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A Beautiful New “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” is Now in Theaters

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

Cohen Media Group archivist Tim Lanza talks about restoring the lush look of this 1951 Ava Gardner-James Mason classic.

Ava Gardner in 1951’s “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman,” written and directed by Albert Lewin.

When you think of the visually stunning films of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, which titles leap to mind? Is it Black Narcissus from 1947, starring Deborah Kerr, which always ranks high on fan lists, or perhaps you love 1948’s The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer, a perennial favorite, especially during the holidays, for its surreal take on a ballet dancer’s desire to balance love and fame.

James Mason and Ava Gardner in “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.”

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, directed by Albert Lewin and released in 1951, historically has flown under the radar with American audiences compared with those other Cardiff films, but that soon may change, thanks to a pristine 4K restoration that premieres this weekend at New York City’s Quad Cinema before opening Feb. 21st at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. Since 2011 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has been part of the Cohen Film Collection, which also counts classics like Douglas Sirk’s A Scandal In Paris — the director considered the 1946 film starring George Sanders his best picture — as well as 1937’s Storm in a Teacup and 1938’s St. Martin’s Lane, both starring Vivien Leigh, among its library of more than 700 titles.

“We place a particular importance on quality films by interesting directors, and Pandora certainly fits that bill,” explains Tim Lanza, archivist for Cohen Media Group, which owns and oversees the collection. “The craft behind the camera is at a high level, and while Albert Lewin may not be a very well-known filmmaker, he had a deliberate style, consciously incorporating influences from other art forms, while taking full advantage of what film is uniquely able to do.”

Gardner, after swimming out to Mason’s sailboat.

Also the writer and co-producer for Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Lewin conjured a haunting fantasy of a woman loved by several men, but who ultimately gives her heart to a mysterious sailboat captain. The film stars Ava Gardner and James Mason, at the height of their 1950s glamour; Gardner in particular is stunning as Pandora Reynolds, who seems to only passively accept love until she meets Mason’s Hendrick van der Zee. Lewin’s script, meanwhile, indeed is inspired by the tale of the Flying Dutchman, which dates to the 18th century and is the story of a ghost ship doomed to wander the sea and never allowed to make port. Lewin added an intriguing and romantic backstory, that Mason’s captain is atoning for a past sin and, for reasons that involve spoilers, is mesmerized by Gardner.

It seems like a film tailor-made for fans of Black Narcissus or The Barefoot Contessa — also starring Gardner with cinematography by Cardiff, released in 1954 — but American audiences didn’t embrace Pandora during its initial run, Lanza says. “Lewin might have been too much of an eccentric aesthete and created works that were too highly stylized for mainstream American audiences,” he concedes. “Working under Irving Thalberg at MGM, Lewin was a highly successful producer of popular hits such as Mutiny on the Bounty and The Good Earth. While both of these films were based on literary sources and might give away Lewin's deep appreciation for literature — he held a Master's in English Literature from Harvard and was a PhD candidate at Columbia — it wasn't until he was able to write or adapt and direct (and co-produce, in the case of Pandora and his last feature, The Living Idol) his own independent features that he had the freedom to incorporate all of his interests.”

Mason, painting a portrait that Gardner recognizes.

Lewin seemed to find an ideal partner in the Oscar-winning Cardiff, who had already established a reputation for creating “painterly” films. The result is that Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is absolutely stunning from its initial shots: Set in a seaside Spanish town in 1930, an early plot development in the film causes the townspeople to gather on the beach, and the camera pulls back underneath a ringing church bell to reveal how residents are running toward the shore from all directions. It’s a purely beautiful moment of both scene and framing, perfectly setting the tone for the compelling visuals to follow.

Lewin also enlisted the talents of Man Ray, who created a modernist chess set used in an early scene and took production photos of Gardner; Man Ray also painted the actress's portrait, though ultimately it isn’t seen in the film. “Like Jack Cardiff, Lewin had a deep interest in painting, and this turns up in his films,” Lanza says. “He was an art lover who amassed a large collection, befriending such Dadaist and Surrealist artists as Max Ernst and Man Ray. This influence can be seen in Pandora in particular, with at least one writer observing that the fragmented and symbol-laden, dreamlike storyline is akin to surrealist works.”

Fold in Gardner’s gorgeous costumes by Beatrice Dawson — the British-born designer who also created the looks for Vivien Leigh in 1961’s The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Marilyn Monroe’s gowns in 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl — and every visual element of Pandora becomes wholly seductive. Martin Scorsese evidently agrees: He keeps a vintage 1951 dye-transfer Technicolor print of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in his personal collection (more on that in a moment). “Watching this film is like entering a strange and interesting dream,” Scorsese has said.

An on-set photo of Gardner by Man Ray.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is indeed a terrific example of a Technicolor film, though not crafted in the bright, bold hues seen in, say, The Wizard of Oz or Singin’ in the Rain. Instead, it’s a muted, dreamy palette, decidedly romantic, an ideal choice to suit the Mediterranean locale and the lush, richly designed villas where much of the action takes place. But the exteriors are equally considered, from Pandora’s first evening swim out to Mason’s sailboat to a climactic speed race featuring a sleek silver car on the beach. “There’s rarely a shot that doesn't have something interesting and often surprising to look at,” Lanza says. “It is also a study in what can and can't be done during an analog photochemical restoration, vs. a restoration done in the digital realm.”

The film already had undergone a photochemical restoration in 2008 — a joint effort of The Film Foundation, the Rome Film Festival, the Franco-American Cultural Fund, and the Rochester, New York-based George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) — but Lanza points out that the work was never considered complete. “The limitations of working photochemically, especially when it came to cleaning up dirt and scratches and to getting the color right, meant that the restoration wasn't wholly satisfying,” notes Lanza, who was part of the team on that initial project. “Cinematographer Jack Cardiff was a master of color and light, which often become almost a character themselves in the films he shot, like The Red Shoes and Black Narcisssus. As Scorsese has mentioned, Cardiff's love of painting as an art form informs what he was able to create with the camera. He was exceptional working with the Technicolor process in particular, so we definitely wanted to honor that.”

In 2019, Cohen Film Collection partnered with French broadcaster OCS and the George Eastman Museum’s Film Preservation Services division to take another look at Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Scorsese also was able to step in with an assist, lending his print to the project as a color reference. “We had the opportunity to open up the restoration again, using the 2008 work as a base, but taking it into the digital realm for this 4K restoration,” Lanza says. “We worked with Eastman's Film Preservation Services on the scanning and some clean-up, but most importantly on the color grading. Working in the digital space allowed them to have much better color control than they had in the previous photochemical workflow. They used [the print in Scorsese’s collection] as a reference and were able to bring back the vivid colors and warm tones that an audience would have seen when the film was first in theaters.”

Two additional firms — Audio Mechanics in Burbank, California, for the sound restoration and India-based Prasad for the clean-up work — finished the job, which required more than 700 hours of work over 171,200 frames. “The film now looks better than it has in almost 70 years,” Lanza adds.

The finished film is indeed spectacular. If Lewin and Cardiff’s goal was to create a succession of beautifully composed paintings, they succeeded; the restored scenes in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman are sure to inspire audiences to not only reconsider the film overall, but happily soak in the visual details that extend to every edge of the screen. Which scenes might be Lanza’s favorites? “There's a short, somewhat oddball sequence on a beach at night, during which musicians are playing and people are dancing. The composition of the shots and the way objects are used seem to me to have a direct connection to the work of Man Ray and the Surrealists,” he says. “I would also say that all of the night sequence were vastly improved during this restoration. The other sequence is one in which Ava Gardner's character visits a matador after a bullfight. Without giving anything away, I love the way it is shot: the framing of characters, the lighting, the set, the objects in the room, they all work together cinematically to create mood and meaning.”

In its restored form, Lanza believes Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is decidedly special and should be discovered anew by American audiences. “I think it is a film in which a wide variety of elements and influences all work together to create an intriguing and unusual, purely cinematic experience,” he says.

Besides, Lanza adds, “who am I to argue with Scorsese?”

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