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.

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