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Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Blu-ray Review)

16 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars James Mason, Ava Gardner, Nigel Patrick.

One legendary story probably befits another, so true or not, lore has it that Frank Sinatra recorded his famed despair-ridden 1951 version of “I’m a Fool To Want You” (don’t you just love listening to indisputable vocal classics from Frank’s so-called has-been period?) when he was in a severe funk over soon-to-be wife Ava Gardner.

At the very least, there’s no doubt that Gardner was capable of having this kind of perverse muse effect, and she rarely looked as glamorous as she did working Mr. Technicolor himself — cinematographer Jack Cardiff — in this one-of-a-kind that opened in the United States about three weeks before the Sinatra-Gardner wedding. Originally a   box office underachiever about a legendary yarn that has nothing to do with recording sessions, this onetime oddball has taken its time to gain esteem but is now, after about 60 years, fully intoxicating. It’s also a more consistent grabber than Cardiff’s follow-up photographic showcase for Gardner: 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa.

Along with writer-director Albert Lewin’s better-known 1945 screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, this is the signature work of a filmmaker who didn’t make many movies but had a flair for portraying the rich (or well-off, at least) and infamous. It’s also the fourth Cardiff lollapalooza to get Blu-ray treatment this year, after The African Queen, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. The kind of independent production for which ideal printing material is sometimes non-existent or unavailable (original U.S. distributor MGM long ago lost its rights), Pandora was previously issued in a DVD version taken from a 35mm print source. The earlier release’s limitations are dramatically evident in a before-after comparison included with this version in the bonus section. If the new result isn’t fully up to the bonanza high-def standards of the other three recent Cardiff’s, it still visually swamps just about any normal movie. You automatically sense that it has to be a personal favorite of Martin Scorsese (and it is).

Not appearing until 30 minutes in, James Mason plays a cursed 17-century Dutchman consigned to sailing the globe for the murder of his wife (and even worse, he mistook her motivating actions). The only way out for him to attain eternal peace is by somehow   finding a woman willing to die for him out of love, which is why every once in a while he docks in a port. As it turns out, he doesn’t even need to go looking: Gardner’s Pandora swims nude out to meet him (in ’51 movie terms, that is) off her home-base coast of Spain.

She’s such an exotic heartbreaker that before very much screen time has passed, one male (played by The Red Shoes’ Marius Goring) has committed suicide after a year of nearly drinking himself to death over her. And just after this, a racecar driver and subsequent fiancé (Nigel Patrick) must prove his love for her by (at her request) pushing his prize vehicle over a cliff. Thus, it comes as a surprise when the script establishes Pandora as coming from good old American Midwest stock — though, truth to tell, the real-life Garner hailed from a Grabtown, N.C., tobacco farm.

The movie plays nicely on Gardner’s real-life romantic associations with bullfighters; Pandora has her way with one here. By this time her character has mellowed (or perhaps finally been allowed to show its true self) once she begins to sense that something about Mason’s Henrik van der Zee character is “funny” and a supernatural attraction takes hold.

To me, Gardner was always underrated as an actress, with her best work coming in John Ford’s Mogambo (her only Oscar nomination) and John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana. But this performance is worthy of mention in the same breath — even momentarily leaving aside the glamour-photography bonus – because it just isn’t easy to read otherworldly 20th-century dialogue sprouting out of otherworldly situations without coming off as risible. The same goes for Mason, another actor among few who could ever make you believe in such go-for-broke material.

Mason was credible just about anytime he opened his mouth, and I even half-believe him in the amazing vintage TV commercial for Thunderbird wine (damn those alimony payments, one surmises) that has been making the rounds on YouTube. In truth, though, this entire movie drops my jaw at least half as much as much as his huzzahs for Thunderbird’s “unusual flavor” (and in a way it never had before). For this, we have to thank Pandora’s new and delayed availability in a print that does it justice.

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