapped baby daughter of millionaire Dennis Wayne (Roy Stewart), but whilst they wait for the ransom the heat gets too great and Grimes resolves to drop the baby in the swamp.

By this time Molly has become attached to the child and, with nowhere else to turn, she leads the children on an audacious escape through the deadly swamp.  This is the highlight of the movie and very well put together especially the scenes when the children are seemingly clambering on fragile branches directly over a seething mass of alligators (a sequence of clever double exposures timed to the second so that the ‘gators react to the actors and vice versa).

Pickford and friends
No further spoilers… in the unlikely event you haven’t seen the film. Once again I watched this with my teenage daughter and we were seriously enthralled… a family film that actually does stand up as genuine – at-face-value - entertainment almost 90 years after release.

Sparrows was nominally directed by William Beaudine, Producer Pickford put him under such pressure that he fell ill and could not complete with the un-credited Tom McNamara finishing off the story, no doubt with Mary’s help.

Special mention must go to the children in the movie who worked exceptionally hard. Mary Louise Miller plays Doris Wayne (the baby) and she seems almost permanently tied to Molly’s back… great physical acting from Pickford and, indeed, from the younger Mary. There’s a short documentary on the Milestone BluRay which tells Miller’s story with help from her daughter.

The other members of the gang all perform admirably: Billy Butts,  Monty O'Grady as Splutters, Jack Lavine, Billy 'Red' Jones Muriel McCormac, Florence Rogan, Mary McLain, Sylvia Bernard, Seesel Ann Johnson and Camille Johnson…

Mary and the Sparrows publicity shot
Mary obviously had a special affinity with children following the enforced parent-hood of her own youth*. It’s likely she pulled these remarkable performances from these infants she could identify with so well… not for the first time, director as well as producer.

Her own performance is as naturalistically nuanced and controlled as you’d expect. Pickford was surely one of the most universally sympathetic actors of all time – her characters were flawed and yet struck through with honest tenacity and an unquenchable belief in natural justice. People would leave their jarred existence outside the cinema and enter into the dark to commune for a brief time with her resonating positivity.

I watched the excellent quality and superb value, Milestone Blu-ray which comes with a spritely new score from Jeffrey Silverman as well as enthusiastic commentary from film historians, Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta.

Now I really must see My Best Girl… Mary acting her age.

*For a good biography on Mary I’d recommend Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield – well written and thoroughly-researched! 

Sparrows lobby card

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The moving finger writes… Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

A wispy dream of a film, Albert Lewin’s labour about love has a cracking start full of intrigue, invention and fragile mortality.

It begins with a portentous quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: "The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

The villagers crowd to view the tragedy
A Spanish fishing boat has uncovered something terrible and we see the villagers of Esperanza  running across the beach from all directions as the camera pans outwards through a tolling bell on a high tower and revealing a young woman looking down in horror through a telescope on a platform way above the shore. It’s a great set-piece and seems to have been improvised largely around the location as found.

Amidst the distress that follows we learn that one of the two dead was known and loved very well by the local expats - a mix of archaeologists, drunks and speed racers – and is an American singer called Pandora…

There goes the fourth wall...
The owner of the house on the hill is Professor Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) and, as he mulls over the tragedy, he turns startlingly to face the viewer and starts telling the whole tale... The distant sound of gypsy music increases in volume and is revealed as the Professor's memory of a local group performing before the expats. The gypsies are everything the Brits are not, passionate and  true to themselves, they play and dance with abandon... a foretaste of what is to come.

Now that's a pasodoble!
Pulling back from the gypsy dancing, we soon see Pandora languidly dazzling all around her one of whom (Marius Goring) is drinking himself to death over her. After asking her one more time if she will marry him he drinks the poison he has popped in his wine glass and drops dead in front of her.

Almost unmoved by this inevitable waste of a miss-guided life, Pandora simply walks off.

Ava Gardner
The next day at the Professor's home, Pandora ignores the facile grieving and sets her sights on Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) a British land speed record driver who may have been dating the Professor’s niece Janet (Liverpool’s own Sheila Sim). Yet even the professor admires her directness and her honesty… perhaps the younger men are too distracted by her beauty: too sexually acquisitive?

She drives off with Nigel in his racing car – his pride and joy – and, stunningly, asks him if he would push it over the cliff in order to prove his love to her. This is duly does and there’s some marvellous shots of Pandora throwing her head back in ecstasy as the machine falls to the sea behind her.

Pandora is impressed by sacrifice
This is then followed by a strangely impressive shot of Pandora’s profile – huge in the foreground – whilst Nigel stands small, trying to make sense of what he has just done.

Man Ray is rumoured to have worked on the film and such moments might reflect such input but, then again, the cinematography is from Jack Cardiff fresh from his triumphs on The Red Shoes. This is a sumptuous-looking film and – allowing for some deterioration even on the restored Blu-Ray – must have looked stunning on the big screen.

Pandora swims out
Mere moments after having agreed to marry Nigel, Pandora becomes fascinated by the boat in the bay and swims out to investigate… she arrives to find an almost empty ship with a single occupant, painting a portrait of a woman who looks uncannily like herself.

Pandora is shocked when she meets this strange man – a look of recognition or of love? She tries to regain her stride but she has been shaken to the core.

At first sight...
The man is revealed to be Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason) a Dutch sailor who hides a rather substantial secret…

It’s from this point that the film begins to lose some of that early energy as the viewer calculates the ways in which things will play out. Yet the chemistry between the simply gorgeous Gardner and the manly Mason is good and both act exceptionally well – blasting pretty much everyone else off-screen (such a shame Goring got “injured” so early on…)

The genuinely great, James Mason
Gradually the mystery is revealed as Hendrick becomes involved in local society. He translates a sixteenth century journal for Fielding who begins to realise that his translator is also, incredibly the author… Can it be that this is the same man?

I won’t give much away as this story relies so much on mystery and anticipation to work.

Bull fighting and car racing... the men compete
But there’s a long way to run as a famous bullfighter Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabré), returns to his home town and sets himself on winning back Pandora. There’s a dangerous sporting stand-off between him and Nigel who breaks the land speed record in a sequence filmed in Pendine, South Wales (I’d recognise that long, flat beach anywhere!). Juan responds by fighting bulls and getting cross.

But who will Pandora chose…

The film is a stylistic delight and strangely charming… OK the story may be fantastic but then isn’t that what we want? It’s a more spiritually straightforward counter-point to A Matter of Life and Death at a time when audiences still needed to believe that there’s more to life than death… and we haven’t changed that much.

Ava Gardner
I hadn't really watched Gardner properly before and she is indeed very beautiful... perfectly cast as a Pandora every bit as mythical as the Dutchman: the two eternally destined to be together or not at all.

Watch it and be entranced by Gardner and Mason and to marvel at a fantasy that is ultimately disarmingly frank. As Professor Fielding says: "the measure of love is how much you are willing to sacrifice for it" and there's simply no easy answer to that.

It’s available here in a fine new Blu-Ray/DVD combo.

John Laurie's in it too!
Pendine Beach in South Wales, home of the World land speed record once upon a time.