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10.29.08

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Phaedra

The Picture of Dorian Gray

One disc; Warner Bros.; $19.97

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


Oscar Wilde's famous story got its best screen adaptation in this prestigious 1945 MGM production. George Sanders, imperious and clipped, stands in for the author as Lord Henry Wotton. His delivery of Wildean quips ("Think with the liberals and eat with the Tories"; "It's an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world," which sounds like a perfect epigram for Vertigo) catches exactly the right note of civilized cynicism. It is even possible to believe that handsome young Dorian (Hurt Hatfield) might take Wooton's advice to put innocent pub singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) to a test of purity that she must fail, thus setting Dorian on the path to ageless perdition while his oil portrait grows more and more grotesque. Hatfield (who bears a strange resemblance to the young Alain Delon) gives an impassive performance that verges on hypnotism—he and Lansbury deliver their lines like zombie-ized Val Lewton characters. The effect must have been deliberate on the part of eccentric director/writer Albert Lewin, who made the similarly oneiric Pandora and the Flying Dutchman with James Mason and Ava Gardner. The film dodges around the darker implications of Dorian's debauches, and Donna Reed (as Gladys, the one woman whose good opinion he values) and squeaky-voiced Peter Lawford as Gladys' other suitor look out of place, but the photography maintains an ominous hot-house atmosphere; in the best scene, Dorian commits the ultimate crime while an overhead gas lamp swings wildly back and forth, creating a stroboscopic alternation of stark whites and inky blacks. Cinematographer Harry Stradling's long career included Hitchcock (Jamaica Inn, Suspicion), film noir (Angel Face) and A Streetcar Named Desire. The film's one special effect is the title painting, which appears a few times in full color (the later Dorian looks like one of Basil Wolverton's hideous caricatures for early Mad magazine). In one unintentionally humorous moment, a gun-toting aristo at a bird hunt goes all Dick Cheney on some poor soul: "Good heavens, I've hit a beater. ... Spoiled my shooting for the day." The print is beautifully restored, and extras include commentary by Lansbury, a Tom and Jerry cartoon and a strange educational short about the French doctor who pioneered humane treatment of the insane (as opposed to, say, the electroshock therapy that was popular at the time the short came out).


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