Some love stories take time; others are immediate. Some people are made for one another.
Take, for example, Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner) and Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason), the doomed paramours singled out in the title of Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (restored by the Cohen Film Collection using Martin Scorsese’s own 35mm print as a reference point). Pandora is an American jetsetter, socialite and singer, relocated to the Mediterranean Spanish port town of Esperanza, where she whiles away her days soaking in the sun, drinking and driving the men who fall in love with her to madness. One would-be suitor, Reggie (Marius Goring), tosses back a cup of poison to prove his love for her, for all the love his corpse can give her.
Hendrick, meanwhile, is the ageless, unflappable captain of a yacht crewed by none who has sailed the seas for centuries as punishment for the two-pronged crimes of uxoricide and blasphemy. He, having slain his wife under the mistaken belief that she two-timed him, went to court and used his time on the stand to smack-talk God. Now, he’s stuck with life eternal until he can find a gal willing to die for him. Is that gal Pandora, named for the Greek mythological figure responsible for unleashing evil upon the world? Or is Hendrick barking up a narcissistic tree? What happens when the femme fatale who tests admirers through the demand of a sacrifice in honor is the one who’s being tested?
The pomp and sweep that make up Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’s DNA are as much a reason to see the film as Gardner’s lead performance, which arrived in 1951 just after George Sidney’s Show Boat hit theaters and validated her star power. Lewin’s filmmaking is sumptuous; there’s real divinity in his construction, whether it’s couched in the Costa Brava setting or the architecture, from timeworn church bells to the observatory where archaeologist Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) breaks the fourth wall to help usher viewers through the narrative. “When I first met Hendrick van der Zee,” he says to the camera, “it never occurred to me that he was not like other men. Even now, my reason rebels at what it has required to believe in him.” And so he begins to unravel the tale, his voiceover our frequent companion through the unbelievable.
Lines like that gem are found throughout Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, but they never glitter the same coming from Gardner’s co-stars as they do coming from Gardner herself. This is likely the point: Seduction being Pandora’s bread and butter, it follows that every word Gardner speaks scintillates, reels us in, makes us yearn for but a minute more of dialogue to tumble from her lips. “Is your conversation so bright that you don’t need other illumination?” she quips halfway through the picture, interrupting Hendrick’s revelatory heart to heart with Geoffrey. It’s the kind of line any writer would die to come up with, but the playful ease of Gardner’s delivery lends the impression that she improvised it. She’s that good with a script.
Take into account that she knows how to speak volumes even in silence, and her work here becomes irresistible. Gardner’s a timeless actress, and it’s through her that Pandora and the Flying Dutchman gains its own timelessness. She’s so cool and controlled that any time the film starts tipping over the edge from fantasy to absurdity, her mere presence grounds it. These moments are mercifully few, and perhaps fewer for those with proclivities toward grand macabre romance (and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, centered as it is on a wife killer, is definitely macabre). Grant, too, that the production’s enveloping luxury is nearly as seductive as Gardner, so steeped it is in warm tones and a rich palette. But like the hopeless fool’s drawn to Pandora’s ruinous beauty, so are we drawn to Gardner in all her magnetic glory.
Director: Albert Lewin
Writer: Albert Lewin
Starring: Ava Gardner, James Mason, Nigel Patrick, Sheila Sim, Harold Warrender, Mario Cabré, Marius Goring
Release Date: Playing at Quad Cinema through February 20, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.