rev., March 27 2014
note, please see Part 2 of this essay in a later post.
The haunted portrait in the story The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the preeminent of haunted portraits in modern horror, and, while hardly the first haunted portrait in the movies, its appearance and explanation in the 1945 Hurd Hatfield/George Saunders/Angela Lansbury version of the movie is distinct in director Albert Lewin’s instrumentalizing the picture in a subtley effective way. Right from the first, the movie makes the correct decision to make itself and the story as a whole only about the portrait, that is, it is told from the POV of the portrait from the first. We start out, that is, in Hallward’s studio, the portrait is at our back, we see a sketch, so we know what he is working on, but it is a secret, and why is it a secret
It is a secret, Basil confesses, because some strange energy has overseen the creation of the portrait. He explains that the painting all but created itself, he just followed along, it painted itself, it was a mystical experience. This almost effortless, made without his own hands quality, he attributes to some magic power, that has a spiritual value, he says that he may not show this painting ever because he has put so much soul into it. Thus, the first not seeing of the painting means something, it signals it as a miracle creation, made by a natural force that is greater than art. In this shot, also in the opening sequence, we see Basil with his paints, and a herm in the background. While a common sculptural element in gardens, in this shot such a boundary marking statue, presided over by the god of boundaries, indicates the sense that Basil has that somehow in creating this portrait has he cross over the boundary of art, into something else
In a commentary on the film, Angela Lansbury remarked at how careful the director Al Lewin and his support art direction staff were in placing pictures about the shot, for them to mean something. Thus, it must mean something that such a large painting, as the one in the background of this shot, backdrops the whole scene, and, in fact, backdrops the corner of the room where Dorian poses.
Though I cannot identify the picture without research, I can liken it stylistically to a conventional royal or official type of idyllic painted at the time, such as Winterhalter’s Princess Eugenie and her Ladies (1855), all of whom are arrayed across the canvas in the same way (so it would take little imagination to strip them, and present them in a pantomime of Diana and her ladies at the bath
On one level, as official painting, this is meant to represent, one presumes, what Basil usually does, and what his portrait of Dorian Gray most definitely is not. That is, in terms of art at the time, this is art, and the portrait is something—more than art. But then too if a picture of Diana, it represents Basil as Acteaon, an artist who, having had such a moment, seeing into nature, will now suffer a terrible fate as a result of it. The animal theme is not picked up however by a deer, but by a cat, and a butterfly. The cat appears early. Not only is Basil working on a sketch of one as he talks with Basil out in the garden
But it is the primary property of the portrait, and, as such, will come to have a very important role, as it is strongly instrumentalized in the course of the movie, right on up to the end. But overlaid in over this particular scene, informing the natural relation created between Basil’s interest in Dorian and Dorian’s mystery, is Basil spying a rare butterfly in the garden, capturing it,
And killing it, in a chemical (not unlike a killer jar), and in this shot it is clear that Lewin means for Basil’s way of collecting beautiful things of nature and turning them into specimens in his culture, to be compared to way he is collecting Dorian, and prompting him and Basil both to say to much with regard to the painting. Thus, Dorian is another one of Basil’s butterflies, and, once he comes under Basil’s influence, and his head is turned by his praise of youth, he is easily caught, and killed as a living being, the implication being that once you want to freeze yourself in a particular moment you are no longer living,
This beautifully interwoven complicating sequence is then made still thicker by Gladys coming in to ask if she could sign the picture, and, here again, Basil resigns his unique artistry in making it, still struggling to discern how it is that he painted his best picture in this work, so he attributes part of the magic of its authorship to Gladys, making her involved in the picture too, a lovely complication that enriches this telling of the story,
So, the movie has made use of contrast with current art, dialog, character, a butterfly, a cat and a girl, to weave a supernatural aura around the picture. But it required one last push too. And this is provided by color. Color was rare at the time, because expensive. Gone with the Wind was in color, and then in the Wizard of Oz was the magic black and white-to-color moment on coming into Oz. In the context of a movie, color then represented a breaking through the limitations of the meidum, and black and white, back to nature itself, not art, but the thing itself, the prototype, and, if only an intermedial relation between film and painting, than punching through movies back to painting itself. Thus, color as it were let us clear our black and white sleepy eyes and see the real thing itself, with full clear sense of its beauty, itself further enhanced by the rouge and luster of the color.
While this is an impressive moment, and was likely much more impressive then, one has to concede that Enrique Medina’s portrait is not that terrific, even though in its Boldonesque elegant realism reined in by photographic realism it became the singular prototype of so many modern haunted portraits in modern movies. But, as color, Dorian depicted is nature itself, is Dorian, and is Dorian now, in the moment of its wow, its love at first sight perception, and that, after all, the moment that Dorian wishes upon, his first sight of this reality, breaking through art, to something essentially real. But the thing that the movie focuses on is the cat
By making it color, the movie gave it back its supernatural reality. As Saunders points out, after Dorian makes his idle wish, be careful, you are in the presence of one of the 73 great gods of Egypt, it just might come true. And what this colored image of the cat says is that, now, yes, he has that power, and then, too, he takes it back in the black and white movie, and has become, by the process of being painted, or included in the painting, a magic talisman with a power that extends to the extrafictional dimension, and so the movie cuts back to the cat,
In actual art history, this is Bastet, a guardian god, unrelated, in fact, to resurrection, but mentioned as the epitome of the 73 great gods it represents Egypt, and the taste for Egyptian things that is apparent both in Basil’s and Dorian’s apartments. Thus, it represents, generically, life after death, an afterlife as a ka, or spirit, free of the body. Its presence then acts as a genie as it has the power to grant Dorian’s wish, and so it does. The cat thereafter plays a surprising strong role in the movie, it instrumentalizes and signifies the evil of every act of his that will require the magic contract for him not to age as a result of what he is doing. When he does his evil thing with Sybil, and asks her to stay the night, to whore herself to him, the cat is there
It signifies his changed nature, acting according to Basil’s test, in this shot, as she leaves in tears
when the picture is removed from the main room, it becomes the presiding genius of the house, making the magic of the house keep on happening
Since the cat is a god from ancient Egypt it knows much of secrecy and tombs, and when he decides to put the picture behind closed doors up in the room at the top of the house, wonderfully played out in this version of the story, the cat acts as his psychopomp, leading him deeper into the afterlife created for him by this contractual arrangement of biofeedback between his youth and age, and good and evil, in the house
a generation later, when Dorian is now completely decadent, indulging in parties where such foreign things are done, a signifying of debauchery, the cat stands guards, taking over now his truest meaning, as the guard of all of the secrets of the house
When he fakes coming in late, after murdering Basil, the cat is the accomplice, so it also represents evil
And it is there too offering him backup, and strength to act in catspaw manipulative ways exploiting the weaknesses of others to keep his plots secret from the world, by this point too the cat becomes the altar god of the cult of the portrait as Dorian places a copy of the verse of Omar Khayyam that is used as the emblem of the story, the psychologization of the drama into a psychomachia in the soul,
And for a time, as Gladys grown, played with cautious fear by Donna Reed, his relationship with Gladys is just an adjunct of his relationship with the painting, she is but a handmaiden of the portrait, she signed it, she is part of the inner drama of the portrait, and thus when marriage is suggested she asks her and Gladys is sitting directly across the table from him in the posture and in the coiffure and in the fur of the cat.
Now, in the first reel, it is not clear that Hatfield could carry off Dorian. His stiff manner is offputting, until one comes to understand that, as noted by Lansbury in her DVD commentary, Lewin was positively maniac in insisting that Hatfield make no facial gesture, they called cut often, because he would move a muscle, it drove Hatfield crazy, Dorian was to be as stiff as the portrait, as fixed in behavior as in time, and as silent and still and quiet as that cat, a creature completely consumed by the cult of the picture, and by his blasphemous oath of soul exchange, very similar to selling himself to the devil. The movie is also less than compelling in the sequence of the seduction of Sybil Vane, though, it has to be said, the fullness of the treatment of this section of the story is exemplary in this telling, and though tiresome in some regards, plays a central role in the deepening cult because of course what does a cat plays with but a canary, and Lansbury sings her anthem, yellow bird, about herself, Indeed, in this shot, just before Dorian makes his testing request, the cat shadows her, she is in danger
Then too she contributes to the complications of the knots in the story by in turn not seeing Dorian as real either, but seeing him as the walking embodiment of her own idea of what is perfect, a poster of Sir Tristan, so, they never really had a relationship, they were idealizing at cross purposes through each other, playing with each other, in a catspaw fashion once again
It is also in this sequence, that modern audiences may be tempted most to laugh, as when Dorian makes what today would be a fairly common request, tears come to her eyes, she is shamed, Dorian has violated her ideal image of him, and shown her that he does not see an ideal in her, it is a crushing, evil moment
It is also during the sequence where Dorian regrets his actions the morning after and sits down to write a note of apology that Lansbury talks about how the art director was so particular in placing paintings all around the shots, and then she says, of that shot, which I do not have, he also put all that china all over the place, though I am not sure why: well, I am, it was to signify her fragility, and breakage, that, at that moment, his and her ideals were being broken.
In this particular shot, the care taken to make each object mean something would mean that the blackamoor torchieres, as I have analyzed in other movies, represent the arrival of death, the fact that death will come, and in a scene very shortly from that moment, to a person in that shot. But then there is also the large portrait of an elegant woman, in the style of Whistler or Eakins, at the back of the room, nothing is ever said of it, but it is the second portrait behind the portrait of Dorian Gray in the movie and it is likely to me that it represents his mother
Through all of this part of the movie, hatfield had to play Dorian almost as if he was a real character in a real movie, interacting with people, living life, being gay and happy, and the contrast between his mask like facial stiffness and the demands of the part may make one think that Hatfield is doing some bad acting, and is not up to the part (I also want to say that I believe it is possible that Lewin decided to borrow from silent movies and the tradition of the questioning face shot several of Dorian’s characteristics, at times I felt echoes of The Lodger in Dorian’s manner). So, about a half hour in, one is worried: is this really turning out to be such a good movie. But it is at this point, that Dorian notices that the picture changes. The movie shifts over entirely from a courtly drama to a psychological study, signaled by the now dominant role of the narrator, a masterful voice-only performance by Cedric Hardwicke, and one of his great performances , in a soft, hushed tone, for the relationship between Dorian and his portrait, perhaps speaking the voice of Bastet, narrating the tale,
And now the relationship between Dorian and his picture of enters into its crisis stage. For that, part 2 forthcoming.