Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Faustian Vision of Dorian Gray

"In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust."

Oscar Wilde

Recently, an old school chum and I were chatting on Facebook. And we agreed that no graduating class at our high school ever had as many beautiful women as ours did.

He still lives in my hometown (which is much larger today than it was when I lived there) and he attended our most recent class reunion. Apparently, so did many of our still–beautiful classmates, prompting him to speculate that many of them had grotesque paintings of themselves in their attics — an allusion, in case you don't know it, to "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Before long, you'll be up to your eyeballs in happy, cheery holiday movies. Everywhere you turn, you will be assaulted by the music of the season. There will be endless stories about angels and Christmas miracles. It will be — as it always is — enough to bring out one's inner Scrooge.

But before you're buried under Christmas cheer, I just want to alert you to tonight's showing of the 1945 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic horror tale, "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It's going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies at 11 p.m. (Central), and I highly recommend it.

At this time of the year, I think of it as the anti–"It's a Wonderful Life." Not that there is anything wrong with "It's a Wonderful Life," but rest assured there is absolutely no resemblance between George Bailey and Dorian Gray.

(Although, it should be noted, Donna Reed is in both movies.)

The main character of the story is a young man (clearly, Dorian Gray) who believes physical perfection is the only objective in life. He commissions an artist to paint his portrait, and then he proceeds to commit virtually every sin known to man. With each decadent act, the man in the portrait shows a new physical flaw or evidence of aging, but Dorian retains his youthful looks, even as years pass and his friends and acquaintances all age around him.

To modern viewers, I'm sure that doesn't sound like much of a horror movie — more of a fantasy, probably. Maybe, although it does combine black–and–white photography with color photography, which was kind of unusual in those days. The color is used to draw one's attention to the changes in the face in the portrait, but the other camera tricks accomplish much the same thing.

I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but I think the cast deserves to be singled out. Not everyone. Hurd Hatfield, for example, leaves a lot to be desired in the role of Dorian Gray, in my opinion, but his mentor, played by George Sanders, is splendidly cast. So, too, is a young Angela Lansbury, who plays Dorian's love interest and received the second of her three Best Supporting Actress nominations for her work.

And Peter Lawford is young in this film, but that is deceiving. While in his early 20s when he appeared in this movie, Lawford already was a veteran of more than a dozen motion pictures.

As with any really good horror movie, though, the thing that really stands out in this movie is the camera work. And cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. won an Oscar (deservedly) for "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

For a student of motion pictures, though, I think "The Picture of Dorian Gray" should be intriguing because it shows how the definition of horror changes over the years. Camera work, as I say, is always an important element, but there have been distinct differences over the years. In the 1930s, horror movies featured the golden–age monsters, like "Frankenstein" and "Dracula." Then the emphasis shifted to eerie themes.

Sometimes, as I implied, there has been a supernatural twist, and "Dorian Gray" certainly suggests a Faustian bargain has been struck.

It has only been in recent decades that horror has come to be regarded as synonymous with blood and gore, which is certainly evil and horrifying (although I guess whether it is supernaturally inspired is a subject for a different kind of discussion).

So anyone who tunes in tonight expecting to see a slasher flick is in for a major disappointment.

But if you aren't expecting that, there are many rewards to derive from "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

And, as a seasonal benefit, while I probably would have urged that it be shown around Halloween, it may fortify you for all the sugary sweet movies that are in your path in the weeks ahead.