The haunted portrait of Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Part 2

rev., March, 2014.

Note: please see Part 1 of this essay in a previous posting

By midway through The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Dorian is entrapped by his portrait. His separate reality as a viewer of his portrait is replaced by a cult relationship to his eidol, but in a primitive magic way, characterized by expiation, and underscored by primitive fears that your soul could go into a picture. Once this happens, the movie and Dorian turns its back on society, and, amazingly enough, the movie gets much better, and in two successive removes, first, Dorian separating himself from society, relating to no other person furthermore as he will to his portrait, but, second, as he becomes in fact in time a wax figure or a work of art compared to people now twice removed from him. It is masterfully done, I don’t know of any other movie that removes itself from its surroundings like this movie. This removal into the quiet almost whispering voice of the narration, into the cult of secrecy, is symbolized by the removal of the picture to the top of the house, the firing of staff, and the distancing of Dorian from all social connections. In a remarkable scene, which Basil acquiesces to only because he too felt something strange when painting it, Dorian now usurps the artist’s right over his own work, that is, his role as modern artist as the agent of a work of his agency, and claims it as the private object of his own cult, it reverts to a primitive stage.

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Then we come to, if the portrait itself is not thrilling enough, what I think is the most thrilling instrument of the horror of the whole movie, the room at the top of the house, his old school room, subject of some of the most beautiful shots, and most effective set design, in the movie

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That room actually also brings into the arsenal of instruments of the horror a few additional objects, layering in over it deeper meaning, the little blue boy artifacts of his youth

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the knife

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These come into play, in a little boy blue, knife, school days and portrait complex, in what is by far the most thrilling sequence in the movie, the murder of the artist, the complete extermination of the human maker of the portrait, making of it, then, an entirely acheiropoetoi miracle natural image

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(I note in passing that the Lorrainian landscape in the foyer here as in so much horror signifies a walking into, a leading down a path, a crossing over into a supernatural realm). He takes Basil up to see the picture, and it is in the context of Basil seeing it, and his shock over its change, that we see it too. For this, the moment again resorts to the device of turning color, this time to enhance not beauty but shock,

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How might this had happened to the portrait? The idea was that Dorian was upset that the picture would stay young, and he would grow old. As a result, his relationship with the picture would turn to one of regret and pshaw and nostalgia and sadness at lost youth, regret and depression, then, too. He did not want that, in appraisal of that portrait. So he reversed the relationship between art and life, he asked the god Bastet to make him young, and let the picture grow old. How would that happen? It is presumed that no one is perfect, that all people sin. But if a person never aged, never matured, never suffered the physical consequences of sin, so ardently believed in then, in the days before cures of gout and other diseases of overindulgence, then he would have no physiological motivation to restrain himself, grow up, grow moderate and calm down. Nor would he benefit from the loss of temper and testosterone and all the blunt ways of thinking of youth, replaced by a greater ability to keep one’s composure, a loss not only of animalistic sexual urge but also the communal capacity to erase the lines between bodies and submit both to an overriding urge, sex, which is how young people allow themselves to end up in beds with others that older people would think themselves out of a hundred times over before they got there, and then a greater nuance and subtlety, not to mention cynicism, despair and loss of hope, in old age. If, that is, the body is not there to naturally serve as a break to vice, then there is no break to vice, if one could stay young forever, it is just as in The Asphyx (1973), if you cannot die you can do whatever you want in taking risks, or in Groundhog Day (1993), if you wake up tomorrow and it is always the same then you can throw yourself off buildings, there is no consequence in this exchange contract, in the compact with the devil. This is, of course, the Faustian bargain, but it has an interesting insight into youth and age. The unexpected consequences of a wish is of course always the punch line of such tales, and it is here too as the unexpected consequence of his wish and of the actual coming true of his being young forever he can indulge himself entirely in Sir Henry’s philosophy without any consequence whatever to his body, and that means he can indulge himself much more than others, and in greater excess, which would account for the advanced stage of decay in the portrait, that is, the portrait, a living thing, decaying as if it was a dead thing, a thing only, by the time the story ends, only 25 years old, but aged as if 150 or more. But how, physically, does this happen? One, Ivan Albright and his twin brother Malvin both worked on the painting on the set, and both had studied corpses and stages of decay, so they added those elements into the picture. This looks like a zombie at the level of black decay of 50 days at least, a dead body heavily decaying. So there is that. But, second, they also expressed the idea for the painting as a whole. That is, it is not just the portrait part of the picture, Dorian himself, that decays, while the rest of the picture looks fine, it is not the reverse of a realist portrait, where the face is smoothed out, and all the background is indefinite. No, the whole picture decays. That means that they conceptualized the decay as a miasma of broader physical decay that also effected the red velvet screen behind left of Dorian,

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And we see that, like decaying upholstered things will do, it is losing its cover, popping out its underlying cotton, discoloring, and becoming wrinkled, dried out and dust. Thus, we have a list of vices that occur to velvet upholstery, and these can be applied to the painting. How? Well, he have an indication of that, because in the background of the picture of Dorian Gray is a hint of the picture in the studio that I identified as a variant on a Winterhalter, here it is in the original, its figures removed, but here is that green, that is from a painting in the painting

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And here it is, decayed, it is ripped open, there is the physiogomy of a monster there, adding to the horror

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At one point it is said that by some mysterious force the decay had entered into the very fabric of the canvas, and that condition is conveyed by the fact that in the material objects in the background, including a painting, decay is represented as discoloration, ripping, popping out of stuffing, tearing off of surface and drying out. Thus, the decay acts, through the agency of the room, and the dusty attic where no one goes, all conventional devices of decay, it hardly needs description, it is cobwebbing, and the evil, according to standard classic miasma theory, is added into the sulfurous airlessness of that evil place, that place made evil by the placement of the picture there, to cause it to decay

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It is apparent then that the picture’s decay is a representation of the breakdown of art rendered as nature into a state of further decay, a miasma where spirit and physical decay meet to corrupt and kill. It is interesting that while in the movie things are worked out internally, by some internal logic, in trailers for the movie, the movie had to be explained in a more externalized way, in ways that might have a better chance of being understand outside of the internal logic of the movie itself. As a result, the trailer depicts the process of how Dorian’s soul went into the portrait as water running down a drain, a conventional image, related to garbage and bathing issues, which signifies abjection, vertiginously so

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Then it depicts the supernatural force that courses out of Dorian into the back of and out through the picture as a kind of radiation, coming out through it, as if having gone down, now the evil force reverses itself, and comes back out

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Two wonderful shots of the picture, adding to the instrumentation of it. But then, most curiously, it is likely that the makers of the trailer thought, hmmm, we still haven’t quite explained how that picture works, because in one bizarre two second blip in it we see the picture actually come alive, the hand of the portrait, gooily rendered real now, in painterliness itself come alive, as a monster, reaching out to kill for his love for Gladys

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Then sweeping over, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, to kill them, truly remarkable!

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The movie itself does not go there (though the 2009 remake would). It suffices to shock Basil with color, closeup and the awful horrible painting by Ivan Albright, in this shot, Basil is attacked by the affront of  the picture, in shock

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Dorian had decided to show Basil his picture, to establish confidence with him. But then evil Dorian has a full on panic attack, having given Basil this power over him, so he picks up the knife and kills Basil, he becomes then the golem of the evil in the picture. The idea here is that in that close room the evil of the picture willed him to kill, to keep the secret permanent boyhood of that room exempt from life, his face itself becomes unmasklike evil for once

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Next we see the act in shadow play against the portrait, communicating clearly who is really doing the killing, so this is another version of the picture, with shadow (note, in my FB page today, March 27, 2014, I rendered this shadow as an homage to shadow twin Malvin helping Ivan with the picture on set)

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Then Dorian too undergoes a transformation, all done with light, this remarkable shot, where the picture blurred in the left actually seems to come alive, Dorian is now effaced, in shadow

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Then we see the dead man in the shadow

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a composite of Dorian and corpse, a transposition of the condition of his soul in the portrait (Lewin directing this scene almost as wonderfully as Hitchcock might have)

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Then, most interestingly, he implicates the Little Boy Blue banner, representing his boyhood innocence, in the murder, by using that banner to wipe the blood off of the knife

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But as he does this, he wonders if the blood will now appear on the painting, and, sure enough, he is now shocked that by that act alone, in that moment, the portrait has grown even more evil looking, with blood on the face, up on the forehead

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And then blood on the hands, I presume that these are the additions the Albright twins made to the picture on set, that Lansbury was talking about in the commentary, notice too that the feet of the cat (left) are implicated too

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He then famously covers the portrait (a publicity shot derived from this shot)

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Then he begins his cover-up of the crime, as noted. It is interesting that he collects holy pictures, but one of these might well be called a Mary Shelley picture, suggesting a monster behind it

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He puts on his coat and hat and steps out, to ring the door, to fake arriving in late, for the butler to be witness, but notice that the glass is glazed in patterns of knights in shining armor, his lost ideal, and there is a dripping decaying something on the door

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At the end of the movie, he decides to do one good thing, he cannot marry Gladys, he returns from his country house to London, to confront the picture, once again he is in his sanctum sanctorum, his private business, his personal destiny and mystery

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Now with that same pen knife from childhood, his Tristan lance, he will pierce the picture, to end forever this evil compact

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it goes through the picture, out the back, it is a full on stabbing of the art

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We see the picture in still another manifestation or stage of its incredible life, with a knife in it

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Then begins (still more changes!) a transformation sequence, not unlike in Wolfman or Dracula movies, only this time, it is the picture that is killed, and what that means is, since the picture at this point is all its Ivan Albrightness, all that Albrightness now blurs and wobbles and drips like a sleeve of evil paint off of the picture, in a lovely sequence

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The original picture comes into focus, but with a gaping wound in it

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There it is, wearing that knife like it is another accessory, a pocket square

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At this point, we get the punch line as we see that all that miasma in the form of goo and paint and decay has slid off of the canvass and onto the floor and, more precisely, by a supernatural soul-jumping means, into Dorian, who lies dead, but decayed to the age of all the evil he committed, an ungodly old man, the portrait in the flesh, with the wonderful touch, comparing the end to the beginning, the innocence of childhood, of the little boy blue halo (in keeping with psycho artist relations, Dorian clearly did not realize that by killing the painting he was killing himself, so, first made its golem, the monster of his making then kills him)

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and the cat god Bastet, one of the 73 great gods of Egypt, presiding over his tragedy throughout, makes the last face of the movie

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An interesting footnote to this business, to give still more reinforcement to explain the supernatural nature of this picture, is that, a generation later, a reprise of this idea of decay as it might affect a picture and a man showed up in the unlikely place of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, where upon entering the house of Ed Gwynne, the husband has a vision of it in a completely decayed, and decayed beyond decay, condition. When I saw the walls bubble like this, I sat up and thought, hey, that’s just like in the Albright, on the left

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It’s almost as if the art direction folks looked about for some way to visualize extreme afterlife decay as applied to a house and its furnishings, and looked back to Alberight’s Dorian. Then they go up the stairs, more of the same in the corner, a green gooey stuff

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Then a haunted portrait, representing Gwynne’s ancestors, signifying the presence of someone undead in the house

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When at last he lifts a rug to find the body of Gwynne, and how it looked, I said to myself, hey, that is a direct quote from Dorian Gray (1945)

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Those eyes, it pretty much is, so an occult derivation of Ivan Albright in the art direction of a latter day horror movie

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For all this, because of the setup in Basil’s studio, because of situating Sir Henry’s schemes around him, because of the original portrait, the symbol of the cat, the inversion of the movie away from social issues to private character, the room at the top of the stairs, the portrait, and then its amazingly effective instrumentation in the sequence of the murder of Basil, and then, finally, in the finale, in the death of Dorian Gray, for the subtlety and economy of its being put to use to tell the story, this I think is one of the very most inspired instrumentations of the haunted portrait in the history of modern horror movies.