Tuesday, November 21, 2017

#2,467. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Directed By: Albert Lewin

Starring: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed

Tag line: "Why did women talk about Dorian Gray in whispers?"

Trivia: The movie is black and white except for four times when Dorian Gray's picture is shown in color

I sent my soul through the Invisible 
Some letter in that after-life to spell; 
And by and by my soul returned to me, 
And answered ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell’ 
      - The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 

The above quote appears at both the beginning and the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Written and directed by Albert Lewin, this 1945 film was based on a novel by Oscar Wilde, and focuses on the duality of man’s nature - the good and evil that is inside each and every one of us. Only in the case of this movie’s lead character, he has somehow managed to quarantine his darker side, and does not suffer the guilt of his terrible actions. 

Yet a reminder of his crimes and indiscretions haunts him daily, and as a result, what at first seemed like a blessing to him quickly becomes a curse. 

London, 1886. Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a 22-year-old aristocrat, is posing for a portrait, which his good friend, artist Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), is painting. On the day that the picture is to be finished, the pair is visited by the always-sarcastic Lord Henry Wotten (George Sanders), who, noting the beauty of the portrait, complimented Gray on his appearance, telling him that he should enjoy life while he is young. Suddenly struck with the notion that his youthful good looks will eventually fade, Dorian Gray wishes to never grow old, saying he would be willing to sacrifice anything - even his soul - if he could remain young forever. 

It isn’t until later on that Dorian realizes his wish has been granted. Despite the passage of several years, his body has not aged. Instead, the portrait that Basil painted grows older in his place. But more than showing his true age, this portrait also serves as a reflection of Dorian’s soul, becoming uglier with each of his indiscretions. 

As Dorian lives the life of a scoundrel, breaking the heart of singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) before agreeing to marry Basil’s niece Gladys (Dona Reed), his painted image morphs and deforms, growing more grotesque as the years drag on. Try as he might, Dorian cannot ignore the ghastliness of his portrait, and wonders if it's time to repent his evil ways. 

Hurd Hatfield is perfectly cast as the title character, transforming from a naïve young gentleman at the outset into a hardened shell of a man who, as the years progress, cares only about his own pleasures. Yet despite his continued debauchery, Dorian is always aware of what he has become, and at several intervals throughout the film expresses a desire (however briefly) to change. 

As good as Hatfield is, though, the best performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray is delivered by George Sanders, whose Lord Wotten is directly responsible for Dorian’s shameful shenanigans. It’s he who convinces Dorian that youth is to be treasured, and that life must be lived to its fullest, without regret or remorse (“I like persons better than principles”, Wotten says at one point, “and persons with no principles better than anything at all”). Dorian Gray may be the monster of this story, but Lord Wotten created him, and Sanders is so deliciously hedonistic in the role that, as bad an influence as he is, you can’t help but admire his character’s impudence. 

In addition to its talented cast, The Picture of Dorian Gray features several chilling scenes, all of which center on the portrait of its lead character. Soon after putting Sibyl Vane’s virtue to the test (instigated, of course, by Lord Wotten), Dorian decides to break off their romance, and sends her a damning letter, calling her character into question and saying they will never see each other again. Shortly after this letter has been delivered, Dorian notices a slight change in the picture’s facial expression, a sneer on the lips that gives it a harder edge. As Dorian’s actions become more sinister, his painted likeness alters until, at last, it is beyond hideous. Though shot in black and white, director Lewin does, on several occasions, show us Dorian’s portrait in full-blown color, making its monstrosities all the more unsettling. 

A morality tale about the effect that evil has on our psyche, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most disturbing films to emerge from 1940’s Hollywood, and is a truly thought-provoking motion picture.

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