Sunday, October 7, 2012

Picture This: "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945)



Albert Lewin does a masterful job of writing and directing the famous novel by Oscar Wilde, but forgets to direct the film's main star.

Basil (Lowell Gilmore) paints a life size portrait of his twenty something friend, Dorian (Hurd Hatfield). Their mutual cad, Henry (George Sanders), is always around to say something pithy and urbane, and much talk is bandied about around the essence of the soul. Everyone wants to remain young forever, and Dorian wishes it as well. He soon realizes this wish, and much more.

Dorian falls in love with a dance hall performer, Sibyl (Angela Lansbury). They become semi-engaged, but Dorian treats her cruelly and dumps her, all to test their relationship (at the suggestion of Henry). Sibyl commits suicide, yet Dorian feels no remorse. He makes a decision to let nothing affect him. He also notices the portrait Basil painted of him changes slightly. Not only is the portrait aging as Dorian keeps his youthful appearance, but the painting takes on all the pain of conscience that Dorian suddenly lacks. Soon, Dorian is staying eternally young as those around him age, and he finds love again with Basil's niece Gladys (Donna Reed). Unfortunately, having a life without a soul begins to get to Dorian.

Albert Lewin's direction is masterful. He uses shadow to crank up tension and atmosphere, without ever going over the top into out and out horror. The set design is brilliant, Dorian's childhood school room, where he hides the painting, is wonderful. Lewin shot the film in black and white, save for a couple of Technicolor shots of the portrait. The portrait's original beauty, when it is simply a painting of Dorian, and the later incarnation, as it takes on all of Dorian's faults and turns the figure into a monster, are all breathtaking.

The supporting cast is wonderful, George Sanders steals every scene he is in, rattling off Wilde's rich and wry observations without stopping to breathe. Angela Lansbury is luminous, resembling Nicole Kidman, and Donna Reed also makes a great love interest. The script moves along, full of rich characters. The screenplay does stumble a bit when trying to explain the probable source of the portrait's supernatural abilities (an Egyptian cat statue).

The glaring mistake here is Hurd Hatfield in the title role. He is not good, and I am afraid this may be due to the direction instead of Hatfield's ability as an actor. When we see that Dorian is devoid of feeling and emotion, Hatfield unfortunately plays him as bland. His face is a blank, not registering ANYTHING. He takes indifferent and unemotional and turns it into wooden and seemingly bored, with a hint of stupidity. As Dorian commits murders and suicides begin swirling around him, Hatfield looks oblivious, not unfeeling or menacing. I do not know whose decision this was, but it does not work.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" is a wonderful film that needed a strong core performance to put it in the "classic" genre. It did not get it, but what is here is still recommendation worthy. (* * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)