Sunday, 23 May 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

A while back I mentioned an example of a comedy that tried too hard to be funny. This time I will be talking about a film that tries to hard to be profound and have meaning. Needless to say, it fails. The film is opus 4 (of 6) in Albert Lewin's career as a director and is an updated/reinterpretation of the story of the Flying Dutchman, where the captain of the ship condemned to wonder alone through the seas unless he finds a woman to break his curse. It stars Ava Gardner and James Mason.

The film is highly regarded by some, in particular for Jack Cardiff's cinematography. This is indeed the most interesting point of the film, as Cardiff makes it look unlike any other Technicolor film - a talent I like, but sadly in this case from a purely intellectual point of view, as I didn't like the colour palette which looked too much like watercolour over a black and white image. There is a sequence towards the end, in James Mason's room that I quite liked, with the game of light and shadows. I also didn't entirely dislike James Mason's performance, although finding it amusing that he (as a Dutch character) has a flawless, perfect, posh English accent, which is Mason's own. By the way, I would like to know if it was just me, but does he get dubbed over his narration? I'd swear that at some point, the voice-over changes.

But here finish the points of interest... and at 2h what remains is a very long, over baked, flavourless film. The problems start with cast. James Mason aside, it was a bore to watch. Ava Gardner seldom could act and she didn't here, failing to give the character the heart she conquers by the end of the film. Also her voice got on my nerves, silky sexy but so hollow. The rest of the cast is as forgetful as is dull, but I got the impression that Lewin wanted to cast George Sanders as the archaeologist and failing to do so got a look-a-like. Also, Spain seems to be full of gypsies rather than Spaniards. Is this to add to the mystic element? Several key moments have Spanish only dialogue (the reading the cards scene in particular), not subtitled, which I could understand enough to follow, but is frustrating if you can't at least follow some of it. Also, I was left wondering which language were the fishermen speaking in the first scene, as it didn't sound like Spanish to me. Galician? My guess, as the pronunciation of words was very similar to Portuguese.

Worst of all is the dialogue - it's so stylised and artificial it pained me. Full of quotes and self-references, aided by visual metaphors (Ava Garner's almost sexual reaction after the car is thrown off the cliff), in case you missed the point, it hasn't dated very well. The whole story is moved forward by characters who have forebodings, predictions, read cards, quote ancient Greeks and live in a world of perpetual coincidences (or fate aligning, whichever you prefer). That was the intention, but the result is that it becomes unintentionally funny. You would have to be a genius to pull it off. Watching it at the BFI, several people were giggling or laughing in the silliest moments (and they all looked like respectable film fans by the way) and so did I.

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