Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.

And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”

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On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.

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The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.

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I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.

However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.

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Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.

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The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.

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Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.

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Figure A: Bette Davis

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With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.

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So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

The Gothic Note: Graham Greene on The Black Room (1935)

Graham Greene—yes, one of the greatest and most enjoyable writers of the 20th century—spent a good bit of the 1930s writing about movies. 

And he was the kind of critic who makes me feel unworthy to be a self-appointed critic. His keen powers of observation and unflaggingly sharp ability to zero in on flaws, foibles, and mannerisms could reduce even the most egotistical of entertainment personalities into shuddering piles of fearfulness and remorse. Greene possessed an innate Geiger counter for pretense and commercial tripe. Nothing hindered him from laying into his cinematic victims with a withering British politeness and eloquence.

Which is all the more reason why, when Greene reviews a film favorably, we all ought to pull it off the shelves and give it a fresh look. And, wonder of wonders, when reflecting on the 1935 Karloff vehicle, The Black Room, our emerging novelist remarked in The Spectator:

“I liked this wildly artificial film, in which Karloff acts both a wicked central European count and his virtuous, cultured twin of the Byronic period.”

Phew! We can all heave a sigh of relief. Foremost among Greene’s reasons for liking the film, he points out that The Black Room affords Karloff a role not as an inarticulate monster, but as both a monstrous, yet pithy human being and a good guy. We get a richer sense of his range.

“Mr Boris Karloff has been allowed to act at last… [A]ny actor could have produced the short barks and guttural rumbles, the stiff, stuffed, sawdust gestures, which was all his parts required of him. A Karloff scenario must have made curious reading. Were those grunts phonetically expressed?”

As much as that last rhetorical question provokes the 1930s equivalent of an LOL, I’m going to have to take issue with you, Graham Greene. (Please don’t haunt me! Wait… actually, please do.) Karloff can communicate an extraordinary amount through grunts and jerky motions.

Karloff: double trouble…

Nevertheless, I agree that ‘tis a treat indeed to watch Karloff swing into full-on Richard III mode with his wily, sardonic delivery of Baron Gregor’s lines. I also appreciate the louche physicality which Karloff explores in the part of a libertine, always lounging in a chair kicked back against a wall, his leg swung over the arm of the chair.

Karloff’s Gregor: inventor of “chillin’ like a villain”

As for William Roy Neill’s handling of the script, Greene accorded the interpretation rather high praise… at the expense of another great horror director:

“The direction is good: it has caught, as Mr James Whale never did with Frankenstein, the genuine Gothic note. Mrs. Radcliffe would not have been ashamed of this absurd and exciting film, of the bones in the oubliette…

“…the scene at the altar when the dog leaps and the paralysed arm comes to life in self-defense,

“…of the Count’s wild drive back to the castle, the lashing whip, the rearing horses, the rocketing coach, the strange volley of rocks with its leading cross and neglected Christ, the graveyard with owls and ivy. There is much more historical sense in this film than in any of… the ‘scholarly’ works of Mr Korda. A whole literary period comes to life…”

I am now going to critique this critique. Those of you with faint hearts may leave.

Dead men don’t blog back, so I want to clarify that I am in no way deriding Graham Greene. Let’s face it, though, his review does place a major limitation on horror, a limitation which runs the risk of oversimplifying the genre. He’s implying that horror should necessarily be Gothic in tone. At least, it seems that he’s taking a shot at Whale for abandoning the Gothic aesthetic. By contrast, Greene praises Neill and his “good” direction for remaining faithful to the literary tradition of Radcliffe and Lewis. His whole standard of evaluation hinges on a film’s relationship to a specific heritage of terror. I don’t think it should be that simple.

Indeed, I advise you not to read Greene’s review of Bride of Frankenstein if you happen to be squeamish or if you, like me, simply love that movie—the write-up is about as dismissive as Greene gets. He didn’t appreciate any of the camp elements, Whale’s “devil’s advocate” brand of empathy, or the piquant, looming bizarreness which Whale infused into talkie horror. Instead, the budding novelist kept hammering on the fact that the Bride just wasn’t scary in the Gothic sense, when, frankly, I doubt that it was meant to be.

I differ from Greene, because I can’t believe the aesthetics of horror are that clear-cut. Gothic—good. Departure from Gothic—bad. Now, I would argue that good horror may borrow elements from the Gothic, but it doesn’t need to.

And, yet. Always this “and yet…” haunts me, like the specter of a murdered brother!

I have to admit that Greene does make a strong case for the validity of the Gothic mentality as the core of pleasurable horror flicks. Just to be clear, for me, Gothic atmosphere and style revolves around contrivances, like curses, unspeakable secrets, and twin brothers. The esthetic also requires a certain benighted, costume-y feel which Greene beautifully conjures in the quoted description above. Finally, I would argue that this type of horror is joined to a psychological primitivism, a lack of obvious self-consciousness.

If a man starts hitting on you in a graveyard, you may be in a Gothic novel.

Gothic horror relies upon the ghastly for its thrills: churchyards, stabbings, murderous brigands, hidden deformities, and gruesome ironies. One of my favorite such moments in The Black Room (spoiler alert!) has Baron Gregor assume the bearing and manners of the brother he’s just killed while examining himself in the reflective onyx walls of the titular secret chamber.

There’s also something about the Gothic that reminds me of Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Much of the fun of this genre literature (and Jacobean revenge tragedies, for that matter) derives from some kind of prediction, equation, or vow that ends up getting fulfilled, rather creepily and often with a slight plot twist, in the end. As it does in The Black Room, the conclusion of which I won’t disclose, but which you’ll understand if you’ve seen it.

“I begin as I end.” The family coat-of-arms and curse.

Another strength of Gothic horror as a genre resides in what I would describe as a lack of psychologizing. In place of tiresomely nuanced self-doubt, we relish heavy generalizations like Lust, Sin, and Innocence that dwell in the realm of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of UdolphoThe Black Room eschews the cumbersome self-analysis that we do get in more “modern” horror flicks, including some good ones, like the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Cat People.

That’s not to say that The Black Room lacks elements that lend themselves to psychological analysis, or to interpretation in general. Take the film’s use of mirrors as a means of suggesting moral doubling and division. Then there’s the fact that Anton and Gregor came from the same womb and are destined to end up in the same oubliette. But still, you could plausibly watch this movie and get no sense of anything deeper than a fine little chiller.

It’s entertainment in a rather pure, uncomplicated form, which is something that Greene and I both like and applaud. As someone who’s spent a lot of time studying film, I am refreshed by a film that doesn’t really want you to study or over-intellectualize it. I suspect that Greene disliked Whale’s movies because he found them too up-front and pretentious in their attempts at exploring the ambitious themes of life, death, and man-as-God.

No doubt, The Black Room deserves a place in the pantheon of classic horror, with its smooth, sinister tracking shots and pitch-perfect screen adaptation of Gothic tropes. The film does revive a whole literary era of wedding feasts cut short and specters of guilt and evil returning—without the self-conscious fear of Freud poking at them with his cigar.

But, and here’s where I diverge, The Black Room, despite its stylish qualities, does not herald a new era for horror as a genre, like the 1931 Frankenstein did with its jump cuts, its jarring use of sound, and its masterfully askew cinematography—askew to the point of abstraction at times. It surprises me that Greene, as a man who devoted so much of his time to pondering the fate of man’s soul in the face of modernity, did not appreciate the cruel, nervous, decidedly un-Gothic edge that Whale’s work adds to horror as a genre.

The “genuine Gothic note”: a menaced maiden.

Brave new word: man menaced… by his own creation.

The Black Room is a brilliant relic, though. I cherish it as such, and I strongly recommend that you watch it. So, apparently, did Graham Greene.

Morality Play: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

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It’s one of my absolute missions in life to get more people to watch silent films. Really, if, on my deathbed, I can say, “Well, I got more people to realize that The Phantom of the Opera is better without duets and Sarah Brightman,” I will consider it a small victory against the forces of darkness.

Which is why it’s kind of a disappointment to me to have to say that I do not consider Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a great silent film.

“I’m deeply hurt by your critique, Nitrate Diva. You wound me to my core.”

First off, Jekyll’s a bore. He doesn’t have to be, as Fredric March proved, but here, the part, as written, comes across as such a saint that we, as audience members, almost want him to slip into degradation.

We get it. He’s a nice guy. Could we please move onto the bordello now?

This is a problem since he takes frustratingly long to go over to the dark side. Then, once the transformation to Hyde finally occurs… the degenerate immediately takes the potion *again* and flips back to Jekyll. Um, yeah right. Once you’ve unleashed Hyde, he’s going to go paint the town red. I don’t buy for one moment that he’d say, “Gee, this is nice and all, but I better make sure that the process is reversible.”

However, like many, if not most, of the movies I write about, this 1920 Barrymore vehicle, directed by John S. Robinson, harbors shining moments that redeem it from the dustbin of history and make it worth watching. Stay with me, folks.

So, Barrymore does oblige and scares the Hell out of us with that famous no-cut transformation scene. His facial contortions evoke fear, not in spite of, but rather because of the fact that there’s no intervening makeup in that first shot. He’s still recognizable, but evil has some how entered him. We get the feeling that his body is nothing more than a suit of clothes—it all depends on how it’s worn, and by whom.

I would be very surprised if Kubrick’s vision of Jack Torrence hadn’t been shaped by this famous personality switch, in that it’s the person behind the face, not so much the face itself, that we see warp before our eyes.

Even so, one does get the feeling that it would all work more effectively on a stage. Barrymore spooks us onscreen, but he could hold us totally captive if we were right there, watching it imminently happening. The cinematic medium numbs the visceral reaction, for this viewer at least.

For me, Nita Naldi’s performance, not Barrymore’s, stands out as the enduring, outstanding one. Something about this Irish-American gal from Harlem (born Nonna Dooley) combusts onscreen, in contrast to the static beauty of The Great Profile.

Okay, so Naldi slightly overplays Gina, the exotic Italian dancer, but every time I watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I think about how much she could have run wild with the part. She really offers a subdued portrait of a woman on her way down—a dancer on the verge of prostitution who finally falls and doesn’t get back up.

She’s temptation incarnate, yes, but doesn’t take it too far. She comes across as a full person who wants to make a living and have a bit of fun, but still has a sense of decency that can be violated. In the scene when she’s first asked to vamp Jekyll, you can see several subtle emotional shades.

 Left with Barrymore’s older libertine friend, Gina broods. 

 At first, she’s skeptical about the “assignment,” then amused, then genuinely attracted (It’s Barrymore, for Heaven’s sake!), then hurt and ashamed when he spurns her. She also appears in perhaps the best scene in the movie: we find Gina after Hyde’s discarded her and is already buying his next victim…

We’ve only seen the back of Gina’s head at the other end of the dive, then she goes up to the bar, turns and glares at Hyde. In the close-up reveal, she looks like death.

I don’t know what we expect at this point. Probably not any kind of repentance from Hyde, but we don’t think it’s possible for him to get worse. And then he does.

He grabs the young whore and Gina and drags them both over to a mirror, as if to say, “Well, duh, Gina, she’s hotter. You can see for yourself!” This action chills us because we weren’t anticipating it. Normal guys dump girls when their, ahem, needs are met, but Hyde’s viciousness goes beyond selfishness. He shows that true evil isn’t indifference, but outright sadism.

 

If March’s Hyde (in the adaptation that came along just 11 years afterwards) gained anything from Barrymore’s (although ol’ Freddy was quite careful about taking it in a different direction), I would argue that the 1931 performance displays the same mocking politeness and deliberate desire to wound his victims in every way. For instance, after kicking Gina out, Hyde makes a little bow as gentleman would to a passing lady. March’s Hyde also parodies the airs and fine manners of his kind counterpart as a way of showing how hollow these gestures of politeness are—when wickedness lurks beneath.

The really sad part of the scene I’ve described above, however, arises from the fact that the new girl goes with Hyde in spite of enough red flags to read as an S.O.S. to any sensible woman.

I applaud that realism. I mean, what’s she going to say to the Madame? “But he seemed like a jerk!” I doubt that would fly. She’s made her bed and now she’s got to lie in it.

The film circles back multiple times to the idea of prostitution and of the woman in decline: consumed and then thrown away.

Right before Jekyll goes into the dance hall where he meets Gina, this shot of a random, grizzled streetwalker suddenly fills the screen. Robinson, the director, clearly wants us to cherish no illusions. No matter how prostitution starts, it ends up really ugly.

Now, this focus on vice was nothing new for cinema in 1920. In fact, the plot trope of young girls ruined by white slavery featured in several popular “problem pictures,” such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and the much more ambitious feature, Traffic in Souls. Yet, these dramatizations morally hedged their bets.

On the one hand, they warned young girls not to put themselves in bad situations and exposed a social ill. On the other, they procured the kind of titillation that vicariously invading forbidden spaces like brothels or shady dancehalls automatically provides—without implying unnecessary sin on the part of the viewer.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays on the same double code. For instance, consider this shot, of elegant men crowding into a doorway to watch Gina shimmy in her scant shawl.

Not only do we get the sense of the male gaze, but also of a cold, dehumanized, upper class male gaze. We can’t see their faces. They stand as vaguely sinister icons of pleasure-seeking gentleman slummers. They visit the underworld, yet remain untouched by its cheapness.

They don’t pay the real price of what goes on here, although they fuel the wickedness with their appetites and their money. And yet, aren’t they just slightly more hands-on versions of the movie audience that’s come to savor the spectacle of degradation—once removed?

A preachy, muckraking quality dates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and infuses it with somewhat distasteful hypocrisy. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about the film resides in how it engages a tactile revulsion in its viewers. The emphasis on Hyde’s hands stands out thanks to a close-up during the transformation…

Just looking at these hands, we can easily imagine what it feels like to be touched by them. They’re scabby, scratchy, leathery, and all-round gross. Second only to Barrymore’s obscene conical head, these hands translate the sexually predatory nature of Hyde. When he finally has his freshest filly alone, he pulls off her shawl and immediately palms her chest.

It’s disgusting—because that tactile sensation has been cleverly foregrounded. We can practically feel Hyde’s hands. The twitchy, avid motions of his fingers draw the eye to wherever his hand goes in a haptic manner—that is, his hand makes the eyes “touch” the screen and feel as though they’re being touched. Skeeved out yet?

There’s also another scene, which I would usually file under silly, if not for how much it resonates with me. Jekyll’s sworn off the potion, but the potion hasn’t sworn off him. It comes back to him in the form of a huge spider that crawls into his bed and re-injects him with its wicked venom. He spontaneously merges back into Hyde.

Hm. Addiction metaphor, anyone? Detox hallucinations? Perhaps because it’s Barrymore and we all know how alcohol destroyed him, but this superimposed spider conveys the creeping violation of compulsive behavior that always comes back, whether you want it to or not, whether you can resist another moment or whether it vanquishes you. I also suspect that this scene inspired Ray Milland’s bat hallucination DT’s sequence in Billy Wilder’s addiction picture, The Lost Weekend.

Again, the spider calls up a cinema-triggered indirect tactile sensation. I shudder, almost as though I can feel a spider scuttling along my skin.

In the end, I do recommend this silent—not because it’s a brilliant horror film, but rather because it does interject some gritty realism and consciousness of self-abuse into horror. Many scholars have remarked that the genre works out hidden social and moral issues. Well, this one never gets too far away from them in the first place.

Insanely Real: Renfield, Dracula, and World War I

If you don’t like disturbing images and ideas, I advise you not to read this blog post. Seriously.

I realize that, in writing this, I am echoing about a century of horror movie taglines that warned away the “faint of heart” and promised near-fatal excitement. In this case, I am writing about real horrors along with fictional ones. And they are unforgettable, irredeemably awful. Some of you may have read my post on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and how that film processes some of the trauma of World War I. Now, I’d like to write about a movie that takes on the WWI legacy in a much more subtle and, I would argue, poignant, way: Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.

“Wait a minute, there, sister,” I hear you saying. “Dracula is a Victorian novel so how can it be about a modern total war? The answer revolves around the characterization of the “madman” Renfield. I admit that so-called “lunatics” have permeated popular conceptions of macabre from even before the era of the Gothic novel, but World War I triggered an unprecedented incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, known at the time as neurasthenia or war neurosis (van der Hart et al. 37). “Madness,” once a relatively rare thing, became the subject of mass experience as thousands of young, otherwise healthy men returned from battle acting in ways very removed from acceptable social norms.

And Renfield, as Browning visually portrays him, and as Frye performs him, resembles the shell-shocked veterans of the Great War much more than he does Stoker’s version of the blood-obsessed asylum inmate.

Renfield seems to disappear as he steps into the web at Castle Dracula.

Moments after his arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield gets caught in a spider’s web and flails his way out. Dracula gently scolds him with a conspiratorial smile, “The blood is the life, Mister Renfield…” This ironic foreshadowing really works, instead of being corny, because it’s quite sad, in retrospect. Renfield goes on to eat spiders and rue his own thirst for blood. Even as a vampire, a predator, he’s still caught in the web, at the bottom of the food chain.

In fact, as he trips into the web, the spider-silk covers him like a shroud and gives him an indistinct, ghostly aspect. It’s as though he dematerialized into the web, as though he’d already been consumed and digested. Browning found a clever way to visually suggest that Renfield’s a pawn in the game and he will suffer horribly. And he does so in a manner very reminiscent of some of the men who returned from WWI trenches.

First, in terms of casting and physical description, the movie makes some major departures from the 19th century source text. The most visually impacting one centers on Renfield’s age. Bram Stoker describes Dracula’s unwilling lackey as a white-haired man of 59, elderly by Victorian standards, yet prone to grotesquely childlike outbursts. Dr. Seward paints this portrait of his patient:

Something seemed to affect his imagination, for he put his fingers to his ears and shut his eyes, screwing them up tightly just as a small boy does when his face is being soaped. There was something pathetic in it that touched me. It also gave me a lesson, for it seemed that before me was a child, only a child, though the features were worn, and the stubble on the jaws was white.

He’s an older gentleman and the disturbing factor is that he does not behave appropriately for his age. Similarly, the first film adaptation of the Dracula story, Murnau’s Nosferatu, depicts Knock, the Renfield character, as middle-aged and paunchy, with wild white locks.

Browning’s Renfield couldn’t contrast more with these grizzled Renfields! Dwight Frye’s screen incarnation strikes the audience with a façade of outward normalcy and borderline matinee idol good looks.

At a youthful 31, Frye, a Broadway star, cut a dapper figure in the film’s early scenes as he travels through the rustic village with his smart suit, hat, and a walking stick in hand. It’s actually a pretty brave choice, adaptation-wise, to make the first character we identify with and come to like descend into utter insanity!

Renfield’s handsome, affable characterization in the first scenes renders his degradation even more stark and disquieting later on. This change, the choice to depict Renfield as young, doesn’t really offer any new advantages in terms of plot. There’s little logical justification, especially given that Renfield has no love interest in the book or in the film. However, emotionally, the sight of a man in his prime succumbing to insanity offers a much more unsettling worldview—and one more congruent with the impact of the Great War.

We might expect senility from a white-haired inmate, but there’s something particularly sad and morbid about a fine specimen of a young man who’s almost totally lost touch with reality. (However, I mean no offense to all of my senior citizen friends who are sharper and stronger than I am at 21!)

Another significant discrepancy between the gothic novel and Tod Browning’s film makes Renfield the protagonist of the first scenes set in the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker casts Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé, as the hapless character who first discovers Dracula’s undead wickedness. We, the readers, are aligned with Harker from the first.

However, in the motion picture, the spectator’s emotional investment in Renfield drives the tension of the meeting between the estate agent and the vampire. I think it’s also interesting that the movie does not spare its likable young man from a fate worse than death. (This sacrifice of the key character who leads us into the story actually foreshadows, in my mind, Hitchcock’s brave, shocking decision to kill off Marion Crane so early in Psycho.)

Whereas the Johnathan Harker of the book eventually escapes from Dracula’s castle, the cinematic Renfield almost immediately falls prey to the forces of evil and is damned simply for carrying out his duty. Just doing his job, he’s doomed to forever lose a part of his humanity and transform into a cackling monster in the eyes of others. Doesn’t this smack of the injustice and tragedy of war here?

There’s something of the between-the-wars cynicism about this plot choice. Bram Stoker suggested that good people will always end up okay—or at the very least, their souls will be saved. No such luck for Renfield. Therefore, as a somewhat average young man who travels to a foreign country and loses his mind and his dignity as a result of his experiences, Renfield closely resembles the thousands of “shell shock” victims of World War I.

The cinematography of Dracula intensifies the sense of disorientation and trauma with respect to Renfield. The first time we see him in the asylum, Browning orchestrates a striking long take, which trails from the clinic gates up to Renfield’s cell. In the Seward Santarium, the zoophagous (animal-eating) madman announces himself by his offstage shouts, amidst a chorus of the wild shrieks and giggles of the other inmates.

The camera, like the eye of a curious visitor, pans and rises in a crane shot towards Renfield’s window, coldly prying to the inside of a world without privacy.

A cut takes us to an unconventionally blurry long shot in the cell, with only the heads and shoulders of Renfield and of his keeper Martin, struggling over Renfield’s fly.

This shot radically departs from the regular, crisp proscenium space frequently defined by Browning; instead, the images convey a sense of unbalanced naturalism, much like the raw documentary quality of the footage taken of WWI shell shock victims—and there was significant documentation.

3

Private Eaglefield, one of many WWI veterans who suffered from a form of “war neurosis.” He was treated at the Seale Hayne War Hospital.

Like this clip below. Yes, it’s totally and completely authentic. Even though this editing of footage taken from the Seale Hayne War Hospital does try to put a positive spin on shell shock recovery, it’s not light viewing. The staring, wide eyes of one patient, Private Eaglefield, also above, stand out for me as particularly haunting. My heart goes out to these men. Watch it AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In Frye’s performance, the insanity also physically presents itself through jerky gestures, a sallow complexion, exaggerated facial expressions, and braying laughter. All of these “symptoms” recall somatoform disorders and various psychological conditions recorded among WWI veterans in shock, as well as among modern sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yet, even beyond Frye’s heart-rending portrayal, Browning manipulates light and shadow in the sterile sanatorium room to conjure up the kind of unthinkable angst that we see at work in these documents of real veteran anguish.

For instance, as Renfield sits on his bed at night, weeping at his torment, the window bars cast strangely angled shadows over the walls and partially obscure his face.

Here, the jagged shadows not only stress Renfield’s physical entrapment, but also act as a visual representation of the mental, moral maze that troubles him.

The lurid, crooked look of this scene harkens back to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, another aesthetic product of WWI. However, unlike the extreme abstraction of CaligariDracula takes place in plausible settings. By casting disquieting shadows from a pretty believable sanatorium room, Browning disturbingly melds reality and the harrowing textures of madness.

I’d also point out that of the first times we see Renfield in his “lunatic” state, he’s in a trench-like space: the hold of the wrecked ship, from which he is the sole survivor.

Likewise, I consider it important that Renfield emerges as a deranged, yet lucid and sympathetic figure.

He’s not just a standard movie maniac: his “fits” arise from his profound spiritual and moral fears. Indeed, the bitter contradictions of Renfield’s existence parallel the psychological conditions that drove many WWI soldiers to crippling despair. Both find themselves forced to kill or to become complicit in killing in order to live, according to the will of an unassailable authority.

Renfield, like any soldier, must make a kind of doomed bargain. Consequently, he’s forced to abandon his ethics (his intrinsic goodness and his desire to do no harm) in order to maintain a half-life of slavery and regret. We sense the constant pressure he’s under: if he plays an accomplice to Dracula, he must contend with crippling guilt. If he lets his humanity win, Dracula will kill him. Damned if he does, dead if he doesn’t.

Browning’s camera carefully suggests this awful double-bind. When he enters a scene, Reinfield’s movements often provide a motive for destabilizing camera activity. For instance, when Renfield attempts to warn Van Helsing of Dracula’s plans, the Master, in bat form, flies towards the inmate. The camera implacably tracks in, emphasizing Renfield’s trapped situation. Renfield frantically declares his allegiance to Dracula to avoid punishment and we sense his dark, rankling pain and terror.

Therefore, as a young man tragically struck down by madness, physically trapped, and mentally torn between obligation and conscience, the Renfield of the 1931 version Dracula constitutes a modern creation quite separate from Stoker’s novel. Frye’s Renfield is, I’d argue, a legacy of World War I.

Although one might assume that by the onset of the Great Depression, the prevalence of the “shell shock” phenomenon would have subsided, both in their effects on veterans and in the minds of the public, war neuroses continued to linger on the edges of the society. Stunningly, even in 1942, over a decade after the release of Dracula and over two decades after the Treaty of Versailles, the majority of men living in American veterans’ homes had been afflicted with some kind of “neuropsychiatric” trauma as a result of their service in WWI.

Renfield (bottom center), dwarfed by Dracula’s enormous castle. 

These statistics not only demonstrate the widespread mental cost of the conflict on direct witnesses, but also suggest the extent to which questions of insanity, psychological disorders, and institutionalization intruded into the consciousness of American civilians. I suspect that a fair number of viewers would have thought of a shell shock victim they knew, while watching Dracula.

Whether knowingly or unintentionally, Dracula, acted as an outlet for exploring the incidence of shellshock that continued to threaten and challenge the public.

The pathos that Frye and Browning brought to Renfield deserves to be recognized, for the character’s suffering mirrors the real agony of those many soldiers who attended the ultimate horror show of all time. Like Renfield, they witnessed something so unprecedented that it broke many minds to pieces—and left them all scarred in some form. It’s not a spectacle any of us wants to see, but it is one that we all ought to remember.


Sources and Resources:

Mank, Gregory, James Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye. Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh. Fredericksburg: Sheridan Books, 1997.

Prawer, Siegbert. Caligari’s Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Skal, David. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Universal Horror. Dir. Brownlow, Kevin. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Forest Ackerman, Turhan Bey, and Fay Wray. 1998. Universal, 2006.

Van der Hart, Onno, Annemieke van Dijke, et al. “Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage”. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. I (4), 2000.

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.