Friday, 19 October 2018

Two strange, lush, mystical movies: "Peter Ibbetson" and "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman"

I was unaware of the existence of Peter Ibbetson (1935) until I read about it in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, Henry Hathaway's adaptation of George "Trilby" du Maurier's first novel about a girl and boy separated in childhood who find each other again when they've turned into Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, and whose love eventually transcends time and space to become eternal. It should be a load of old tosh - and it is - and Gary Cooper seems an unlikely actor to play such an ethereal romantic lead. I found it on YouTube and spent the first ten minutes with my finger poised over the back-up button - at which point I realised that I was thoroughly enjoying it, set the remote aside, and let the film sweep me away. I'm not sure I can think of a single friend who would share my enthusiasm for this very strange film. The whole thing is available here, but you might like to try this selection of extracts before committing to it:

The film was critically well-received, the cinematography (by Charles Lang) is glorious, and Gary Cooper confounds expectations by triumphing in a role that should have been beyond his range. It's nonsense, it's silly, it's ridiculous - and yet it's somehow genuinely magical and moving and, because one feels slightly ashamed of responding to such hokum, disconcerting. 

Despite appearances to the contrary, I am a hopeless romantic, specially when it comes to films. I don't mean the type of melodrama known as women's weepies - generally can't stand them - but I'm a sucker for romantic stories with a mystic, supernatural, transcendent theme: for instance, William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie (1948), Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (1946) and Orphée (1950), and Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and I Know Where I'm Going (1945), and, in a lighter vein, The Ghost Goes West and The Ghost and Mrs Muir -are all favourites.  So when I read the loopy-sounding synopsis for Pandora and the Flying Dutchman - Ava Gardner as a modern-day Pandora luring men to their destruction (in the course of the film, she sees off drunken poet Marius Goring, the world land speed record holder Nigel Patrick, and famous bullfighter Mario Cabré, while falling for James Mason, the Flying Dutchman of legend, who comes ashore every seven years to seek his true love, who just happens to be... well, you've probably figured that out by now: 

It's a British film, set on the Catalonian Coast. It was written, directed and co-produced by Albert Lewin, who earned a Masters degree from Harvard and was a university lecturer before becoming a screenwriter in the silent era, rising to become Irving Thalberg's trusted personal assistant at MGM. When he eventually came to direct his own movies, Lewin was evidently only interested in "highbrow" (or upper middlebrow) projects. His first three directorial efforts were 1942's The Moon and Sixpence (the life of Gaugin, based on the Somerset Maugham novel), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947),  based on the de Maupassant novel.  Classy guy, huh? When he came to do Pandora in 1951,  Lewin's gave his pretentiousness and penchant for culture-signalling full rein - it is crammed with literary quotations and references to classical mythology. 

As with Peter Ibbetson, I wasn't sure I'd last the course: in the first place, I'm no fan of films involving racing drivers or bullfighters, glamorous Euro-flotsam drooping around exotic locations don't float my boat, and Lewin's aching need to demonstrate his cultural credentials became old quite quickly - but Jack Cardiff's beautiful camerawork ravishes the eye, and the film grabs one's imagination the moment Ava Gardner disrobes on the beach at night and swims across to find out who owns the yacht moored out in the bay, and it turns out to be the mysteriously solitary James Mason with his broodometer set to 11 (or quite possibly 12).

If either of these films appeals to you, and you haven't ever seen the aforementioned Portrait of Jennie - which is very much in the same vein - here it is:


  1. I tried not to let my own prominent role in the Euro-flotsam set influence my view of the film but 'Pandora' has possibly the most bonkers plot since 'Gabriel Over the White House', high praise indeed. I had recorded it and I am afraid to say I lacked your staying power. I tended to reach for the fast forward button when some of the more pretentious of James Mason's self-analytical reflections came on, which was quite a lot of the time towards the end of the film. That said, the whole thing looks absolutely stunning, as you say. It must have been great to see on the big screen.

    Keep these posts on the 100 films coming. They are just what is needed in these dark times when you read the news and are then surprised to look out of the window and see the houses over the road not reduced to rubble, no men coming up the drive with burning torches and Leonard Cohen not singing "The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it's overturned the order of the soul".

  2. Interesting post.
    Some films do mysticism very well taking the viewer to a different place.
    The Christ scene in 'Ben Hur' (you all know the one) succeeds admirably as does parts of 'Wuthering Heights' (the Olivier version,) while others miss a golden opportunity such as 'Arch of Triumph' starring Anthony Hopkins which never quite captures the ethereal quality of Remarque's Paris in war time or what passed for war time in Paris! As for all those 'Count of Monte Christo' movies, the seminal point about a spiritual awakening deep
    in the Chateau dungeons is always skated over - the whole 'awakening' process could make a separate film all by itself.
    Agreed Ex-KCS half the world (and we all know which half) must feel like Winston Smith these days.

  3. 'Fake news.'The expression sounds like something straight out of the Orwellian lexicon,but of course it isn't.
    That's the scary part - the view outside our windows looks so...normal.

  4. When I saw the poster for the Gary Cooper film I thought for a moment it might be a biopic of famous British athlete Derek "Ibbo" Ibbotson who was the last person to break the World Record for the mile on British soil. You can imagine my disappointment?

    I cannot comment rationally on Ava Gardner. You keep claiming that when you met her that she took a shine to you. Was this when you were going through the phase when you resembled a bull-fighter?

  5. My face cracked into a smile SDG. Love your sardonic wit.
    Mind you after Big Frank and his licquered up rat pack, why ever not.
    Or am I completely not getting it.