Young handsome aristocrat Dorian Gray wishes to remain young forever. He gets his wish and quickly adopts a hedonistic, narcissistic lifestyle. Meanwhile, his portrait takes on the ravages of age and the marks of his debauchery…
Swinging sixties adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde classic that chooses to focus on Dorian’s descent into depravity; in other words to concentrate on the sex. Yes, this is a borderline exploitation flick from producer Harry Alan Towers that features plenty of skin but, by today’s standards, it’s fairly tame stuff and that allows for a far more balanced assessment of its virtues and shortcomings.
In true tradition, the story begins with Dorian (Helmut Berger) getting a paint job courtesy of Sir Basil (Richard Todd). During the sitting they are visited by old rogue Sir Henry (a strangely miscast Herbert Lom) who is immediately smitten with Berger, and decides to turn him to the dark side using shards of icy wit and his beautiful sister, Margaret Lee, as his weapons of choice. From then on, the story hits all the usual marks. Berger’s early infatuation and storybook romance with poor actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) leads to his betrayal of her and a subsequent attempt to reconcile that comes too late. Berger then rededicates himself to the pursuit of pleasure, bedding various eligible beauties, including Lee, Maria Rohm and Beryl Cunningham. He also services elderly Isa Miranda from behind in a stable as return for a lucrative property deal, a scene I don’t recall from the original novel. There’s also a strong indication of a homosexual relationship with Lom. Of course, his eventual comeuppance is an inevitability.
This is all familiar stuff to anyone acquainted with the source material or the other cinematic versions. The main difference is one of emphasis. Although it was probably just an excuse to exaggerate the nudity and sex, the film presents a very strong statement about society’s shallow obsession with youth and beauty. Pretty much the entire cast fawn over Berger simply because of the way he looks and, as events reach the present day, there’s reference to his developing career as that most 21st Century of professions: the media celebrity. We see him doing a photo shoot with a young model, which we’re told will make her name and he seems to be beginning a film career. It’s certainly an interesting angle and one which a modern day remake could explore in some depth.
The film’s main weaknesses is that the time period is never clearly established. Although the final events certainly take place in contemporary times (dig those King’s Road fashions!), earlier scenes have no period feel whatsoever. We gather that many years are supposed to go by as the tale unfolds (the supporting cast do get some grey hairs) but, if so, then the story began in the 1940s and there’s just no indication of it. In fact, there’s no real sense that time has passed at all.
What aids the film immeasurably is the performance of Berger. He is ideal as Dorian, exhibiting the same clinical detachment as Hurd Hatfield in definitive version ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1945). That was a better film, mainly because the character’s indulgences were left to the imagination which endowed them with much more twisted possibilities than we see here. Also George Sanders was perfect casting as Sir Henry and delivered an acting tour de force, which Lom simply couldn’t hope to match. In fact, the character’s role as an insidious influence that corrupts everyone he meets is mostly assumed by Dorian, who is more proactive in this version.
Elsewhere, Liljedahl gives a much brighter Sybil than the soppy one provided by Angela Lansbury in the 1940’s film and Todd is reliably solid as painter, Sir Basil. Apparently, he was only aware of the film’s more salacious content when he found out it was showing in a ‘certain kind of West End cinema‘ shortly after it was released. ln a strange non-coincidence, Christopher Lee had the same experience with ‘Eugenie… The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’ (1970) which starred Liljedahl in the title role, but, far more significantly, was also produced by Harry Alan Towers!
Director Massimo Dallamano began as a cinematographer and shot the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy with Clint Eastwood; before moving into the canvas chair with ‘Banditos’ (1967). A mixture of westerns and giallo thrillers followed, including the well-regarded ‘What Have You Done To Solange?’ (1972), although he’s probably most famous for controversial erotic drama ‘Venus ln Furs’ (1969).
Berger is mostly known for working on a string of projects with famous director Luchino Visconti, although he did appear in ‘The Godfather, Part ll’ (1974) and featured in one season of U.S. mega-soap ‘Dynasty.’ Todd made his breakthrough in war drama ‘The Hasty Heart’ (1949) and went on to lead ‘The Dam Busters’ (1955) and ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’ (1961). Liljedahl never progressed beyond roles where she had to take her clothes off and retired soon after this; by all accounts regretting the whole thing.
This is a decent, enjoyable adaptation which manages a surprising amount of interesting sub-text for a movie of this kind. As a footnote, it’s interesting that amongst all the female nudity, actress Maria Rohm has her naughty bits covered (in true Austin Powers style!) with a conveniently placed pot plant when she appears naked! Why? Well, she was married to producer Harry Alan Towers!