The Picture of Dorian Gray (MGM, 1945)

Several year’s ago, I was in Ireland angling on Lough Corrib, when my guide announced that a monstrous stone house on the horizon was once owned by Irish writer Oscar Wilde.  We proceeded to talk about The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I admitted I had not read the novel (1890) and was only remotely familiar with the story and a horror film adaptation.  I was wrong.  The 1945 MGM classic is not horror, but rather melodrama.  There are supernatural elements and the film is moody and exquisitely shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Harry Stradling.  Dorian Gray plays quite a bit like a Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur thriller and there are quite a few similarities to the RKO films.

Dorian Gray of course is a spin on the Faustian bargain, where a man sells his soul to the devil in return for youth, power, wealth or knowledge.  In this tale, Dorian is the recipient of eternal youth, but he his cursed by his aging visage rendered on canvas.  The 1945 film adaptation works for many reasons —the story, writing, casting, score and photography are all marvelous, but the casting of  relatively unknown actor Hurd Hatfield in the lead role cements the film.  Hatfield has a delicate, almost effeminate but elegant presence that conveys an other-worldly aura.  In some ways he reminds me of David Bowie.  Hatfield has that type of screen presence. I think he would’ve made a fine vampire.

The photography rightfully won an academy award.  It’s contrasty with gorgeous deep-focus composition.  Oscar-winning Harry Stradling was a cinematographer on over 130 films and was nominated by the academy 13 times.  He worked with Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn (1939), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and Suspicion (1941), and Hitchcockian touches peek through in Dorian Gray.  I love a shot which frames Dorian in the loop of a coachman’s whip (above).

Earlier I mentioned simularities to Val Lewton produced horror films at RKO.  Dorian Gray is deliberately paced and low-key.  Like the Val Lewton films of the same period not a whole lot happens. The film does rely on a few “bus shots” (ala Cat People) which startle the viewer.  The use of color inserts work and predate William Castle gimics by several years.  But what a cast!

Dorian Gray’s cast included several memorable and durable character actors.  I especially like George Sanders (brother of Val Lewton regular Tom Conway) and Miles Mander.  We’ve seen Mander in several horror/genre films, including Universal’s Phantom of the Opera (1943), The Scarlet Claw and The Pearl of Death (both 1944), and in Columbia’s underated Return of the Vampire (1944), opposite Bela Lugosi as vampire Armand Tesla.  Of course there are love interests Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a film classic.  Generally horror and fantasy films are rightly equated with Universal and Hammer, but there are several outstanding horror/mood films in the MGM archive.  I paid $10 for a new remastered DVD of this film, available at Barnes & Noble.

2 Responses to “The Picture of Dorian Gray (MGM, 1945)”

  1. Nice write-up Barry, and I like your discernment of the movie as melodrama and not horror.

    “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891) is an extension of themes explored by Wilde in his children’s stories like “The Happy Prince” (1887) and “The Selfish Giant” (1888). Dorian Gray is a callow, rich, good-looking Victorian youth who is led astray by the wrong crowd, (a thinly-disguised portrayal of Wilde’s own life.) Dorian must conceal the evidence of his corruption, symbolized by his portrait which he keeps locked in an upstairs room.

    This is easily still my favorite movie version of Wilde’s story.

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