One of the most remarkable literary adaptations ever to emerge from MGM, Albert Lewin’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) remains a startling tale of the supernatural, of course, based on the masterwork by Oscar Wilde. The film flies in the face of the studio’s motto ‘ars gratia artis’ – loosely translated as ‘art for art’s sake’ - its harsh critique of aestheticism based on Wilde’s own celebrated dabbling with its precepts. Aestheticism today is superficially translated as living one’s life solely for pleasure. But actually, in Wilde’s time there was an entire mantra that went with this scant definition; a wanton meandering through life as a reflection of nothing better than to mildly amuse. According these precepts, art should be beautiful and one should strive to emulate its beauty in the real world. There is no place for morality or even a social conscience in aestheticism. Achieving venal gratification is all that matters; a very Machiavellian approach to human existence and one which Wilde had begun to question and, in fact, was quite critical of at the time he wrote his one and only novel.
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is hardly the creature exposed to us in Lewin’s film; the stoic, glacially serene brunette male beauty as masterfully portrayed by Hurd Hatfield. Nor is Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane anywhere near the novel’s depiction of a worldly Shakespearean actress who manages to seduce Dorian, but then commits the carnal sin of aestheticism by forsaking her art for her lover, thereby rendering her importance in Dorian’s life utterly moot and disposable. No, Wilde’s incarnation of the ‘perfect’ male specimen and the girl whose love he tortures into premature death are far removed from Wilde’s original intent. And yet, the film functions as a superior re-telling of Wilde’s prose. In the novel, Dorian Gray is a buff, blonde Adonis who exudes, rather than concealing, his emotions. In casting against type for the film, Lewin achieves a rather spectacularly spooky effect. It is said the director repeatedly forced Hurd Hatfield to keep his facial features virtually unchanged throughout the story. Hatfield, a skilled actor of considerable range (whose post-Dorian Gray career fell sadly at the mercy of maintaining the illusion of his alter ego), was literally straight-jacketed in his performance. The effect, however, is uncanny, foreshadowing the malignancy of the character’s wretched spiral into self-destruction.
As for Angela Lansbury’s Sybil Vane; she has been reshaped in Lewin’s screenplay into the most unassuming innocent from a lower strata of life; the celebrated chanteuse of The Two Turtles; a lowbrow nightclub in the heart of Limehouse – then considered England’s ‘red light’ district. Lewin, who was a highly literate man, a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, and, a former University professor to boot, had no compunction about toying with Wilde’s original prose. Yet in translating the story to the screen there is an almost religious adherence to Wilde’s central themes – to keep the actual tawdriness and debaucheries consuming Dorian Gray’s core a secret from the audience. In the novel, Wilde commits only a few veiled lines to suggest the devilry his Dorian Gray might be up to, while in the movie Lewin briefly shows us his Dorian merely trolling the stark alleys and murky byways of Blue Gate Fields. The novel caused quite a scandal for Wilde when it was first published in 1890. Despite its incendiary appeal, Wilde insisted that the sins of Dorian Gray were only present in the reader’s lurid imagination.
As in the novel, Dorian Gray is a man in love with himself – or, that is to say, with the image of his own physical attractiveness, captured for posterity within a startling portrait painted by his good friend, Basil Hollward (Lowell Gilmore). In the otherwise B&W movie, this portrait is revealed to the audience thrice, each time in blazing Technicolor. The portrait takes Lord Henry Wotten’s (George Sanders) breath away. In the novel, Wotten is something of a bi- or perhaps homo-erotic catalyst who contributes to Dorian’s downfall. In the movie however, Wotten’s contribution to Dorian’s fate is far more insidious. As played to perfection by George Sanders, eyes gleaming, cheeks proudly gloating beneath his Mephistophelian goatee, Wotten is a very cultured bon vivant, undeniably attracted to Dorian’s glacially masculine handsomeness. But he neither goads nor orchestrates the fate of our anti-heroic fop by plucking his strings as an overbearing puppet master; rather, he merely presides over Dorian’s misadventures by introducing aestheticism into the young man’s cultured mind. The only way to divert a temptation, Wotten suggests, is to yield to it - to give in and satisfy its urge. Having done so, the urge no longer teases the imagination because it has been revealed and/or tested in a very concrete way.
In a moment of weakness, Dorian concurs with Wotten’s theory and decides to make his own Faustian pact with the devil: that if only he could remain eternally youthful he is willing to sacrifice Basil’s art in place of his own bodily corruption. Basil’s portrait – the iconography of his outward beauty - will decay, revealing both the awfulness of Dorian’s actions and the ravages of time. It is a fool’s pact, of course, one made by a young man who cannot imagine himself robbed of the great good fortune of his good looks. These have made him the envy of most men and a very desirable artifact to at least two women; Sybil Vane (Angela Lansbury) and Basil’s daughter, Gladys Hallward (played as a precocious child by Carol Diane Keppler, then, later as an adult by doe-eyed Donna Reed).
In critiques of the movie, George Sanders’ Henry Wotten is often misperceived as the devil incarnate. But if anything his Henry Wotten is the devil’s advocate, and perhaps not even that – Wotten’s renunciation of aestheticism upon the discovery of Dorian’s badly decomposed and tortured body, lying on the floor inside his upstairs attic playroom in the film’s penultimate moment, perfectly mirroring Wilde’s own harsh criticisms of aestheticism as a way of life, but also redeeming Sander’s Wotten of any wrong-doing he might have exercised. Wilde’s details about the relationship between Wotten and Dorian remain sketchy at best, particularly since sodomy was then a crime punishable by imprisonment and certainly not a topic readily discussed in prominent literature of the day.
Morose at the prospect that his own life is slipping away, Dorian takes to the streets of Limehouse. He meets singer Sybil Vane at The Two Turtles, a seedy pub run by Malvolio Jones (Billy Bevan). Sybil’s love life is mismanaged by Jones and her mother (Lydia Bilbrook), each of whom exact a fee for Dorian’s romantic pursuit of the girl. Despite her station in life, and the wily machinations of the spurious adults who surround her, Sybil remains a girl pure of heart. She refuses Dorian’s stipend and pursues him with unfettered affections. He, in turn, is absolutely smitten with her, even going so far as to tell both Basil and Wotten of his discovery and encourages them to meet Sibyl at the Two Turtles some time later. Only Basil can see the true value of the girl. Wotten is merely amused, suggesting a cruel experiment to Dorian to test the fidelity of Sybil’s affections. Wotten tells Dorian that he should invite Sybil to his home that evening under an innocent pretext, but then make violent advances to seduce her. If she accepts these, then she is a creature no more favorable than a guttersnipe and is to be discarded by Dorian at once.
Basil is appalled by the spitefulness of the exercise. But Dorian elects to test Wotten’s theory. Unapologetically, and with no emotion, he orders Sybil to stay the night or lose his affections forever. The heartlessness of his invitation breaks Sybil’s young heart. Moreover, it shatters her idealisms about Dorian – a man whom she truly, painfully loves. Her pride and sense of morality encourage her to walk out. But Dorian callously strikes up a Chopin prelude with great vigor. This he had previously played for Sybil with demure tenderness at The Two Turtles to illustrate his legitimate affections for her. But now the music rings ominous as it lures Sybil back to Dorian’s side with great and tragic reluctance; her advancing shadow approaching from behind as Dorian continues to play on.
Sometime later we learn that, having once taken advantage of the girl, Dorian has repeatedly lured Sibyl to his bedchamber, each time her love growing more resilient for him while his exponentially cools toward her until the moment of his outright dismissal arrives by messenger. Dorian consults his portrait, detecting a slight smirk in the face staring back at him. Is it real or imagined? Examining his own flawless features in the hall mirror, Dorian realizes that his pact has begun to take hold. He is ageless, the portrait reflecting his insincerities in his stead. Having surrendered to Dorian, Sybil is destroyed by this remote farewell. She vanishes from the movie – and presumably, from all polite society thereafter. We learn much later from Sybil’s devoted brother, the mariner James (Richard Fraser) that she has died, presumably by her own hand or at the very least, prematurely from a broken heart.
News of Sybil’s demise eventually reaches Dorian. He is perhaps wounded by this discovery, although his first recourse is hardly to mourn her loss, but rather to delve deeper into a self-indulgent litany of debaucheries that leads further to his own destruction. The portrait, hidden from our view, is infrequently consulted by Dorian – its eventual exile beneath a heavy cloak and hidden under lock and key in the upstairs attic playroom where other relics from Dorian’s forgotten youth now reside, suggests that its physical ravages are beyond casual concealment. The years pass. Gladys grows into maturity and is courted by David Stone (Peter Lawford); an amiable suitor whom she does not love. Dorian toys with Gladys affections. But his ageless human perfection has become a source of quiet gossip and the subject of much speculation amongst even his closest friends.
Intent on sparing his daughter the unpleasantness of learning the truth about Dorian Gray, Basil has long defended his old friend’s honor when questioned about these persistent rumors. But his curiosities and apprehensions continue to linger. Unable to dismiss them without prejudice, Basil confronts Dorian and insists that he be allowed to view the portrait. Dorian denies this request at first. But Basil presses on, informing Dorian that he will do everything within his power to spare Gladys any great unhappiness. Dorian reluctantly leads Basil to the attic. Horrified by the ravages depicted in his artistry, Basil realizes that the rumors about Dorian Gray are all true. So that Gladys should never know the truth, Dorian stabs Basil to death in the attic, the portrait’s hand beginning to bleed as a consequence of his actions.
The murder of Basil is perhaps the most startling sequence in the movie; Harry Stradling’s extraordinary and Oscar-winning B&W cinematography capturing Dorian’s unrepentant façade as a ceiling gas lamp teeters wildly back and forth, revealing in contrasting light and shadow Basil’s bloodied corpse slumped across the desk. This sequence is capped off by another moment of understated showmanship as Dorian uses an embroidered cloth from his youth to casually wipe his blood-stained hands. Immediately following this chilling sequence there is another, in which Dorian now orders another old friend, Allen Campbell (Douglas Watson) to dispose of Basil’s remains or face having his own sins exposed by Dorian to Campbell’s wife and family. Like the sins of Dorian Gray, Campbell’s are never fully fleshed out for the audience. Nevertheless, they must be fairly lurid. For Campbell, unable to bring himself to terms with his own demons, later commits suicide to spare himself the indignation of his own duplicity in Basil’s murder.
Dorian Gray is often referred to – incorrectly - as a sociopath. In the truest sense of the word, the aforementioned scenes do suggest as much. But then comes the fateful moment when Dorian is reunited with Sybil’s brother, the pair having just come from a brothel in Limehouse, and James determined to exact his pound of flesh from the man he rightfully blames for his sister’s untimely death. The confrontation, however, never entirely materializes perhaps because James can sense a parallel between their lives. But it does open an old wound in Dorian’s emotional psyche; one that will continue to fester for the rest of movie, infecting Dorian’s every thought and proving just as corrosive to his own conscience as his actions have been to the canvass that now truly illustrates his own sad self-destructive nature.
Meanwhile, David is determined to reveal Dorian’s true self to Gladys. His inquiries to view the portrait locked in the attic in the presence of Wotten and Gladys are thwarted, but finally convince Dorian that he has come to the end of his decadences. Despite his best laid plans, he can no longer mask his true identity from the encroaching world or from the woman he sought to possess at all costs. Hurrying to the attic, Dorian uncovers his portrait for one last time; strangely appalled by its epic decay; the torture encapsulated within his soul – or at least, what is left of it – has at last taken hold. Ironically, Dorian uses the knife he murdered Basil with to stab at the heart of this mirrored image, the wound taking hold in his own breast. He falls to the floor just as Wotten, Gladys and David barge in; Basil’s portrait reverting to its former glory while the crust and filth of his own depravities has consumed the pathetically withered body now lying at their feet.
MGM knew it had a masterpiece on its hands. And yet, it wasn’t quite certain how to market the movie. The Picture of Dorian Gray was sold as everything from a macabre romance to grand guignol; a horror movie with some of the most bizarre and tepid taglines ever used to promote a major motion picture. Nevertheless, tempted by the prospect of seeing something truly imbued with a sense of the tragic and the supernatural, audiences flocked to see the movie and were startled and satisfied for their fascinations. Oscar Wilde’s novel has since been made and remade several times and by some very competent film makers. Yet the oeuvre of Oscar Wilde’s sly prose seems to elude all but this 1945 classic. Director, Albert Lewin has tweaked the novel just enough and in all the right places to punctuate Wilde’s double-edged absorption/disgust with aestheticism and the results yield to a cinematic work of genius with few – if any - equals; rich, dark and brooding with the symmetry of tenderly flawed romanticism.
Hurd Hatfield was forever typecast by Hollywood afterward. Although he steadily worked and committed to his craft some very fine performances, particularly on the stage, his entire life was spent commiserating with this chilling alter ego, giving autographs and interviews as the undisputed Dorian Gray. It must be said that despite Hatfield’s objections to remaining glacially reserved throughout the movie, here too Albert Lewin knew exactly what he was doing. Without so much as moving a muscle, Hatfield exudes a sort of paralytic wickedness through his mellifluous delivery of each line of dialogue. When Hatfield’s Dorian beckons Sybil to spend the night his words drip with a sinister stroke of genius, the unremarkable expression on his face strangely full of star-crossed innocence and diabolical temptation; hypnotic, compelling and yet strangely off-putting and repugnant all in the same instance. The moment of Basil’s murder is punctuated by Harry Stradling’s brilliant camerawork. And yet it is Dorian’s face that remains captivating; unchanging and yet imbued with a sense of the truly sublime – inspiring both our admiration and dread as he coldly stares down at his handy work.
Angela Lansbury had been brought to the attention of both Lewin and director George Cukor on the same afternoon by Michael Dyne; an actor much closer to Oscar Wilde’s vision of Dorian Gray than Hurd Hatfield, and who was testing for the coveted role. Lansbury, who had come to America with her mother to escape the war, was immediately snatched up for the part of Sibyl, and also for the role of Nancy, the saucy maid in 1944’s remake of Gaslight. In each case, Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her performances and in each she lost the coveted statuette to another more established star.
Produced with impeccable panache and style by Pandro S. Berman, The Picture of Dorian Gray has long remained a favorite among audiences and critics. It was a commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. It is even rumored that America’s merchant marines excised Lansbury’s performance of ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ (the song she briefly sings at The Two Turtles) from a copy of the film to play over and over again aboard their naval vessels while stationed at sea. Viewed today, The Picture of Dorian Gray has lost none of its luster to thrill and shock. The film’s clever pacing, its meticulous attention to claustrophobic bric-a-brac in all its set dressings: the stellar performances by all the cast – these go beyond mere quality, transcending the boundaries of time and space. As a movie, this Dorian Gray has indeed attained immortality of a very different kind. It is ageless.
Were that the same could be said of the transfer. Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray marginally bests its previous DVD. Alas, the B&W image occasionally lacks crispness, and intermittently suffers from the same edge enhancement as its standard predecessor. Improvements are, in fact, inevitable and abound. The brief Technicolor inserts of the portrait, as example, are far more stunningly realized on the Blu-ray. The DVD’s hinted at a slightly greenish/bluish tint with minor age-related artifacts present. The Blu-ray looks more natural here; flesh tone especially, looking appropriately pink rather than ruddy orange. The minor inconsistencies with film grain that also dogged the DVD have been eradicated herein. Once again, my major quibbling is the overall softness in the image, particularly the last reel that continues to look blurry rather than photographed through gauze for effect. I also think Warner ought to have cleaned up and stabilized the two or three shots plagued by edge enhancement.
Overall, this is a very solid rendering; and no claim to the contrary is made herein. But it isn’t quite as perfect as other titles in the Warner Archive, and that’s a genuine pity. The audio is mono as originally recorded and has been very nicely cleaned up. Extras are limited to an audio commentary from Steve Haberman with Angela Lansbury; the latter, a tad sketchy on certain details about the making of the film. We also get two short subjects and a trailer; all of it ported over from the DVD. Bottom line: The Picture of Dorian Gray is required viewing. Warner’s Blu-ray isn’t pristine, but it is more than passable. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)