Fifty Shades of (Dorian) Gray: In Honor of Albert Lewin

Today, September 23, marks the birthday of Albert Lewin. Old Allie wrote the screenplay for and directed a film that I love, the 1945 M-G-M adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which does not get nearly the respect it deserves. He was an extraordinary guy and I’d like to take a few moments to remember him and this remarkable film.

You see, Lewin was an intellectual. In studio Hollywood. In the 1940s. Quite the rara avis.

Lewin, right, with George Sanders and Lowell Gilmore on the set of Dorian. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1894, he served in World War I infantry, got his undergraduate degree at New York University, and earned his M.A. in English from Harvard. He was going to become a professor.

Then he saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

That screening was an epiphany for the young scholar, heralding cinema as the next great expressive medium. As a recovering academic myself, I consider Lewin’s decision to commit himself to cinema, thus totally changing the course of his life, pretty damn brave.

Remember, it wasn’t until much, much later in the 20th century when academic circles began to accept cinema widely as an art!

So, Lewin travelled to California, worked as a reader and script clerk. Irving Thalberg, also a pretty erudite fellow, saw a kindred spirit in Lewin and took him on as his personal assistant. After Thalberg died, Lewin moved around a bit, then returned to M-G-M, this time to direct.

However, rather than making the pretentious, stilted teacup dramas or “idea movies” you might expect from a would-be-professor-turned-Hollywood-man, Lewin served up some of the most delightfully decadent, bizarro, lurid literary adaptations of all time. And his operatic/mythological mash-up drama Pandora and the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed the appropriation of classical characters that we notice so often in blockbusters these days (except that Lewin’s mash-up was actually good.)

So, I’d just like to take a moment to lay out why I believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great—and, no, I don’t throw that word around lightly—film, as well as a great adaptation, worthy of more scrutiny and love than it gets.

Firstly, Dorian Gray does a brilliant job of seizing on M-G-M’s dominant aesthetic—the “house style,” as some would say—and recasting it, twisting it for darkness, horror, and expressionism. Let’s face it, we remember the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s at M-G-M for escapist mega-productions, many of which arguably haven’t aged too well.

They’re so glossy, frilly, and extravagant that they often pale in comparison to the gritty realism of Warner Brothers or the Continental sparkle of Paramount, for instance.

Lewin seems to have been acutely aware of this disadvantage. Dorian Gray, after all, was publicized as a horror film, and it would have been hard to dispute Universal as tops in the horror game. So, rather than trying for the full-on Gothic frisson, Lewin manipulates and reinvents the trappings of M-G-M glamour, slowly inching towards depravity.

Through Lewin’s careful low-key shadings and his faithfulness to the perversity of Wilde’s characters, it’s almost as though the M-G-M look becomes Dorian Gray: cold, soulless, a world of shiny, gleaming surfaces—harboring evil and corruption beneath.

Lewin slowly immerses Dorian’s swanky, polished Edwardian townhouse in shadows and contorts it with oblique angles and striking framings that call attention to their own flamboyance.

Lewin’s brand of horror is a hedonistic, alluring one, a far cry from the sparse, trench-like textures of Whale or the carnavalesque or Gothic tones set by Browning.

 An exotic dancer performing at one of Dorian’s opulent parties.

For instance, take this glorious shot above. So, for some context, Dorian (played by the eerily beautiful Hurd Hatfield) wants to test the virtue of the common girl, Sybil (Angela Lansbury), whom he’s been courting. He tells her that he wants her to spend the night with him. She refuses and he says that if she won’t he doesn’t want to see her again. She walks to the door but then returns when she hears Dorian playing Chopin the piano.

Here, we see her reenter Dorian’s parlor, at the top left corner of the frame, vulnerable, tiny, incomplete, pathetic. The first of Dorian’s victims. Yet, the multiple patterns mingling with shadows give the image a heady glamour, a beauty that’s positively anxiety-inducing.

In the best scene in the film, Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian’s portrait, goes to Dorian’s former childhood playroom where the canvas has been hidden—and sees how the picture has transformed to represent Dorian’s soiled soul.

Dorian panics and (SPOILER) stabs Basil to death. As Dorian makes up his mind to slaughter his friend, the camera tracks in, creeping towards him like a sense of dread. Then there’s a marvelous jump cut to a close-up of Hurd Hatfield’s masklike visage at the exact moment when he decides to grab a penknife at hand and do the deed.

As he does so, he knocks against a hanging lamp which swings back and forth during the struggle, rapidly oscillating between dark and light, dark and light. It’s pure cinema. The changes in lighting are anchored to the mise-en-scene and thus avoid a kind of stuffy symbolism, but still suggest the forces of good and evil warring within Dorian.

On a purely visual level, the manic switching between brightness and shadow attacks the viewer’s eye and produces a simple but undeniable sensation of terror. (Think Touch of Evil‘s flashing neon murder scene or Psycho‘s swinging lightbulb, only more than a decade before!)

Then there’s the fact that the violence is set in a former nursery, which drives home the corrupted innocence of Dorian. Little details imbue the scene with an acid commentary on the loss of the Dorian’s boyish likability, lost since he exchanged his conscience for eternal youth.

As Basil expires, we see his bloody hand fall limply onto a set of ABC building blocks. Dorian even wipes the blood off his hands with an old piece of embroidery, bearing the cheery, childish line, “Oh Little Boy Blue Come Blow Your Horn!” We can hardly believe that our antihero was ever a child, was ever a human being. He is utterly divorced from his self.

All in all, I cannot say enough to recommend this chilling, very influential scene, what with making the lighting part of the violence.

And, in 1945, with the Production Code in full force, Albert Lewin still managed to insert a scene where Dorian visits a dilapidated bar/opium-den/whorehouse. Even though none of these vices are mentioned, every crack in the wall exhales degradation.

Ratty prostitutes sit around talking up drunkards and an old man sits playing Chopin on a tinny piano. It is where all goodness and decency comes to die. Meanwhile, Dorian floats through in his spotless tuxedo and cape, a gentleman slummer in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Dorian runs into Adrian Singleton (Morton Lowry, who didn’t act in much, but when he did, you noticed), a former friend whom he’d ruined by association. Adrian is onscreen for about 5 minutes, but the setting, the camera angles, and the performance all flawlessly communicate the feeling of being among the damned, of looking into the eyes of a lost soul.

Adrian could sing, write, and draw—but now he languishes in a stupor in some chancrous drug den. This might be a stretch, but he reminds me of the kinds of broken dreamers you’ll find all around Tinseltown, the victims of our collective fantasies.

Meanwhile, Dorian retains his M-G-M sheen, but in the midst of filth and regrets, the audience realizes that, despite the antihero’s veneer of youth and perfection, this is where he belongs. He has unconsciously sought out the place that exteriorizes his soul. The smooth grace and elegance of his London house don’t suit him anymore. Like him, those appearances are a sham.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also displays several other genius touches, like the fact that the movie is black-and-white, but the portrait appears in phantasmagoric Technicolor: at first Adonis-like, then nightmarish.

Then there’s the dialogue, in which Lewin preserved much of Wilde’s sinful satire, with lines like, “I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles best of all.” I must say, the occasional voice-over narration, spoken by the purring baritone of George Sanders, may not appeal to everyone, but I would argue that it’s necessary to suggest some of the complexity (and depravity) of the source material.

I applaud how well Lewin managed to preserve the sophisticated wickedness of Wilde’s novel. There’s no cackling. No abductions of maidens. Just temptation and the idea that, once a man is separated from the consequences of his choices, he loses his self. Life becomes an inferno of pleasure, a looping itinerary of degradation.

And then, there’s the cultural richness of the allusions in the film. How many 1940s Hollywood films can you list that reference, among other things, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the Buddha, the aria “La Ci Darem La Mano” from Don Giovanni, Chopin’s Les Preludes, and Omar Kayyám’s Rubáiyát?

To interject an added element of the supernatural into the film, Lewin adds an Egyptian cat statue to explain the mystical transference of Dorian’s soul to the painting. I know that sounds arbitrary… but then, later in the movie, Dorian recites a poem about cats by Wilde that’s not part of the original novel, but which fits in perfectly with the feverishly poetic ambiance of the movie.

You can tell that the man at the helm would have been a fantastic literature professor if he hadn’t discovered film. But thank heaven he did.

The dapper Lewin, right, with Jack Cardiff.

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