Beau Brummel (1924): Deeply Superficial

Poster“But the true beau is a beau-ideal, an abstraction substantialized only by the scissors, a concentrated essence of frivolity, infinitely sensitive to his own indulgence, chill as the poles to the indulgences of others; prodigal to his own appetites, never suffering a shilling to escape for the behoof of others; magnanimously mean, ridiculously wise, and contemptibly clever.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1844.

Superficiality gets a bad rap. After all, what does that much-maligned word denote, in its essence? It means an emphasis on the surface, on that which is readily apparent. Now, I will never condone an obsession with exterior beauty that dismisses any interior value; however, I cannot help but detect something heroic about the desire to project a surface of agonizing perfection. Appearance-consciousness rises to the level of greatness—and dare I say art?—when it demands extreme discipline and taste on the part the person who takes up the heavy burden of being an exalted human spectacle.

I am referring to that hallowed creature, the dandy. And if we want to enjoy Beau Brummel as anything other than a quaintly moving romance based on Clyde Fitch’s 1890 play, we need to introduce ourselves to this most charming phenomenon.

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The dandy as a cultural and literary concept resists a simple definition. It depends on whom you’re talking to, but I like Nigel Rodgers’s recent definition of “the perennial dandy principles: independence, elegance, courtesy, wit.” On a more philosophical level, the love of my life Charles Baudelaire likened the dandy to the Stoic of antiquity because the dandy wears a mask of whimsy and nonchalance even when in the throes of pain or misfortune or when sullied by the teeming mediocrity of the commercial world around him. His beauty is not vulgar because it cannot be bought merely with money (although it helps, all dandies agree); that beauty reflects his originality, his ability to style and reimagine himself.

And no man incarnated the ideals of dandyism more famously than Beau Brummel, the subject of today’s offering, a 1924 silent period drama based on his spectacular life. (N.B. I am spelling the character’s name Brummel because that’s how it’s written on the titles. However, the favored spelling, according to the junta at dandyism.net. is with two L’s.)

jackprofileBeau Brummel follows the trajectory of a rise and fall. As a young officer, Brummel falls in love with Lady Margery, an heiress betrothed to an aristocrat and fails to rescue her from the clutches of her family.

Deciding to climb the social ladder, Brummel ingratiates himself with the Prince of Wales by getting him out of an amorous jam. Through his careful cultivation of mannerisms and trends and his blistering wit, “Beau” sets himself up as the reigning king bee of the upper crust—but earns as many enemies as friends. Eventually, Beau grows too big for his breeches and winds up banished by the Prince to some frigid outpost in Calais, northern France, where he dies in utter penury.

Harry Beaumont, best known for another film about style and appearances, Our Dancing Daughters, directed this poignant tale with panache and an acute eye for stunning compositions and haunting details. In depicting the rise and fall of a fashion arbiter, Beaumont uses mirrors as a motif to explore the character’s self-consciousness. The first shot we see of Brummel is a shot of him between intertitles, reflected in an oval mirror. In that classical round frame, he resembles the immaculate, still images on 18th century cameos. This is the image—but the real man is onscreen, too, although you notice him as an afterthought. We understand that appearance means everything to Brummel. Paradoxically, the most profound desires of his soul express themselves in his drive to be flamboyantly attractive and debonair.

Once Brummel has fallen from grace, the mirror, once his friend, becomes his enemy. Barrymore brought me to tears in one scene where the ravaged, wasted Brummel tries to look at his face then turns away, pushing at the glass with his fingers, streaking it in dismay.

However, I hope that our director, the talented Mr. Beaumont, won’t roll over in his grave if I observe Beau Brummel wears the unmistakable charm and savoir faire of John Barrymore front and center—like a gracefully tied cravat—and deserves most of the credit for this film’s emotional impact. A rake, a genius, a matinee idol, and as self-destructive a man that ever existed, Barrymore incarnated the sardonic wisdom and reckless hedonism at the core of dandyism.

Our star is also responsible for perhaps this film’s most significant contribution to posterity: Mary Astor’s breakout role.

maryAstor—a woman rarely given enough credit for her depth and strength in her own time—initially attracted attention from Hollywoodland by winning a beauty contest. Superficiality, at least, brought her to the screen and to all of us. Her possessive parents, so cruel and pushy that they might have easily fit into the ruthlessly upwardly-mobile world of Beau Brummel, recognized her beauty as their cash cow. Mary played several minor parts until John Barrymore asked for her as his leading lady in Beau Brummel.

And that’s when life and art started to intertwine to the point that it would be hard to say which was imitating which. In her autobiography, My Story, Astor recalled her screen test for the role of Lady Margery and her first meeting with the Great Profile:

“We were both in costume of sorts, just enough to indicate the period, and as we were standing in for lighting my awe for this great man made me confused and awkward. Mr. Barrymore broke through my shyness by talking about everything under the sun but the picture; he made me laugh about something, and he gradually and skillfully made me feel that I was his contemporary as an actor and as a person. He told me he had seen a picture of me in a magazine while he was on a train coming out from New York, and the caption had appealed to him: ‘On the brink of womanhood.’ I told him I was seventeen, and he said, just a little sadly, ‘It seems so long ago that I was seventeen. I’m forty now.’

“ ‘That’s not so old,’ I said, and we were great friends.

“I know that on that afternoon we fell in love, and I am sure he was even more startled than I.”

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Barrymore gave Mary her first acting lessons and unlocked a new realm of ideas and intellect to this affection-starved girl. During some of these lessons, there was no studying, however. Exploiting a position of power and trust would be a kind way to describe Barrymore’s behavior. The forbidden relationship between the ingénue and the mentor over twice her age was a problematic echo of the roles that they poetically brought to life onscreen. Astor remembered,

“In the filming of the many romantic, delicate love scenes of Beau Brummel we could stand in each other’s arms, Jack in his romantic red and blue hussar uniform and white wig, I in the beautiful Empire style dresses, while the camera and lights were being set. We whispered softly, or just stood there, quietly loving the closeness; and no one was the wiser. Between scenes, Jack had the prop man place two camp chairs together just off the set, and we sat side by side.”

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And so, finally, after much perambulation around the film’s contexts, I arrive at Beau Brummel itself. Unlike me, this movie wastes no time; we don’t see the romance between Beau (or George) and Lady Margery blossom—we see it cut off in medias res.

Dressed in a bridal gown, Margery meets her beloved George, a dashing soldier, in the garden to say goodbye. She’s about to depart for a life bound to another man in a marriage of convenience. Watching Barrymore’s duly celebrated face going nose-to-nose with Mary Astor’s equally photogenic profile presents a sight so stunning and precise it borders on graphic design! I felt like I was looking at one of those dual-profile-chalice illusion sketches.

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Their dazzling united loveliness might sound like a superficial thing to remark on—but, again, it’s an instance where superficiality weds something more spiritual. The surreal perfection of these two people on the screen leads us to wordlessly understand that they are meant to be together. Our eyes know it and our eyes speak directly to our hearts.

Beau Brummel is one of those memorable films that captures the spark of an off-screen relationship. You can read it in Astor’s overly wide eyes and in the way Barrymore’s hands never seem to stop moving, but always seem to nervously long to caress a different part of this exquisite, delicate girl.

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Unfortunately, Lady Margery’s nasty, social-climbing mother (not so different from Astor’s real-life maternal unit) bursts in. This harpy forces the girl to choose between her duty and the man she loves—really, no choice, because she can’t exactly run away with an enlisted man. George leaves her in despair, vows to climb the social ladder with his charm and wit. He takes his miniature portrait of her and writes on the back, “This beautiful creature is dead.” We know that he will meet her again.

Mary Astor, even in her teenage years, possessed a striking aura of grief and maturity. For instance, after Beau leaves for France, she clings to the door he just exited through, almost squashed against it like a broken butterfly. Seen from behind and in a long shot, she communicates a universe of pain merely by wiggling her arms despondently.

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Except for when she was playing comedy (and even then), Astor interacted with the world as one who has been hurt by it. And with her pale complexion and those perpetual dark circles that even panstick makeup couldn’t conceal, she never looked like she got quite enough sleep. That is a strong part of her allure. You wonder what she was doing all night.

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Both her fragility and her fortitude shine through her portrayal of Lady Margery. Although the script gives her little more to do than watch and react, her soulful eyes, so dark that the appearance of the whites is startling, convey a sense of heartbreaking loss. As she turns her eyes to signify the screen direction of her departing lover, we feel her happiness slip away.

trioThe scenes between her and Brummel stand out as the best of the film. Now, that’s not to say that Barrymore doesn’t beguile us pretty much constantly. Whether he’s flirting with another man, treating the Prince of Wales like an inferior acquaintance, or coyly nodding at his jealous fellow officers, he swaggers exquisitely. However, when he encounters the love of his life, then and only then do we perceive the man worthy of all that external beauty.

When Lady Margery visits him in Calais, her youth still shines while Beau, ground down by poverty, has aged horribly. He’s crouched by the fire, gnawing on a piece of bread when she comes in. As she stands in the doorway, the awkward stillness of the shot-reverse-shot exchanges tear at our heartstrings. Finally, she enters, informs him that her husband is dead, and, in an unusual inversion of the movie proposal scene, asks him to marry her. Do I smell a happy ending after all?

No, alas.

As Beau tells her, “I am grown old, and changed, and tired of life.” After she departs, he starts to sob by the door, biting on his own hand to keep her from hearing and coming back to his aid.

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Call it vanity, call it stupidity, but he loves her so much that he couldn’t live with the thought of giving her a second-rate version of himself. Thus we witness the pride and integrity that sustains dandyism. We also observe a very genuine facet of Barrymore’s love for his teenage costar.

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As Astor noted, “I know Jack loved me. I know it as surely as I know the fact of my own existence. Fifteen years afterwards he was talking to me about it, telling me how surprised he had been to find himself beginning to love me that first day on the Beau Brummel set. Even then, fifteen years later, he didn’t dismiss it lightly. ‘It s a good thing I wasn’t free to marry,” he said then. ‘And it’s a good thing I couldn’t get you away from your family. I would have married you, and you would have had a miserable life.’”

bgIf that Calais scene doesn’t wet your cheeks, wait until the denoument, which finds Beau in a debtor’s hospital as a decrepit, crazy old man. His former servant visits him with the news that Margery is dying.

This news penetrates Beau’s senility and he begins to relive his best days with her. Cut to Margery in her bed. She breathes her last… and her splendid spirit rises from the bed. Her double-exposure soul descends into Beau’s squalid room just as he expires. And he too emerges from his mortal coil as the idealized officer he once was.

Why is it that our celluloid souls are supposed to look like ourselves—but in the prime of life, at our youthful pinnacle? Are we being superficial? Or perhaps we associate that beauty with hope and with the time in our existence when we still aspired to something. It probably goes back to the Middle Ages, when funerary statues were made to resemble the departed individual at the age of 33, since that was considered the “perfect age,” the age at which Christ had died. So, once again, we see that it’s not so easy to separate the superficial from the spiritual, the corporal from the ethereal.

As the ghostly Lady Margery and Beau embrace, the shimmering schmaltziness of this telepathic love-beyond-life scenario actually works and triggers a surge of weepy fulfillment. The visual pleasure of gazing at such picturesque people, combined with the verisimilitude of the actors’ star-crossed love affair, succeeds at provoking a catharsis. After all, cinema is sort of a dandy; like Brummel, this art of surfaces runs surprisingly deep. It can see the veracity and purity of a love that no one else could perceive. And preserve that love for almost 90 years.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Madman

“My professor as a painter drives me to look attentively at the faces, the physiognomies, that present themselves in my path, and you know what a pleasure we draw from this ability which makes life more living and more meaningful to our eyes than to those of other men.”

                                                                                        Charles Baudelaire,

“La Corde”

 

 

 

[Abandon hope of spoiler-free reading all ye who enter here!]

A man hangs, his arms twisted over his head which lolls backwards. We cannot see all of him and it takes a moment to discern what we’re actually looking at.

The image crackles in distressed shades of sepia, sometimes overexposed and light, sometimes darker, but always fizzling, grainy, unstable. The figure, just shoulders and a jaw, bob in slow motion. It reads as a shot from a hand-cranked silent film.

And then the man screams. Thus begins Pupi Avati’s La Casa Dalle Finistre Che Ridono (The House of the Laughing Windows), a movie that opened up hitherto unsuspected realms of subtleness in the giallo canon for me.

The trauma of hearing that image—redolent of 1920s silent era textures—howl in agony shocks the viewer on a truly primal level. It’s as though you could hear a painting or smell a sound. Avati makes us feel like the image were extending across another dimension. The warped, distant sound of the scream heightens the impression not so much of hearing the man moan, but of hearing it in our minds. If you look at Edvard Munch’s The Scream long enough, you start to be able to hear it. Avati simulates this kind of artistic mind-meld that the most profound and morbid of paintings can produce.

Protracted, lyrical, and reminiscent of other times—the Renaissance as well as the 1920s—this opening credits sequence slaps us across the face with one of the key questions at the heart of horror as a genre. Should horror be beautiful? In other words, what are the moral implications of aestheticizing violence and death? It’s a tour-de-force introduction even before the obsessive, rumbling voice, that we later learn is the mad artist Legnani, begins to rant about his colors, the colors in his veins, the living colors…

The buoyant, undulating movements of this torture victim remind me of the surrealist short films, like Un Chien Andalou. The mismatch of beauty and brutality, visual lushness and moral ugliness generate a conflict collision in the mind of the spectator before we even dip a toe into the plot of the film. The dying man’s cries are also spaced out so that the spectator is allowed to linger in contemplation of the various shots of the body in agony before being brought back to the pain.

This kind of sequence practically traps us with the imminence of cinema. Even with letters of actors’ names appearing over these shots of stabbings and cries, we feel as though we are watching a man suffering before our eyes, at this instant. On the one hand, the look of the scene suggests that it occurred sometime in the past, but, on the other, the power of the image ensures that, on some level, it’s always happening now, right now.

This introduction etches itself so powerfully upon the brain that it takes a while to really concentrate on the plot, which concerns a young art historian, Stefano, called in to restore a mural of Saint Sebastian in a rural church in Italy.

Of course, the mural was painted by a deviant called Buono (should’ve been Cattivo, if you ask me…) Legnani, known as the “Painter of Agonia,” which means “death throes” not just agony in Italian. Along with his two sicko sisters, Legnani liked to be around dead people. However, his sisters actually like killing them, too, but I’ll get there soon.

Nevertheless, the mural will serve as a vital tourist attraction for the town—which is ironic, since so many shots in this movie look like they came right out of a 1970s tourist guidebook of Italy, only enhanced by slow pans and gliding shots from within classic cars. The film positively reeks of beauty and we, as audience members, have been trained to know that something evil lurks beneath that bucolic splendor—prepared by both giallo conventions and the indelible opener.

Don’t trust this travel-guide-worthy beauty!

We also recognize, in static form, the torment of the opening credits victim as soon as Avati shows us the mural. The director discloses the picture at the end of a long take which builds moment as a priest and Stefano walk down the nave of the church, when, with a graceful crane lift, the camera rises to focus on the picture.

We also get lingering, studious shots running over this mural, as a kind of visual imperative, “Look! See!”

Similarly, once the murders start (well, duh, it’s a giallo), Avati examines every hanging, bloody victim from multiple angles and shot lengths, cut together in a deliberate, pensive pace. He seems intent on giving us a class in anatomy—and in our own varied reactions to different parts of the same overall picture. The film resembles a painting, too, with its rich Rembrandt lighting, meticulous compositions, and abundance of frames within frames.

Art lives (and dies?) at the core of this film which forces us to become conscious of where our eyes travel and what they bring back. For instance, take the scene in which Stefano visits the town Mayor and surveys his collection of Legnani paintings, including one of the artist’s head on a woman’s body.

As the Mayor explains that the artist took to painting himself because no woman could satisfy him, we get a cut to a gauzy flashback (whose flashback, though, is not clear). The bare-chested artist smears paint on his arm, in a gesture reminiscent of a junkie shooting up heroine, and turns to a canvas.

I had to watch this sequence twice before I realized that we’re not actually looking at the artist, but at the artist’s reflection in a mirror. We see him looking at himself… looking at himself. It’s part of our own apprenticeship in looking.

Stefano, like many a hapless giallo protagonist, dies. I’m sorry, but I think pretty much anyone would see that coming. This likelihood allows the viewer to taste the bitter irony of every shot of Stefano restoring the mural. As he pulls away the plaster to reveal two wicked hags and adds life to the picture of Saint Sebastian’s death, he’s participating in his own demise as well. His act of restoration and creation engenders his destruction.

If art both gives life and takes it away, drawing from the subjectivity and the life force of a painter, what are we to make of recording, of mechanical ways of preserving life? It turns out that Legnani’s cuckoo sisters believe Norman Bates-style that they’re keeping their brother alive. Buono Legnani immolated himself in a final act of depravity and macabre fascination.

However, his elderly sisters keep his charred body preserved in formaldehyde and play his gravelly, heavy-breathing voice on a tape recorder.

In the top shock-horror scene of Laughing Windows, Stefano discovers the witchy sisters stabbing a victim to death when they proceed to show them their “brother,” the corpse and the recording.

The camera, from Stefano’s perspective, looks shakily from the one to the other twice, as if to ask, “What insane person could call this anywhere near a representation of life? Or even of death?” This facsimile strikes me as a grotesque parody of a person—it’s skin and bones and it speaks, what more do you want? A repeated voice recording and a husk of a body. It also reminds me of some of the intensely gross medieval depictions of death as the utter defeat of the flesh. By preserving their brother, the sisters totally miss the point of his art—capturing fleeting glimpses of human life slipping away, not worshipping cadavers.

This corpse-revelation launches a deeply disturbing scene. It could’ve been played for humor, but it’s not. The sisters are hacking up another sacrifice in hopes of reviving their brother. A lot of very stirring horror films revolve around this idea of preserving something (The Mummy, DeToth’s House of Wax, Psycho, all come to mind) and I think in this way that they’re attempting to cope with the cinema as a form of embalmment. Laughing Windows pokes fun at hollow mechanical or technical means of merely preserving or even of reanimating a dead person. Avati instead hints that the only things that truly live forever are those which have been strained through the filter of human creativity. Legnani may have been a nutso great artist—his sisters are just nutso.

Stefano is too dizzy, judging by the waffling of the handheld camera, to protest when they urge him to take a look at the slaughter. He doesn’t resist and his somnambulist pliability in the situation gives the whole thing the fuzzy, unreal vertigo of a nightmare. And then a blade flashes into him. We could’ve seen it coming, but somehow, we just don’t expect it when it comes.

And so, to the final sequence.  Stefano manages to flee with his open chest wound to a local church where he hopes to ask for help from the kindly priest. Well, the priest turns around, smiles, and begins to speak in a female voice. “He” is actually one of the hooded sisters. Stefano stares wide-eyed, unable to respond as the other sister waddles in, ready to finish the job. Avati cuts back and forth to the painted hags torturing Saint Sebastian in the mural and the film comes full circle.

Stefano is about to meet the fate that was right under his nose the whole time. We brace ourselves for viscera and more struggling torture.

We get a cut away to the façade of the church. Is that cut merciful or cruel, though?

After all, we can still hear the Legnani sisters twitter and giggle as Stefani moans. We don’t see it, but it’s there for us on the soundtrack. Now, there are actual “laughing windows” in the film…

But the windows of the church really laugh at us, a laugh of complicity, because we know what they conceal.

Seriously, now, you can try and tell me that Martin Scorsese didn’t totally think of this ellipsis when he came up with that terse, horrifying last shot of the Lighthouse in Shutter Island, but I won’t believe you.

With the final shot of The House of Laughing Windows our apprenticeship in looking is complete. We, the spectators, now occupy the position of the painters of horror, having been trained to look at ugliness, beauty, surrealist spectacles, details, life, and death. And as those witchy cackles and cries punctuate the soundtrack, we can imagine, we can make the image in our minds, although we might not want to fill the ellipsis. We can conjure up the fuzzy tormented elegy of the beginning (since that credits sequence is an accurate depiction of what’s going to happen to Stefano) or we can mold a new vision.

We become the painting, we become the cinema. It’s not the first time I or anyone else has made this observation, but great movies often invite audiences to “remake” or to participate in them. They’re constructed as partnerships, kept fresh and living by the disgust, pleasure, and, above all, the creativity of the viewer.

Preservation is not art, Avati tells us. Nor is cinema mere preservation, capturing living things as they are—soon to be were. The cinema dwells in gaps, lacunae, death in life. Truly knowing how to look and how to fill in those gaps renders us capable of seeing things as alive. And something alive is always on the edge of death. Perhaps the greatest art always flirts with death, absence, non-meaning and needs something else to complete it.

When we learn not only to look, but also to see, we are art, which is the intersection of life and death. And that should scare the hell out of us. I give a lot of credit to La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono for pulling all these threads together in a giallo.

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 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.