Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s notorious novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has always impressed me for its resolute lack of interest in Hollywood style story-telling. It’s not a question of how “faithful” it is to Wilde’s original. Rather, it is the way the book is used as the excuse for a series of exquisite period recreations that just happen to frame a story about a handsome, dissolute young man (Hurd Hatfield) who never ages. Oh yes, and he has his portrait done.
Arguably, such relative indifference to forward movement and story-telling in favor of glossy sheen is far more fundamentally “faithful” to the author’s ideas than a slavish translation of the novel. In the aesthetic movement of which Wilde was one of the most famous members, style was always more important than content. If the results are a touch precious and brittle, with each shot composed with the same care of Wilde’s famous aphorisms, that criticism could be leveled at the aesthetic movement itself.
The bon mots are duly trotted out, particularly by Lord Henry Wotten (George Sanders), who probably gives the freest expression of Wilde’s attitudes in the film. Unfortunately, his arch condescension is nearly as predictable and tiresome as Wilde’s facile paradoxes. Sanders does at least make stale lines like “I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex,” sound witty, even if they aren’t much more trenchant than a high school student’s strained efforts at sophistication.
The film’s real achievement lies in Dorian’s elegant Regency townhouse, or the recreation of an East End music show, or the mannered politesse of aristocratic social rituals, in the texture, in other words, of a lost, lapidary world ripe with hints of unspeakable depravities. This is one of those instances when production code censorship works to a movie’s advantage. Prevented from seeing what Dorian is up to, trapped in the velvety embrace of imagined, forbidden desires, we can project our own vision of utter debasement on to his decline. With even the “degenerate” scenes made fastidiously photogenic by MGM’s technicians, that wrapping is all the more appealing.
Ironically, the film’s most famous technical flourish, the brief use of Technicolor when the portrait is seen for the first and last times, is not particularly interesting. Dorian’s final appearance is more repulsive than horrifying, like little more than an advanced case of acne, but then such a let down is probably inevitable. The novel never has to show what Dorian looks like at the end (or be all that specific about his beauty, for that matter), but given how his film revels in externals, it would be difficult for Lewin not to reveal the awful visual truth at the end. Like the solution to a mystery, the denouement of a film of The Picture of Dorian Gray can only hope not to disappoint too greatly. It can never equal our voluptuous fantasies of an unrestrained, hedonistic abyss.