Director: Albert Lewin
Production: Loew's Incorporated for MGM, black and white with Technicolor inserts, 35mm, running time: 111 minutes.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman; screenplay: Albert Lewin from the novel by Oscar Wilde; photography: Harry Stradling; editor: Ferris Webster; sound: Douglas Shearer; production designer: Gordon Wiles; art directors: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters; music: Herbert Stothart; costume designer: Irene; set decorator: Edwin B. Willis; paintings: Henrique Medina ( before ) and Ivan Le Lorraine Albright ( after ).
Cast: George Sanders (Lord Henry Wotton) ; Hurd Hatfield (Dorian Gray) ; Donna Reed (Gladys Hallward) ; Angela Lansbury (Sibyl
Best cinematography in black and white, Harry Stradling, Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1945.
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Silver, Alain, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Magill's Survey of Cinema , Frank N. Magill, ed., Vol. III, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1980.
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Combs, Richard, "Retrospective: The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Tom Milne, "You Are a Professor, Of Course," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1985.
Beuselink, James, "Albert Lewin's Dorian Gray," in Films in Review (New York), February 1986.
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Smith, S.D., " The Picture of Dorian Gray ," in Monsterscene (Lombard), no. 3, Fall 1994.
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* * *
Albert Lewin, who made his directorial debut in 1942 after fifteen years as a writer and producer at MGM, directed three films during the 1940s. All featured George Sanders, fin-de-siècle European settings, and viewed life, art, decadence and sexual thrall through the prism of a pictorial, complex and studied mise-en-scène. The Picture of Dorian Gray was the most expensive and elaborate of the three productions (the other two, The Moon and Sixpence , 1942, and The Private Affairs of Bel Ami , 1947, were produced more economically by Loew-Lewin, a relatively short-lived independent production company Lewin founded with David Loew). A film of stunning self-consciousness and density, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a psychosexual horror film based on Oscar Wilde's novel about a beautiful young man who through a Faustian compact remains eternally young while his portrait registers his sins and iniquities.
Wilde and Lewin shared a profound disdain for realism, the dominant literary mode of Wilde's time and the dominant cinematic mode of Lewin's. And although a film made under the auspices of Hollywood's largest, most conservative studio in 1945 was subject to more pressure to conform to convention than a novel written by an already (in)famous aesthete in 1890, Lewin's version of Wilde's story did avoid dullness—realism's "danger of the commonplace," according to its director. And, although criticized for either its literary pretensions, its Hollywood compromises, or both, it is arguably Lewin's best film, and certainly his most widely admired.
The Picture of Dorian Gray avoided the dangers of the commonplace by subjecting itself to dangers of a different order, those resulting from a kind of tightrope act: this self-described equilibrist's concerted negotiation of intellectual, artistic and commercial viability. In its realization of a not very visually detailed source, its divergences, often necessitated by Code, from Wilde's story, and its figuration of content explicitly disallowed or formally problematic, Lewin's film presents a fascinating mediation between Wilde's effete aestheticism and Hollywood's conventional realism.
The story's sexual subtext is embodied in Lewin's film visually rather than narratively. The most remarkable instance of this occurs during the all-important scene of Dorian Gray's "seduction" by Lord Henry's credo of youth and pleasure; it features a butterfly, a classical figurine and a bust that in one crafty dissolve momentarily reconfigure themselves into a kind of inverted image of sexual penetration, thus alluding in a flash to many "perverse" possibilities (see Bensmaïa). The psycho-sexual lapse configured by this dissolve is a signal instance of Lewin's wont of slipping homoerotic and other taboo content past the producers and censors, to whom even the slightest whiff of perversion was anathema.
The film employs other subtle indices of Dorian Gray's narcissistic and ambiguous sexuality, including copies of Donatello's and Verrocchio's sculptures representing the biblical David as erotically provocative youth. These Renaissance reproductions figuratively and, on one occasion, literally reflect Dorian, who, as portrayed by Hurd Hatfield, enacts his every movement, gesture, and expression with circumspect grace. Like a somnambule (as Parker Tyler put it) or a living doll, his Dorian Gray moves with choreographic precision about the film's exquisite and mannered late-Victorian interiors. Hatfield's austere, almost minimalist performance achieves a psychological uncanniness worthy of a horror film—an appropriate mood for Lewin's variation on the theme of the double. Herbert Stothart's score contributes to the film's eeriness, employing Chopin's 24th Prelude as an elegiac leitmotif.
In its first shots, of Lord Henry Wotton (Sanders) sitting in his carriage reading Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal , the film establishes its characteristic mise-en-scène , focusing on frames within the film frame, creating a tension between static, manifestly "composed" compositions and cinematic movement. Windows, doors, mirrors, screens, signs, and paintings are among the frames that permeate the film. This propensity for conspicuous framing is reinforced by Lewin's bold foregrounding of art works as decorative and symbolic frames, particularly in the many scenes set in Dorian's house, where neo-classical bas-reliefs and Oriental figurines, often symmetrically arranged, as well as Renaissance paintings and Aubrey Beardsley illustrations are among the images that seem to delimit the characters' and the camera's movement.
The scene set at "The Two Turtles," the pub where Dorian first encounters Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury), broadens the field of visual plenitude in which the film revels. The pub, which is as replete with props, placards, tchotchkes and other lower-class items as Dorian's home is with high art, is the site of unabashed spectacle. Its overloaded artifice is highlighted by the "Dr. Look" sandwich-board that follows Dorian in. The single, disembodied eye of the advertisement, with its uncanny background as Surrealist icon and apotropaic talisman, seems to watch over the scene. The strange, almost explicitly sexual performance of Mr. and Mrs. Ezekiel, a xylophone-puppet act, and any number of cinematic puns and echoes make this scene, along with that set in a den of unspecified iniquities at Blue Gate Field, one of the film's strongest and most original.
The film's preoccupation with the framing and scrutiny of visual experience and desire is brought into focus around the central image of the picture of Dorian Gray itself. While in Wilde's novel, it is the idea of such a phenomenon—a portrait that ages in lieu of its sitter— that means to horrify, in the film it is the picture itself that moves . Thus the fastidiously disgusting, hyper-real portrait by Ivan Albright, suspensefully withheld and then shown in Technicolor insert, casts a shadow across the cultivated visual exquisiteness of the black-and-white scenes. The idea that Beauty is Truth, the evident credo of Dorian Gray's friends and would-be lovers, is revealed as fallacy. In fact, the truth is uglier than can be imagined. In the end, The Picture of Dorian Gray is, if not a subversion, at least a rather disturbing contemplation, paradoxically, of the very forces that ensured its success—the seductiveness of beauty and the rapture of spectacle, and the perils that accompany succumbing to these.