At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (Warner Archives) 1945

By • Aug 11th, 2015 •

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Many years ago, my older brother was attending a play on Broadway. Glancing to his left before the lights dimmed, he spotted someone unmistakably familiar, even in profile. “Mr. Hatfield?” Lewis asked. Hurd Hatfield graciously shook his hand, but when my brother told him how much he loved THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, his face tightened almost into a grimace. “That film ruined my career,” he said ruefully. “I became so identified with the part that I couldn’t get any other good leading roles.”

Although Oscar Wilde pictured someone very different as Dorian in his (only) novel, film director Albert Lewin chose flawlessly for the vision of the story he was making. Casting wasn’t the only thing subject to Lewin’s aesthetic. Story elements got shuffled and changed as well, most famously the part of Sybil Vane, in the book a Shakespearian actress, on celluloid a singer in a lower-class dive that Dorian visits while slumming. Angela Lansbury, whose career was co-launched with DORIAN GRAY provides an informative commentary track, free of the distance an historian might bring. Her account of Lewin’s directorial style paints him as the Stanley Kubrick of his time. Countless takes, with baffled Hatfield and George Sanders utterly clueless as to what was wrong with the ones they’d already done. The film ran way, way over budget, and yet, miraculously for a visual presentation that is sedate even when it’s treading in perverse waters, the film was a major hit, and Lewin was to direct other films that had the distinct feeling and style of this one (eg., PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN) – though none ever equaled the extraordinary spell cast by this near-perfect work.

Hatfield is all surface, and he’s magnificent at it. Sanders stands in for Wilde, and while he’s terrifically urbane and witty and decadent, Sanders’ portrayal is my one problem with the film. His dialogue flows just a little too fast, and I sometimes can’t put his ideas together to best effect. Is it too literary? I don’t know – I’ve seen the film a dozen times, and his loquacious rants never finally quite work for me. In pieces, yes, but as a whole…I have to say I prefer Colin Firth’s Lord Henry Wotton in 2009’s DORIAN GRAY directed by Oliver Parker, a laudable stab at the material, though none of the many iterations of the novel has come within claiming distance of Lewin’s.

I’m fairly certain everyone reading this review knows the story, of a young man’s vanity allowing him to trade his soul for eternal youth, and how he uses his enviable, porcelain beauty as a lure to entrap both men and women in his exploration of evil. DP Harry Stradling Sr. knocked it out of the ballpark and brought home the Academy Award for Best B&W Cinematography. It’s a demo disc for pre-Tri-X, slow speed film capabilities. Every shade of gray under the sun is on display, and it’s wondrous to gaze upon. Also Oscar-nominated was Ms. Lansbury, again absolutely deserved. She’s pure, angelic beauty contrasted with Dorian’s pernicious intent. And if she must give away her virginity and her embrace of life, she does it accompanied by the sumptuous piano seduction of Chopin’s ‘Prelude.’ (She did win the Golden Globes award that year.) She’d been nominated the year before for GASLIGHT, and would be nominated again in ’63 for portraying one of the most depthless noir femme fatales of all time, in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

The pre-existing DVD was excellent. The BluRay is a little better. The Warner Archives restoration department cared enough to wring every bit of beauty out of it, and I certainly made room for it on my shelf. Two Oscar-winning shorts accompany the BluRay – “Stairway to Light”, and the cartoon “Quiet Please!”

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