The Picture of Dorian Gray: a review

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Review


Howard Adelman

One of the great benefits of reviewing an old classic movie is that you do not have to announce “spoiler” for  the film is generally so familiar that you reveal nothing in retelling the narrative. But if the reader has not seen the movie, then perhaps the repetition of the tale can so intrigue readers that they might seek to watch an old classic they otherwise missed.

I watched The Picture of Dorian Gray last night after the late night news on television. Before catching a glimpse that this film would be on, I had thought of writing this morning on the theme of our Passover two weeks hence which I had entitled, “Hiddenness: The Deeper and the Apparent Self”, about the presence of family and companionship and the absence of God at the seder, about the meaning of the three matzahs and the significance of hiding the Afikomen, the larger half of the split matzah in the middle of three that the children search for after it is hidden. I decided there and then to watch the film and write this morning about this movie for it had precisely the same theme as our seder will have.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic 1945 black and white Hollywood movie, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890’s gothic novel that begins in 1886 in London.  At least the movie is almost all in black and white, for just as Spielberg used colour in Schindler’s List when Oscar Schindler sees the young girl in her red coat in the ghetto and has his epiphany, so colour is used when we turn to gaze upon the portrait of Dorian Gray.

The film opens with George Sanders dressed impeccably as a rich aristocratic dandy with a carefully groomed beard playing the imperious but witty Lord Henry Wotton, or Harry, the mouthpiece for Oscar Wilde’s pithy aphorisms that articulate Oscar Wilde’s presentation of himself, his public posturing as a mask for the deeper, more sensitive soul underneath his brilliance. Harry is in conversation with Basil Hallward (played by Lowell Gilmore), an artist acquaintance who also belongs to the aristocracy. He is Oscar Wilde’s alter-ego representing his deeper, sensitive and expressive soul. This is altogether too apparent in both the novel and the film and, I believe, Oscar Wilde confirmed it. Dorian Gray was merely the acting out of the results of the conflict between the two in his own soul. The repressed (and biographical) love Basil has for Dorian suggested in the novel is hidden in the movie. Almost the first maxim Harry utters is his declaration to Basil that, “As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to love secrecy” and Basis can be imagined to have responded in his head “to love secretly”.

The two men then get into a discussion about Dorian Gray whose portrait Basil has been finishing. Dorian is said to be incomparably good-looking, intelligent and a fine young man. That is why Basil insists that he does not want Harry to meet him for he fears that Harry would be a corrupting influence. Harry replies that he does not believe in influence at all since, “All influence is immoral” just days before he proceeds to exercise an uncanny influence over Dorian. In a popular interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche, Harry insists that each man must only hue to himself and the making of his own self. Further, in that self-making, the only thing that matters is what is best for the senses. The only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of those senses The only time that matters is now and memory is a great danger and very harmful. For a person true to himself has no time for memory or regrets. Further, because we grow old, only youth can appreciate real happiness. Aging is always dreadful. When one loses youth, one loses everything. What about passion? Harry dismisses passion as caprice that simply lasts a bit longer.

Before Dorian Gray, played by Hurd Hatfield as a rigid but extremely handsome young member of the aristocracy, is introduced into the film, Basil adumbrates the plot by refusing to show Basil the painting because it seems to paint itself (like a true self in Harry’s philosophy) and seems to even change by itself. True to Basil’s fears, when Basil meets Dorian, Basil convinces him that youth and beauty are everything and together can satisfy all one desires. The naïve and innocent Dorian is easily influenced and then makes the fateful Faustian pact with the devil. He wishes that he could trade places with the portrait and stay young forever just as the portrait captures him. The gothic part of the movie is that the wish is granted. Dorian stays young. But the portrait ages and gradually reveals Dorian’s changing character from a naïve, innocent, handsome and wealthy youth to a cold-hearted and horrific-looking killer. The first indication comes right after Dorian makes the wish, for his mouth in the painting suddenly reveals an element of cynicism and cruelty.

In the determination to expose himself to all experiences and all the sensuous life has to offer, Dorian takes himself to the other side of the tracks as it were and goes to a vaudeville tavern, The Two Turtles, where a beautiful singer, Sybil Vane, played by Angela Lansbury in her prime as a Hollywood beauty, is performing. She sings “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird”. There is nothing subtle in this film. For a movie (as was the novel) based on the tension between the hidden versus the revealed life, the art of the movie depends on full and literal disclosure.  The song is about a yellow pet canary – not Sybil but Dorian – who tries to seduce a poor sparrow who is left out in the snow into his golden cage in a mansion, but the sparrow prefers freedom to the comfort and imprisonment of the cage.

The snow was very plentiful
And crumbs were very few
When a weather-beaten sparrow to a mansion window flew
Her eye fell on a golden cage
A sweet love song she heard
Sung by a pet canary there
A handsome yellow bird
He said to her, “Miss Sparrow, I’ve been struck by cupid’s arrow.
Will you share my cage with me?”
She looked up at his castle
With its ribbon and its tassel
And in plaintiff tones said she:
“Goodbye, little yellow bird, 
I’d rather brave the cold
On a leafless tree, 
Than a prisoner be,
In a cage of gold.”

Here is where the movie differs from the novel. I had not read the novel for fifty years – I recall reading it in one setting on the coach of the library in the second floor of Hart House. I was not sure but fortunately I found that section of the text on-line. In both the novel and the movie, Dorian and Sybil fall in love. In the movie, Harry convinces Dorian to test whether Sybil is really as pure and principled as she appears to be by inviting her back to his mansion, asking her to stay, and when she demurs, treating her coldly and asking her to see her own way home.  If she leaves, then Dorian can apologize for his coldness the following day and go ahead and marry her. Sybil starts to leave but does not, returns and stays the night throwing Dorian into deep disillusion. The seqence of events is just barely plausible.

The novel is more profound for what is at stake is Sybil’s commitment to her art – as an actress in the novel – and she throws it over because of her love for Dorian, an action that throws him into a state of deep delusion. The result is the same but the catalyst is very different. In the movie, te trigger is totally inconsistent with the theme but very consistent with the ostensible mores of America in 1945. The disillusioned Dorian rejects Sybil and Dorian learns that she has taken her own life. She in turn was totally disillusioned when Dorian turns out not to be the knight of courage sitting around King Arthur’s table. At the same time, Dorian is stricken by a pang of conscience and is determined to confess and marry Sybil.

This reenactment of Romeo and Juliet is more ironic in the novel since Sybil was acting in a production playing Juliet when Dorian introduced Harry and Basil to her by taking them to the theatre. In either plot device, through his caprice, Dorian had effectively murdered Sybil. The painting changes to reflect the altered character of a man whose insensitivity and narcissism only grows, beginning with his going to the opera with Henry to see Don Giovanni the very evening Sybil dies, much to the dismay of Basil. Of course, Don Giovanni is the archetypal tale of a Don Juan and a cad who is eventually consumed by the flames of hell because of his failure to repent.

Dorian has to commit one other real murder, be responsible for one accidental death and one suicide of an old friend who he had blackmailed to get him to dispose the corpse of none other than Wilde’s alter ego, Basil whom Dorian had stabbed lest he reveal what had happened to the painting and, hence, what had happened to his own soul. There are more twists in the plot to come, including Dorian’s engagement to Basil’s niece who we saw as a young beautiful and precocious child at the beginning of the movie. I will save you from the truly and honestly gothic ending that ties the plot and theme together.

Though the film succeeds in a number of respects, it fails in others, failure that I did not remember or perhaps originally even notice. Dorian’s great concern for his outer image is in the film but is not very convincing. The double life Dorian leads after the death of Sybil is referred but not really experienced let alone the great pleasure Dorian seemingly enjoyed in leading the Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life of both a murderer and an aesthete. 

Plato tells the story of Gyges’ ring that allows a person to make himself invisible and Socrates’ companions ask him whether one could be both just and invisible at one and the same time. Plato’s answer is that one can never hide the injustices one commits for they reveal themselves in your physical features. In the film, that revelation is transferred to the portrait until Dorian stabs himself in the heart, at least the reified portrait of himself that is the only part that changes. Thus, the novel and film played with this old myth which became fixated into the illusory belief in physiognomy and the conviction that a thrusting chin revealed the inner determination of its owner and the crooked large nose of a Jew revealed his greed.

If you think Passover is just about the escape from slavery into freedom, please think again, or read subsequent blogs. Just as the movie, and far more so, the novel, contains far more than I have hinted at here, including a a running shaggy dog tale periodically quoting from the great Chinese thinker, Tao, and his belief in the transcendent and detachment from all things, so the Passover seder is drenched not only with blood and gore but also with a profusion of levels of meanings that its takes a lifetime of annual dinners to explore. 

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