Monday, 13 October 2008

The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1945)

.Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde is admirable and a failure for roughly the same reasons: it refuses to be a sensationalist, ghoulish melodrama, instead floating like a Chinese lantern upon a sea of suggested depravity only really portrayed in the finite sadistic curl of Hurd Hatfield’s lips.

It takes a while to notice, however, that the film often leans upon Wilde’s bon mots – all spoken with delicious acidity by a perfectly cast George Sanders as Lord Henry – like a cripple boy on his crutch, whilst Lewin’s direction creeps along.

For every felicitous shot – there’s a particularly intelligent framing where, after Gray has seduced girlfriend Sibyl (Angela Lansbury), he writes her a brush-off note, with the bed where the evil deed was done, her photo, and his act all in the one shot, such being the tangential way you had do things in ’45 Hollywood – there’s a dozen dull-witted ones, and the last act moves intolerably slowly. Lewin’s over-insistent visual and aural symbolisms get tiresome: don’t you just so get the point when Dorian knocks over a toy knight amongst his childhood memorabilia after Sibyl, who dubbed him “Sir Tristan”, has killed herself. Fernando Croce recently described the film as a “Nouveau-Riche garage sale”, with some aptness.
But the film has an insistent quality, sustaining in many patches a kind of dissembling much like its anti-hero’s, whose spotless face conceals a loathsome character. In this way, Lewin’s flat affect rather aids the rare mood of dread. Gray flits through both his perfect, object-d’art-riddled house and a London nightlife cleverly invoked by Harry Stradling’s brilliant photography, with the same elegant savagery, encountering the shells of people he’s used and abused, set to the sonorous tones of Chopin preludes and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”.
Beneath this placidly melancholy surface lies hints of murder, perversion, and destructiveness, that only clearly manifests in two moments – one where he stabs one friend and blackmails another, the latter actually rather more violent. Wilde’s bitter vision of a society built on surreptitious indulgence, love of perfect image, and constant fear of dreadful revelation comes through successfully. And of course there’s the portrait festering away upstairs, a brilliant piece of work by Ivan Albright in which Gray’s gross soul looks not dissimilar to Freddy Jones in The Elephant Man. Now there’s an evil fate.


Marilyn said...

I'm a sucker for this movie for three reasons: Hurd Hatfield's placidity, which I find seductive; Angela Lansbury's singing; and Ivan Albright's painting (which I wish the Art Institute of Chicago would put on the wall once in a while instead of hiding it away). George Sanders is tedious to me in this film, wearing his constant cynicism like a bad suit. The cinematography is also very nice.

You may be right that this film is bad, but it seduces me every time.

Roderick Heath said...

Hey, I didn't say the film was bad, not at all!

I think Sanders has the perfect voice and attitude to deliver Wilde's epigrams - I'd certainly take him any day to a dreary Rupert Everett. But "wearing his constant cynicism like a bad suit" is pretty much the point: Wilde intended Lord Henry to be an ironic, one-dimensional portrait of the public perception of himself. In the film he becomes the devil's advocate who is appropriately repentent at the end.

Actually Wilde's book, which I've never read, has been criticised too for leaning too heavily on the constant stream of Wildean epigrams that Sanders offers in the film. Trying to render a gothic horror yarn whilst sounding like The Importance of Being Earnest is counterproductive. What I do know of Wilde's work constantly presents that troubling contrast: his bon mots and his plots can be easily separated, and the latter minus the former don't add up to much. But at his best, Wilde's corrosive wit and equally corrosive viewpoint mesh well.

I wasn't entirely joking when I mentioned The Elephant Man: something about this film, with its themes and the Albright painting, seems to anticipate Lynch's surreal art/film fusions.