.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..