THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) B/W & C 110m. dir: Albert Lewin
w/George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Lowell Gilmore, Richard Fraser, Douglas Walton, Morton Lowry, Miles Mander, Lydia Bilbrook, Mary Forbes, Robert Greig, Moyna MacGill, Billy Bevan, Renee Carson, Lilian Bond, Devi Dja, Cedric Hardwicke, Reginald Owen
From The Movie Guide: "This subtle and frightening adaptation of the classic Oscar Wilde novel allows the audience's imagination to do most of the scaring. Hurd Hatfield stars as the title character --- a young aristocrat in 19th-century London whose gentle, angelic appearance is dangerously deceptive. Coaxed by the manipulative and hedonistic Lord Henry Wotton (George Sanders), Dorian grows as evil and scandalous as his mentor, becoming a philandering louse who entertains sadistic and perverse thoughts, alluding to (unseen) orgies and unspeakable evils. At the height of his vanity, Dorian has his portrait painted, and, in a Faustian pact, trades his soul for eternal youth. As a result, the portrait ages hideously, while Dorian's appearance never changes. In much the same manner as Val Lewton's horror films [e.g., CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN], THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY frightens the audience by mere suggestion, without ever resorting to distracting visual representations of the horrible. All the infamy of Hatfield's character is implied, resulting in a building up of evil so horrible that it becomes unspeakable. The only visual shock the audience is subjected to is the portrait itself (which one never expects to see when it pops onto the screen in Technicolor with a violent musical crash), painted in a brilliantly grotesque style by Ivan Albright. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY not only frightened many viewers, it also earned the respect of the Motion Picture Academy, which bestowed upon the film two Oscar nominations --- one to Angela Lansbury (as Dorian's jilted fiancee) for Best Supporting Actress and another to Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters for Best Black-and-White Art Direction --- and one statuette for the deep-focus camerawork of Harry Stradling."
From the Criterion website (www.criteron.com), "Queer Fear: Dorian the Devil" by Michael Koresky:
"Standing before his friend Basil Hallward’s portrait of him, the paint barely dry, Dorian Gray implores to some unseen force: 'If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old ... For that --- for that --- I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!'
"These precise words appear in both Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and --- minus that wonderful extra for that --- the 1945 film version, directed by Albert Lewin. In both, they clinch the character’s Faustian bargain. The novel doesn’t provide any literal rationale for why Dorian’s wish comes true --- the inherently amoral, unnatural request seems to create its own kind of magical possibility, a tear in the rational universe that cannot be mended. Lewin’s film gives us a symbolic framework, however, a supernatural medium that might help 'explain' the horror to follow: a statue of a cat that Basil keeps in his studio and that Dorian’s acerbic shoulder-devil Lord Henry Wotton calls 'one of the seventy-three great gods of Egypt,' capable of granting wishes. This Orientalist conceit lends the film a touch of the exotic-sinister, firmly placing Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray into a more clearly delineated tradition of Hollywood horror, following Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) and Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton's Cat People (1942), two of the most sensual and perverse of all American creep-shows. The statue of the black cat doesn’t factor much into the rest of Lewin’s film, but it does recur often in the frame, inexplicably relocated to Dorian’s own parlor. Like Dorian, it will never change; like him, it’s elegant and cold, a sleek slab of stone.
"Wilde held homosexual love and attraction to an almost mythic ideal, symbolic of a Hellenistic utopia, a daring principle at a time when one could be imprisoned for acting upon same-sex attraction. For the famous --- in some circles, notorious --- author, Dorian’s ruthless pursuit of youth functioned as an extreme fun-house reflection of the writer’s own former beliefs in the necessity of separating aesthetics from morality, a tenet of his 'art for art’s sake' philosophy. In Lewin’s mesmeric MGM adaptation, Dorian remains an avatar for a late-Victorian world rotting in decadent superficiality, but his beauty is replaced by something harder, steelier, and altogether more unnerving.
"Wilde describes Dorian as though he were Narcissus, 'wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair.' Lewin’s version is inhabited by Hurd Hatfield, an actor of ethereality but no grace. There’s nothing curved or luscious about this Dorian’s mouth, and his top lip practically disappears over his teeth when he talks; his eyes appear, at least in the film’s black-and-white cinematography, as vacant dark orbs; and his hair is harshly brunet, combed back severely over a recessive forehead. He’s handsome, though never sensual; the giddy, marvelous Dorian of Wilde’s novel is here instead intelligent yet passive, a kind of gargoyle.
"The recalibration of Dorian as a frigid, nonsexual being is essential to the film’s overall aesthetic --- there's a frosty affectlessness to most of the performers, who are often placed within the frame as though figures in a tableau, delivering their lines in a flat moderation that consistently neutralizes any sense of melodrama despite the film’s many tragic, lurid turns. But the lack of overt sensuality in Hatfield’s incarnation indicates a crucial difference between how the film and the book depict Dorian and his decadence --- a term long used as code for queerness. Though both Wilde and Lewin had to function within their respective social codes, the earthy, narcissistic beauty of Wilde’s Dorian is replaced by Lewin and Hatfield’s cold, cruel, raven-haired mannequin. In other words, the film represents queerness the way classical Hollywood cinema always did: like that uncanny black cat, it’s an eerie monstrosity.
"While The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s only foray into supernatural terror, homosexuality is the spectral subtext of much English and American horror literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which spirits and demons were manifestations of repressed queer desires --- most famously, there’s Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with its mad doctor’s physical and spiritual admiration of his powerful Prometheus; Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has been analyzed by queer theorists as an evocation of primal urges emerging from polite society’s closet; Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, in which the ghoulish children Miles and Flora have possibly been twisted and corrupted by exposure to frightening --- and fascinating --- sexual extremity; and the ghost stories of probable closet case M. R. James, especially 1904’s divinely scary 'Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,' in which a bachelor at a seaside resort is terrorized by a looming figure in the adjoining bed.
"As Queer Fear, the latest edition of the Criterion Channel series Queersighted, attests, the couching of queerness --- an unwanted, fearsome element, seen as antisocial, intruding into everyday hetero 'normalcy' --- as subtext would prove to work just as well for classical American cinema. Mainstream Hollywood productions have long been subject to censorious puritanism, especially for films predicated on the fear of the unseen and the unknown, and this provides a launching point for the series. In out director James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) and Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), for instance, ostensibly heterosexual couples unwittingly stumble upon creepy fun houses marked by free-floating sexual perversity. In Lewton and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim (1943), a young woman’s unsentimental education involves the discovery that her sister had fallen into a cabal of Satanists --- who are not so subtly connected to lesbianism. And Lewis Allen's The Uninvited (1944) --- which was modeled in part on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, but ups the ante on that earlier film’s pronounced homosexual subtext --- makes literal the idea of lesbianism as a repressed, ghostly force, with a haunted house inhabited by two battling female ghosts. One of these spirits had been in life locked in obsessive intimacy with a Mrs. Danvers-esque schoolmarm, Miss Holloway, who at one point practically goes into a fugue state praising her deceased best friend as 'a goddess; her skin was radiant, and that bright, bright hair!'
"Lewin’s film of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a central work of ambiguously queer cinematic horror. Like in Wilde’s original, Dorian Gray’s sexuality remains ethereal and slightly unknowable; the 'love that dared not speak its name' in late-nineteenth-century England found an easy correspondence with Hays Code-era Hollywood, which forced every inference of homosexuality to exist within winking subterfuges. Just one year after The Uninvited, we have a version of Dorian Gray as a strange, otherworldly being, seemingly incapable of human feeling. In the first movement of the story, he is defined by his amorous feelings for and cruel mistreatment of the doomed Sibyl Vane --- in the book a mediocre downtown Shakespeare actress, in the movie a tragic songbird played by a heartbreaking nineteen-year-old Angela Lansbury. After Dorian plays a nefarious mind game with her at the urging of the devilish Lord Henry, testing her virtue and subsequently rejecting her when she accepts his offer to stay the night, Sibyl commits suicide. Immediately following his discovery of her death, Dorian glances at Hallward’s painting of him, and notices a subtle change, 'a slight cruelty in the mouth,' according to the Wildean narration by Cedric Hardwicke. Though so terrified and rattled that he covers the painting and locks it away in the attic schoolroom of his childhood, Hatfield remains icy and impenetrable. It’s to the actor’s great credit that he can convey fear and disruption without moving a cheek muscle --- we will not see a changed expression on his face for the remainder of the film, even as the painting continues to rot, age, and taunt him.
"Dorian’s catalog of sins grows, year after year, making him a social pariah despite --- and also because of --- his persistent youth. Going against the laws of gravity and time, Dorian concurrently forgoes any consideration of morality. His wayward actions and decadent behavior remain intimated as sinister asides, whispered about in drawing rooms and dinner parties. In the film’s startling centerpiece, Dorian, undone by his own lack of conscience, invites Hallward to the attic to see what has become of his painting. After staring aghast at the transformation of Dorian’s youthful beauty into a leprous, mottled, blood-spattered, white-haired brutishness --- a work of unforgettable, nearly phantasmagorical horror accomplished by the American magical realist painter Ivan Albright that Lewin shows in a shock cut to startling Technicolor --- Dorian promptly murders Hallward. After all, the monster will always perceive the artist --- the one who can see through to a man’s soul, or lack of one --- as the dangerous one.
"Immediately following Hallward’s murder, Dorian calls upon a friend, Alan Campbell, to help erase the evidence. The most mysterious minor character in both book and movie, Alan has long been the subject of sexual speculation and a key to unlocking Dorian’s queerness. Alan is a scientist whose recent laboratory experiments have led Dorian to believe that he can chemically dispose of Hallward’s body. We learn little of their acquaintance, only that, according to Wilde, 'They had been great friends once, five years before. Almost inseparable, indeed. Then the intimacy had come suddenly to an end. When they met in society now, it was only Dorian Gray who smiled: Alan Campbell never did.' Played in the film by a wan Douglas Walton, Alan initially refuses to help Dorian with his dirty deed. However, Dorian holds up a freshly written, sealed envelope. The letter, he promises, will destroy Alan once it’s mailed. We don’t see the contents; we don’t know the addressee. Alan, for fear of ruin, crumples into a chair and gives in to the blackmain. After all, he says, 'It would kill her.'
"Centering a film around a character who is, in essence, a literal, immobile work of art must have appealed to the high-minded, Brooklyn-born Lewin, an art collector whom many of his colleagues deemed 'pretentious' and who preferred to make adaptations of novels and classics, works by Somerset Maugham or Guy de Maupassant, or in the case of the ecstatic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), melodrama informed by Greek mythology and romantic European symbolism. In addition to the mannequin-like performance style, Lewin harnesses each cinematic element to reaffirm the idea of Dorian as a monster of queer affect: the sinister strings and muted trumpets of Herbert Stothart’s hypnotic score, which occasionally incorporates the rumbling descent of Chopin’s Prelude op. 28, no. 24 in D Minor (The Storm), Dorian's favorite piece; Harry Stradling’s Oscar-winning cinematography, supple, almost feline, in its subtle movements, such as a recurring, almost subliminal pan up to Dorian’s locked attic door, visible in the far background of many shots through the center of the baroque transom above his parlor’s entranceway. For Lewin, cinema was partly a means of exploring the relationship between our selves and the images we create in our likeness, and Dorian is one of the ultimate figures in literature to represent this. In his own way, Lewin was as much an aesthete as Wilde, for whom art was exaltation, a way of life rather than an element of it.
"Five years after the publication of Dorian Gray, Wilde was put on trial for the 'gross indecency' of consensual homosexual acts and imprisoned for two years of hard labor. For late nineteenth-century British society, Wilde was the monster. For American audiences in 1945, when Lewin’s film was released, homosexuality was still just a specter, unacknowledged and unspoken; it was only upon the return of soldiers at the end of World War II, and the psychic break that represented, that the idea of homosexuality would begin to penetrate social discourse, even if it was identified for years hence as a mental disorder. The threat this would represent to the status quo would be incalculable. Queerness has traditionally been a disruption to heteronormative society in part because it’s nebulous, not concrete, and has no distinct value. As with so many other sinister figures throughout Queer Fear, Dorian’s monstrosity is invisible on his person. A central figure of almost visible queer cinematic horror, Lewin’s menacing, unreadable Dorian seems to exist in the ether. He was erased in the flesh as soon as he was immortalized on canvas."