‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ – James Mason and Ava Gardner on Criterion Channel and MUBI

Ava Gardner and James Mason star in the ravishing romantic drama from Albert Lewin

I have a soft spot for Albert Lewin, a literary Hollywood writer/producer turned director with a continental sensibility and an eye for handsome imagery (if not always cinematic storytelling). His productions tended toward literary adaptations (The Good Earth, which he produced, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he scripted and directed) but Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) is an original script (“suggested by the Legend of the Flying Dutchman,” in the words of the credits) reverberating with mythological themes, literary and classical references and a Hemingway-esque atmosphere of the lost generation of idle wealthy Europeans in early thirties Spain.

All of the men in the tale are in thrall to Pandora (Ava Gardner), a beautiful American nightclub singer who has come to Esperanza, Spain, via London, and spurns the attentions of her admirers with a mix of cruelty and ennui. Then she is drawn to the mysterious ship anchored in the bay and meets the ageless Renaissance man Hendrik (James Mason), a haunted loner whose story is the stuff of legends, and becomes captivated by this mystery man who seems to know her yet makes no advances.

Lewin is literal with the mythical fantasy at the center of the story when ambiguity would be more effective, but there is a grace to the literary elegance and poetic dialogue of his script, and to the rich mix of European history, myths ancient and contemporary, Spanish culture, and European attitudes. His images are just as layered, from ancient statuary and artifacts found in the wreckage off the shore to a modernist chess board and Hendrik’s modern art painting of the mythic Pandora, which the flesh-and-blood Pandora paints over with swipes of a brush. He thanks her for introducing “the element of chance” into the painting and improving his work.

Gardner and Mason both play figures who project a constructed identity as a defense for their damaged souls, and they are superb, Gardner as part temptress and part unfulfilled woman searching for true love and Mason as a cultured but world-weary traveler with an ancient soul. Harold Warrender narrates as a British archeologist who embraces the fantastical explanation of Hendrik’s story (a little too easily for a man of science, I’d say), Nigel Patrick is her car-racing fiancé, Mario Cabré is the insanely jealous and supremely macho bullfighter who treats her love for another man as a blow to his ego, and Marius Goring a poet spiraled into alcoholism and misery by his obsession with Pandora.

The film is constantly on the verge of tipping the balance from intense romantic fantasy to supernatural humbug accepted at face value, but between the strength of the performances and the beautiful images and hyper-saturated hues of the Technicolor photography, even the most fantastical dimensions are believable, at least as long as the film spins its dream.

There is something about the Technicolor process that draws hyper-real, unreal and surreal colors out of the objects of its gaze, as if boring right in on the essence of every hue and pulling it to the surface in distilled, pure, saturated form. There is nothing like it in cinema and the recent restorations of classic Technicolor (and I mean original three-strip, dye-process Technicolor) productions have done so much to pull me back into the waking dream of Hollywood glory. Jack Cardiff’s magnificent photography alone would make this worth seeing. Cardiff’s magnificent Technicolor photography of Ava Gardner makes it irresistible.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [Blu-ray]
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [DVD]

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Kino Lorber presents the film on DVD and Blu-ray in a version remastered from a new restoration and it looks remarkable: the colors are rich and deep and the image full of nuance and detail (a before-and-after featurette shows off the impressive restoration in great detail). There is minor wear in the reel ends but the image quality is otherwise superb. The new release also includes the alternate UK opening (which uses a different opening quote but is otherwise identical) and a 17-minute Spanish documentary on the legendary bullfighter Manolete, the inspiration for the fictional bullfighter in the film, from 1947.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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