Movie Critique – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A gothic horror film that is witty, dramatic, romantic, terrifyingly photographed and a very good adaptation of the original novel; giving a deep reflection on how your inner self and outer self both matter, not just beauty.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a 1945 American horror-drama film based on Oscar Wilde's 1890 classic novel of the same name. The lead cast include George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Dame Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed.

The film was nominated for several awards and received an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, B&W; and a Golden Globe to Angela Lansbury for Best Supporting Actress. Lansbury also was nominated for Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress but lost it to her co-star, Anne Revere, for the 1944 film National Velvet. 

The plot is about a young, handsome and wealthy British man, Dorian Gray, who although being intelligent gets sucked into a world of sin and misery; all in the hopes of staying eternally youthful. With his angelic face, he hides his devilish nature while enthralled with the sins he is committing. His bargain with the devil leaves behind a trail of horrific incidents that eventually suck Gray in.

Story set in 1886, the movie draws a fine line between being mortal versus striving to be immortal, which is the central theme. Clearly asserted by the opening quote shown in the film, a quote by Omar Khayyam from The Rubaiyat. As Gray spends his life in pursuit of immortality his mortal passions don’t end thus derailing his path to an immortal life. Instead he is chained to the mortal life.

I havent read the book the movie was based on, but the fact that Angela Lansbury who portrayed the role of Sybil Vane in the movie attracted me to it. I loved her in her Murder, She Wrote TV show (Review on the books based on the TV show here). She looks so composed and poised; and just beautiful with an inner strong core that shows in her face.

Apart from being based on a very good book, the movie has one other unique feature. Technically it was shot primarily in black-and-white, the film had four color inserts in technicolor of Dorian's portrait. MGM used a similar technique in their 1939 film The Women, where the emphasis was on fashion show; and in the 1949 film The Secret Garden where the garden was in technicolor.

The movie also includes two paintings of Dorian Gray. The one shown at the beginning of the film was painted by the Portuguese artist Henrique Medina and titled "Portrait of Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray".

The second painting shown at the end of the film was painted by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright and titled "Picture of Dorian Gray". Albright did the painting while the movie was being shot to show Dorian Gray's transformation in the painting into a horrid image while his real person remained unchanged. 

It is said that Director Albert Lewin loves retakes. And in this film he took one hundred and ten retakes but used only one in the end. Cedric Hardwicke played the narrator of the film.

Hurd Hatfield had appeared only in one movie prior to this film. Practically a new comer to Hollywood the movie certainly gave him the push he needed in his career. 

The chillness in the story is not just shown in the secret devil inside Gray, but also the ease with which Lord Wotton kills a pretty butterfly only to turn it into a postcard; all the while explaining to Dorian Gray to last the youthful days to its fullest. It only adds more horror to it when Lord Wotton justifies a tragedy to be looked at as a wonderful episode of life and move on to watch Don Giovanni's opera. The callousness shown in mere words creates a shiver in the viewer's spine. 

Ironically the song that Sybil first sings is about a yellow bird who want to fly away from a cage of gold, and that bird would do anything rather than be in the cage. Yet the Director shows Sybil landing into a gilded cage of love towards Gray, in the end leading to her downfall. 

The calculated method that Lord Wotton subtly uses to influence Dorian is border-line abuse; leaving a chill in the viewer's mind frame, when they see how Gray changes scene after scene moving towards the depths of evilness. 

A gothic horror film that is witty, dramatic, romantic, flair of mystique, terrifyingly photographed and a very good adaptation of the original novel; giving a deep reflection on how your inner self and outer self both matter, not just beauty. This movie certainly left a mark in my mind and a few sleepless nights after.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Plot Reveals:

a. The first piano piece played by Dorian to Sibyl is Chopin's Prelude No 24 in D Minor. This is heard repeatedly through the movie. 

b. A second piano piece is played later in the film in the Blue Gate Field House. This time it is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. 

c. Moyna MacGill who plays the role of Duchess was the mother of Angela Lansbury. She is seen on the right side in the picture. 

d. Joe Yule who played the uncredited role of a stage manager was the father of Mickey Rooney.

e. Angela Lansbury sings "Good-bye, Little Yellow Bird" in this movie; although in two of her later films her voice was dubbed. Wonder why they did that when she had sung so beautifully here. Incidentally in one of the episode of Murder, She Wrote in Season 2 Episode 5, Sing a Song of Murder, Lansbury's role of Emma MacGill sings the very same song. 

f. The song is again sung in the movie by Donna Reed's character Gladys Hallward. However, Doreen Tryden provided the voice in this case. 

g. On either side of Gray's front door, an etching of knight or perhaps Sir Tristan, as Sybil calls Gray, is seen on the glass facing away from each other. 

2) Sub-Plots:

a. The original book has been adapted into several movie, tv shows, radio, theater musicals and into books. A detailed list is mentioned here.

b. In the opening scene, Lord Henry Wotton (portrayed by George Sanders) is shown riding a coach while reading the book "Les Fleurs du Mal" meaning "The Flowers of Evil", a book of poetry by Charles Baudelaire. This book had created quit a scandal, leading to prosecution of Baudelaire and his publisher; also removal of 6 poems that were re-published in the 1949 version in France.

c. Gray reads a poem by Oscar Wilde to Sibyl - titled The Sphinx. Funny that Wilde's poem is mentioned in Wilde's own book. Sybil asks about the poet to which Gray says "A brilliant young Irishman out of Oxford. His name is Oscar Wilde." 

d. Basil Hallward portrayed by Lowell Gilmore gives Dorian a copy of The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold first published in July of 1879. 

e. In Gray's schoolroom, the statement "Non ignoravi mortalem isse", which loosely translates as "not ignoring to be mortal", is written on the chalkboard.

f. The blocks under the table in Dorian's school room have the initials of the people who died.

3) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. During the singing of Goodbye Little Yellow Bird, Lansbury's character Cybil upon seeing Gray stops for a brief moment in the song, yet in the background you can hear her singing still.


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