Cohen Film Collection: Albert Lewin’s ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’

Director Albert Lewin’s claim to fame is writing and directing the beloved 1945 film adaptation of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, one of only six films he helmed. Lewin, who died in 1968 at age 72, had a surprisingly long career for someone with so few credits to his name. He began at MGM as an assistant for Irving G. Thalberg, and he was a producer on several major hits in the ’30s. By the beginning of the 1940s, he began writing and directing himself.

Two other films Lewin directed are included in Cohen Media Group’s latest “Cohen Film Collection” release. The 2019 restoration of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is the headline, but the set also includes Lewin’s rarely seen 1957 Mexican-American co-production The Living Idol. While the chasm in quality between the two films is wider than the Grand Canyon, the two have some surprising thematic similarities. Lewin also wrote both films.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, released in 1951, finds Ava Garner doing what she does best – causing any man with two eyes to fall in love with her. She plays American nightclub singer Pandora Reynolds, who is having the time of her life on the Spanish coast. Pandora is poised to marry British racecar driver Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) when Captain Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason) mysteriously shows up along the shore. Thanks to her friend, the archaeologist/human exposition machine Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), she learns about the legend of the Flying Dutchman – an immortal man cursed to travel the seas until he finds a woman so in love with him she would die for him – and begins to see parallels between the story and Hendrick.

Pandora is no absolute classic. The script is overbaked with symbolism and convenience, and stacked with long scenes overwhelmed by explanations. It is about 20 minutes too long, thanks in part to the late introduction of unnecessary matador Juan Montalvo (Mario Cabre). But holy cow, does this movie look beautiful. It’s all thanks to Jack Cardiff, bringing along the swagger of his Technicolor mastery honed on the Powell and Pressburger classics. It is impossible to make Ava Gardner look bad, and Cardiff succeeded in making her look even more amazing. Mason and Gardner both get fantastic close-ups that only serve to highlight their performances. That combination easily saves the material. You can’t look away from the romance playing out on screen.

While Pandora was a decent hit in 1951, coming on the heels of Gardner’s star-making turn in MGM’s glitzy Showboat remake that same year, it apparently didn’t make Lewin an in-demand director. He didn’t work again until 1953’s Saadia, a love triangle set in Morocco with Mel Ferrer and Cornel Wilde. In 1957, he made his last movie, The Living Idol, which Cohen included as a bonus here.

Six years after Pandora, Lewin found himself in Mexico, where The Living Idol was filmed. It’s a preposterous story about a haunted jaguar idol found in an ancient pyramid outside Mexico City that torments the young girl Juanita (Liliane Montevecchi). Dr. Alfred Stoner (James Robertson Justice, playing a poor man’s Peter Ustinov or Charles Laughton here) is convinced the idol is really cursed and connected to the human sacrifices of old, so he uses Juanita as essentially a guinea pig. Juanita’s American boyfriend Terry (future SWAT star Steve Forrest) disagrees and does his best to save her life.

The Living Idol is a bad movie. It’s painfully long at 100 minutes and there’s actually a part where the action screeches to a halt so Stoner can give us a lecture on the history of human sacrifices. I don’t think people are going to see cheap, low-budget B-movies to get a history lesson partway through. The most astonishing fact of the production is it was shot by Jack Hildyard in the same year he filmed David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai! Unfortunately, Hildyard does not have the budget here to make Mexico look as great as Sri Lanka, where River Kwai was shot.

The Blu-ray

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was previously released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber back in 2010. That edition was based on the previous restoration. This new Cohen edition is sourced from the new 2019 restoration undertaken by the George Eastman Museum’s Film Preservation Services. The original camera negatives no longer exist, but the materials used look almost damage-free. There’s something different about films shot by Cardiff, and Pandora is no different. Parts of the film look more like pastel colors than reality, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere.

Pandora is thankfully presented on its own dual-layer disc, with just a handful of extras. There’s a new restoration comparison piece, a restoration trailer, the original theatrical trailer and a trailer hosted by Hedda Hopper. Kino included a 1947 documentary on the Spanish bullfighter Manuel Rodriguez Manolete called El Torero de Cardoba, and that is included here as well. Cohen also brought over the U.K. opening titles, which surprisingly includes the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam quote that plays a role in the end instead of a brief message about the Flying Dutchman legend. Unfortunately, the stills gallery included on Kino’s release is not here.

As for The Living Idol, which is presented on a single-layered disc, I’m not sure what was going on here. It almost looks like Cohen was purposefully giving it a “grindhouse” look. Granted, there probably was zero restoration work on this, but I’ve never seen anything this bad on Blu-ray before. The audio is terrible too, and thankfully subtitles are included. The only extra is a short trailer Cohen created.

This release also includes a slim booklet, mostly featuring images from Pandora. It includes a brief message on the restoration, written by Anthony L’Abbate of the George Eastman Museum.

Cohen’s new release was clearly put together by people who love this film. However, you’ll probably only watch The Living Idol once and never again. There’s a reason why it was “rarely seen” before this set.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is an enchanting, mysterious and gripping imperfect film. Lewin takes his material super seriously, even as his fantasy plot is preposterous. But you have to embrace it. The romance is heightened to an unimaginable level thanks to Gardner and Mason’s performances and Cardiff’s cinematography brings it all to life. Without any of these three pieces, the film would collapse under its own weight of ideas. Anyone who loves the talent involved owes it to themselves to see this gorgeous movie.

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