Massimo Dallamano, 1970
Starring: Helmut Berger, Herbert Lom, Richard Todd, Marie Liljedahl, Maria Rohm
In ‘70s London, a moderately wealthy young man, Dorian Gray, is having his portrait painted by his friend Basil, a celebrated artist. He soon meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, and Wotton’s sister. Both are immoral and champion vice and pleasure above all else. Wotton convinces Dorian that he must make the most of his youth and beauty before both inevitably fade away. Horrified at the prospect, Dorian wishes on his portrait that he will remain young forever and the painting will age.
Meanwhile, he falls in love with a poor, but lovely young actress named Sybil and they plan to be married. After he brings his wealthy friends to one of her performances and is embarrassed by her sudden lack of talent, he rejects her and she kills herself. From here Dorian goes on a multi-decade spiral of sex, decadence, and some very bad behavior. Though he remains young and beautiful, his portrait becomes hideous and Basil begins to assume the worst. And in a twist not in the novel, Dorian’s past actions (and feelings) come back to haunt him when he meets Gladys, a happily married woman who is a dead ringer for Sybil.
A mix of horror, exploitation, erotica, and art-house, Dorian Gray aka The Secret of Dorian Gray imagines Oscar Wilde’s seminal novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, set in swinging 1970s London. A truly European production, the cast and crew are made up of actors from a variety of countries, Italian cinematographer Massimo Dallamano directs, and the film is an Italian-West German-U.K. coproduction.
This seems like a somewhat unlikely project for director Massimo Dallamo, who made giallo films like What Have They Done to Solange? and The Coed Murders. He was also cinematographer for Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. As a result, Dorian Gray looks great and is certainly never visually boring. The cinematography was provided by Otella Spilla (Inglorious Bastards) and is definitely a sight to behold, capturing some of the same style in Jess Franco’s films of the '70s. Somewhat comically,
Harry Allan Towers was a producer on Dorian Gray, so that gives the film a further connection to Jess Franco. There are also a lot of familiar faces here, including frequent Jess Franco actors and genre regulars: Beryl Cunningham (So Sweet… So Perverse), Isa Miranda (Bay of the Blood), the wonderful Herbert Lom (99 Women), Marie Liljedahl (Eugenie), Margaret Lee (The Bloody Judge), Maria Rohm (Eugenie, Venus in Furs), and more.
German actor Helmut Berger (The Damned, Salon Kitty, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) is lovely to look at and was well cast as Dorian, though he doesn’t bring much emotion to the role. But, even in the novel, most of Dorian’s emotions are buried or repressed, and to the world at large he is little more than a lovely face or an object of sexual desire. Berger is unable to convincingly portray Dorian’s change from innocent pretty boy to decadent dandy, so the film does this by changing his wardrobe from posh (some nicely tailored suits) to outrageous (that zebra-print coat…). I can’t remember exactly where I read this, but another reviewer described his latter costumes as being lifted from The Riddler’s closet. This is sadly and hilariously accurate.
Though he could never give George Sanders a run for his money, Herbert Lom is likable and convincing as Sir Henry Wotton, the proverbial devil on Dorian’s shoulder. He has a number of wonderful monologues about vice and morality, as well as one surprise scene where he joins Dorian in the shower. Marie Liljedahl is lovely, but is perhaps the film’s weakest element, as she and Berger just don’t have any chemistry whatsoever. Her role as Sybil makes the film feel far more melodramatic than it needs to and her death (unlike in the book) is frustratingly ambiguous. Where she is a ruined woman in the novel, how do you ruin someone’s reputation in swingin’ London?
Dallamano co-wrote the script with Marcello Coscia (Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) and the heavy layer of sleaze ties this, at least thematically, to his even sleazier giallo films. There’s plenty of softcore sex, implied affairs – both hetero- and homosexual – infidelity, threesomes, male nudity, oral sex, etc.
The opening feels a little like a giallo (a paranoid-looking man wandering around a house with blood on his hands – this is a clip from the end of the film when he murders Basil), but wanders thoroughly into softcore territory, particularly as Dorian begins exploring what the sexual landscape of London has to offer. This is really the only Dorian Gray adaptation to fully address the sexual elements implied in the novel and it is certainly more of an examination of the novel’s themes of surface and excess than anything existential or philosophical.
Dorian Gray is certainly not a perfect film and suffers from some of the same issues that plagued other Eurohorror from the ‘70s: budget issues, a penchant for the ridiculous, and plot holes. The biggest issue in terms of budget is that the aging process is completely unbelievable. The fashion and décor never changes from the ‘70s and Dorian’s friends all have bad make up (and shoe polish) applied to make them look 20 years older. There are a few plot holes or issues, such as the milquetoast scene where Sybil’s brother tries to get revenge on Dorian. I also don’t really understand the purpose of the fashion photographer who follows Dorian around and takes pictures of him in compromising sexual positions. Presumably this is so he can later blackmail people.
Glamorous, lavish, and over-the-top in every way the budget will allow, Dorian Gray might disappoint horror fans, but the exploitation crowd will find a lot to love here. It would certainly make an interesting double-feature with the melancholic, black-and-white 1945 adaptation, where nary a sin is committed on screen. While Wilde’s novel is able to suggest an unspeakable emotional and existential horror tinged with the supernatural (or possibly demonic), the murderous, and the taboo, this film is little more than a swinging ‘70s romp in fashion and excess, with a dash of murder for good measure. It’s not a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. Anyone who enjoys the films of Radley Metzger, Russ Meyer, or Jess Franco will definitely want to check this out at least once.
Thanks to an excellent DVD from the ever-wonderful Raro Video, Dorian Gray is finally available to U.S. audiences with an English or Italian dub, a nice transfer, and some special feature. Viva Raro! Also check out the score from Peppino De Luca, which is perfectly appropriate and ranges from psychedelic to jazzy lounge.