Albert Lewin, 1945
Starring: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Lowell Gilmore
“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
Oscar Wilde ranks among my favorite writers of all time and, as a result, I often have a difficult time with adaptations of his work. I was delighted when I finally got to see this 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Wilde’s most famous work and his only published novel. Partly a post-gothic drama and partly a classic horror film, it mostly follows the plot of Wilde's novel with a few deviations that make sense in terms of pacing and time period.
The beautiful, young, and well-off Dorian Gray is having his portrait painted by the morally upstanding Basil Hallward. Basil's rakish friend Lord Henry looks in on them and begins schooling Dorian in the ways of the world and opens Dorian's eyes to the fact that his youth and beauty will not last. He insists that Dorian should make the best of them while he can and live a life motivated by pleasure. Dorian makes a wish of sorts on the painting that he will always mirror it and never change.
Later he meets a much lower class singer and actress, Sibyl Vane, who he falls in love with. He begins to court her and proposes marriage, but changes his mind on a whim and cruelly breaks her heart. He regrets this, but before he can reconcile things, Sibyl kills herself. Dorian is heartbroken with what he has done, but squashes his emotions and proceeds to live the most debaucherous life imaginable. All the while, the portrait, which he has locked away in a secret room, begins to look twisted and ugly. Many years later, Basil catches a glimpse of the portrait and confronts Dorian about his bad behavior, which leads to a downward spiral of death and deception until Dorian is forced to face himself.
This is the fourth film adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray after a British film from 1916, a German version from 1917, and a Hungarian version from 1918. Though there have been subsequent adaptations for film and television, I think this 1945 version remains the finest. Hurd Hatfield (Dragon Seed, The Diary of a Chambermaid) is wonderful as Dorian, but there is something about the shape of his face and the length of his chin than reminds me of another one of my favorite writers, H.P. Lovecraft. I think the weird union of two of my favorite authors is part of what made this film so endearing to me. Hatfield also plays a colder, more reserved, and less charming version of Dorian, which works with the horror elements in the film.
George Sanders, one of my favorite actors, looks a bit odd with a mustache and goatee, but is wonderfully cast as the rakish Sir Henry Wotton and steals the film from Hatfield in their scenes together. Keep your eyes peeled for a very young Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane. Unfortunately I grew up watching Murder She Wrote re-runs and can only see her as an old woman using her powers of deduction, which is a little disorienting in this case. Another familiar face, Donna Reed, appears in a role towards the conclusion of the film as a young woman in love with Dorian.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was written and directed by Albert Lewin, whose earlier film, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, may also be of interest. It is a noir influenced tragedy starring Ava Gardner and James Mason about a femme fatale unable to fall in love and an undead prisoner of the Flying Dutchman. Yes, you read that plot synopsis correctly.
Any readers who live in Chicago can visit the wonderful painting created specifically for this film by Ivan Albright, as it is now housed in the Art Institute there. Coincidentally, though the film was shot in black and white, look out for two weird Technicolor sequences that showcase the painting in vibrant color. Kind of an odd choice, but an interesting one.
On a final note, this is a melancholy, lovely film with some great cinematography from the wonderful Harry Stradling (My Fair Lady, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Suspicion, Johnny Guitar, A Streetcar Named Desire), for which the film won an Academy Award. Stradling won two Academy Awards for his cinematography (this and My Fair Lady) and was nominated for 12 more. The dialogue in Lewin’s script makes excellent use of Wilde's wit, though it takes a sad and humorless note for much of the film. The score also makes great use of Chopin, another one of my favorite melancholy artists.