Sunday, September 6, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' (1945)

By Chase Kahn

With the Ben Barnes reboot playing at Toronto later this month and Angela Lansbury day on TCM some Sunday in August, I got around to seeing Albert Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Widely considered the best adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel of the same name, it tells the story of a young man whose wish of eternal youth is granted in his elaborate portrait, which ages and wears signs of his sins as he remains unscathed, at least on the outside.

Lewin's film is a very good work -- a shadowy, dark, well-produced effort that hits every beat appropriately and without pause. The eerie Chopin piano chords, the lighting, the nearly mute and expressionless work by Hurd Hatfield who plays the title character, Dorian. George Sanders plays the curmudgeon intellectual Lord Henry and Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed play the various female counterparts, drawn to Dorian's looks, youth and mysteries.

There is one great scene, a murder at Dorian's mansion, that's an expertly staged and executed Hitchcockian-fueled example of design. As a victim falls from their mortal wound, he knudges a low-hanging lamp which then batters about the room. The next shot of Dorian sees him fade in and out of sight because of the light -- an effect that would be used for Alfred Hitchock's Psycho fifteen years later.

However, their is one huge, glaring problem with The Picture of Dorian Gray -- one rather large misstep involving the portrait itself. First off, I'm not a fan of showing the portrait in Technicolor and then switching back to black-and-white. The reason is that any shot with the portrait in the periphery or background, it's in black-and-white, then switches to color for a close-up. If you can't do it all in color, don't bother -- but that's not all.

But then, the big reveal more than halfway through the film, in which the portrait is finally shown to the audience as evidence of Dorian's sins, it's a huge thud. The portrait, at this stage, is just too overblown. It's supposed to be a more sinful and aged expression of Dorian, not a unused character design from Pirates of the Caribbean. (If you want to see the portrait from the film, click here)

It's all the more painful when a voiceover explains to us that Basil (the man who drew the original portrait) could still recognize it as his own. Not even on a side-by-side comparison could anyone discern what's going on -- it's the outline of a human body with the effect of the skin turned inside-out crossed with Davy Jones -- I'm sorry, not buying it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) is a very good film, but it's not a great one. Anyone interested in Oscar Wilde's gothic 19th century tale though, should check it out.

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