By Dirk Sonniksen | July 19, 2009
Director: Albert Lewin
Writer(s): Oscar Wilde (novel), Albert Lewin (screenplay)
Starring: Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Lowell Gilmore, Angela Lansbury
Hurd Hatfield plays Dorian Gray, the weirdly handsome and incredibly disturbed man about town. Taking a shine to Dorian, Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore) offers to paint his portrait. During their last sitting, in pops Lord Henry (George Sanders) who begins to pester Dorian concerning the merits of youth and the tragedy of growing old, giving rise to some serious paranoia on Dorian’s part. Dorian goes into a trance-like state, exclaiming, “If only it was the picture who was to grow old, and I remain young. There’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t give for that. Yes, I would give even my soul for it.” And Dorian Gray’s wish is granted.
Dorian begins to frequent a rather seedy vaudevillian joint where he becomes enthralled with a young singer named Sibyl Vane, played by Angela Lansbury. He falls in love, but it’s a strange kind of love because, well, he’s a strange guy. Not surprisingly, Miss Vane ends up dead. Seemingly grief stricken by the whole affair, Gray embarks on an eighteen year destructive binge that goes oddly unnoticed by just about everyone. Oh, he also never ages, something that doesn’t go unnoticed, but is just sort of played down as Dorian swimming in the most successful gene pool ever.
As Dorian’s bad streak continues, his portrait (now locked away in the attic/childhood playroom) takes the brunt of Gray’s sins, its features turning hideously grotesque as Dorian continues to keep that youthful glow. It only gets worse, with Dorian realizing that selling his soul for internal youth was not his best move.
While Lewin’s version of Dorian Gray doesn’t completely do justice to Wilde’s only novel, it does try. In Wilde’s gothic classic, the relationship of Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil is one of lust, albeit subtle lust if there is such a thing, and in fact, Lord Henry plays almost like Dorian’s main love interest, in that Dorian becomes infatuated with Lord Henry’s rantings on youth and the pitfalls of growing old. In the film, Lord Henry’s character is more the puppet master and a voyeur of sorts, slowly guiding Dorian to his raunchy, twisted end. Basil’s obsession with Dorian in the novel is dumbed down considerably for the film, and their relationship is somewhat vague, with only a bit of dialogue here and there suggesting Basil was taken with Dorian.
But 1945 wasn’t a great year to show homo-erotic tendencies on the silver screen. While the studio obviously avoided the subject, Dorian’s intentional failure in his relationships with Sibyl and Gladys seems to point to his struggle with his sexuality.
Hurd Hatfield gives a terrific performance. He’s creepy; really creepy. Hatfield is utterly convincing as Dorian Gray, and the small transitions are what make his performance so viable. Dorian at first appears lost until Lord Henry brings him around to the dark side. What is impressive is Hatfield’s ability to slowly turn Dorian into a monster without ever really changing his expression. He’s a blank slate, a perfect example of how less is more.
Angela Lansbury took the Golden Globe for her role as Sibyl Vane, and was nominated for an Oscar as well, only to be bested by Anne Revere for National Velvet. This would be her second Academy Award nomination in two years, having been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for Gaslight in 1945. Lansbury’s character was a bit delicate perhaps, but in a sense, she is very much like Dorian. The subtlety of her performance gives her the same unsettling quality which makes their relationship believable.
George Sanders plays the chatty Lord Henry and delivers lines at such break neck speed throughout the film it is difficult at times to discern what he is actually saying, but that is part of what makes his character so enjoyable. He badgers Dorian and anyone else who happens to be within earshot. Lord Henry is the guy at the party that you hate, but can’t help but laugh at all his jokes.
The Camera work is stunning and Harry Stradling, Sr. took home the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography. That said, I could have done without the Technicolor shots of Dorian’s portrait. With Stradling’s fabulous work, adding color to the film was a mistake. It reminded me of a cheap sixties B movie complete with loud, overbearing music. The film had a very quiet, insidious nature and the color scenes were a distraction.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a marvelous film, both from a cinematic standpoint and the performances given by its exceptional cast. One can obviously not leave out Oscar Wilde for writing such a cryptic tale. The story covers too many themes to mention, and has been over analyzed by scores of literature majors and film school wannabe’s. Simply put, Wilde created a piece of work that transcends time. The story is as relevant today as when it was published in it’s entirety in 1891, and Albert Lewin’s 1945 cinematic interpretation is by far the best of all it’s competitors. Enjoy.