Albert Lewin and Oscar Wilde
Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray
George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton
Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane
Dorian Gray is a bright, young, member of London’s elite. He travels only in the best of circles. Everyone enjoys his almost boyish presence. His eyes are full of wonder and his innocence is conveyed in the smooth contours of his face. Handsome as they come – everything is looking well for him and his future. He has even been fortunate enough to commission Basil Hallward – the renowned painter – to preserve his youthful good looks in oil and canvas. After a frank conversation with Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian determines that his sincerest wish above all other wishes is to forever be as young as he is at that moment in appearance and health. Indeed, he wishes that the finished portrait – acknowledged by all present to be a brilliant depiction – were to age as he would and endure all the scars he will no doubt incur physically and mentally during the course of his life. Unfortunately, due to the incursion of an ancient and very powerful force – his wish comes true.
Based on the Oscar Wilde novel written in the late 1800s, The Picture of Dorian Gray resonates because it challenges that to which all humans aspire. It takes the hope endemic in the human condition and transforms it into a horror that can rival our worst dreams and begs us to wonder whether all desire is inherently evil. To expand, consider the following: What is a nightmare – that which truly terrifies? It is not a slasher, zombie, or vampire that hunts you. Rather the worst nightmares pervert ourselves and our most desperate hopes. The creepy theme of the film disturbs in such a way. Few films can penetrate the human psyche so deeply that they can be called the essence of horror. This is one of them.
Indeed, the theme resonates so deeply and coldly in its truth to the point that most would turn away. Most would refuse its challenge. Who would want to acknowledge that their most profound desires would ruin the entirety of our existence to such a degree that they should be dreaded instead of sought after… Leaving us with what in this life? Fear and hopelessness. Such thoughts would disturb even the most stoic, but the film forces them firmly in the foreground. For everything gained something must be lost and the greater the gain, the great the loss.
The Picture of Dorian Gray shines brilliantly on the silver screen in ways that few films can. The idiosyncrasies of the era including the classical score and overly polite and (at times) stilted conversation are not distractions as they can be with other black and white gems. Quite the contrary, due to the peculiar and disturbing nature of the theme these trademarks enhance the irony of Dorian Gray’s experience as he tragically follows the path of a life seemingly without consequence, even as his soul is torn limb from limb.
This is a film worthy of the brilliant novel it recreates. Its horror value lies in its disturbing theme, but above and beyond any genre it is simply a fantastic film. There are caveats: This isn’t a film that will frighten in the traditional sense and the black and white innocence guarantees that it will likely not meet the minimum criteria many have for a viewing… Such is a shame… as I could think of few experiences more horrifying.