Raro Video/eOne reveals THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY, director Massimo Dallamano’s run-in with producer Harry Alan Towers, Visconti muse Helmut Berger, Sweden’s INGA Marie Liljedahl and unveiled homoeroticism.
Set in a swinging 1960s London that does not change over the thirty years or so that the story covers, this “modern allegory” begins with Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger, SALON KITTY) frantically washing blood off his hands and then goes into flashback mode. Painter Basil Hallward (Richard Todd, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS) is painting a portrait of Dorian, Marlboro Man style shirtless in jeans, when the sitting is upset by the arrival of jaded Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom, THE PINK PANTHER) and his equally decadent sister Alice (Maria Rohm, VENUS IN FURS). While Henry gazes at the painting, Alice is ogling the real thing as a speedo-clad Dorian showers and towels off on the deck of Basil’s yacht/studio. Dorian stops in at a closed theater and discovers young actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl, INGA) rehearsing a monologue from “Romeo and Juliet” and is instantly captivated by her. Although Basil has been moved to paint Dorian, it is Henry who really makes the younger man aware of the extent of his beauty and the advantages of his youth and how quickly he will lose it; so much so that he begins to hate the eternally youthful portrait Basil has gifted him. Dorian takes his friends to see Sybil’s performance as Juliet and is humiliated by her distracted performance. He breaks things off with her and she kills herself. After learning of this, Dorian notices a subtle but strange alteration in his portrait (he even takes a sample of the paint to be tested by his chemist friend Alan [Renato Romano, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE]). Realizing that the painting is doing his aging for him, Dorian hides it away in the attic and dives headlong into vice and decadence. When Dorian meets Gladys (Liljedahl again), the wife of a physician friend of Lord Henry’s, and intends to pursue her, Basil warns him to leave her alone. Angered at Basil’s condemnation of him, Dorian reveals the secret of the portrait to its artist and resorts to murder to keep it secret.
Billed as “a modern allegory based on the work of Oscar Wilde,” the screenplay – credited to Dallamano and Marcello Coscia (THE LIVING DEAD AT THE MANCHESTER MORGUE), while German prints credit Gunter Ebert (Franco’s SADOMANIA) – does not offer the supernatural explanation of the 1945 film (the Egyptian cat statue is featured prominently in one of the publicity stills for that adaptation). The painting stays hidden for much of the film, and its reveals are nowhere near as striking as the in the earlier adaptation (although that monochrome version did have the gimmick of full color inserts). Whereas the 1945 film gave Dorian a second love interest in the form of Basil’s daughter who was a child when her father painted Dorian, this version introduces Gladys Mournmoth as Sybil’s married and less naïve double, but this and the scenes where Sybil’s brother hunts Dorian down for vengeance provide no suspense. The problem with setting the film in the swinging 1960s was that the filmmakers had no conception of what would come afterward. While all of Dorian’s friends outgrow him – Basil regrets exposing Dorian to Lord Henry’s influence, Alice has entered into a respectable marriage with Dorian’s college friend Alan, and even Henry has softened with age – the London of this era still seems receptive to Dorian’s excesses (with perhaps the exception of the zebra-striped fur coat – to match the curtains in his drawing room – he wears while walking through the streets late in the film). On television, Shane Briant (DEMONS OF THE MIND) essayed the role in Dan Curtis’ UK-shot 1973 TV movie, while Peter Firth (EQUUS) played the role for the “BBC Play of the Month” version (with Jeremy Brett as Basil and John Geilgud as Lord Henry), Belinda Bauer (THE ROSARY MURDERS) played a female version in THE SINS OF DORIAN GRAY, directed by Tony Maylam (THE BURNING) and also starring Anthony Perkins and Joseph Bottoms (in the Sybil Vane role). More recently, Dorian Gray has been played by Ethan Erickson (JAWBREAKER) – as PACT WITH THE DEVIL with Malcolm McDowell – and “Mr. Fergie” Josh Duhamel (TRANSFORMERS) in modern updates, and a CGI-ridden period mess with Ben Barnes (PRINCE CASPIAN) and Colin Firth.
Berger – who had already made an international impression with his good looks and his mini-Kinski over-the-top acting style in Luchino Visconti’s THE DAMNED the year before – is good-looking enough to be Dorian Gray, but it is hard to believe in the film’s modern setting that his character could be so insulated from even an awareness of vice until he meets Lom’s Henry. His dubbed performance is generally good, with the exception of his hilarious delivery of “unveil my soul!” Lom is no George Sanders, but he seems to enjoy delivering Lord Henry’s philosophy. Todd is hammy as Basil, scripted here with little of the idealism of the character in the novel (Wilde once said of his characters “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps.”) and his old age make-up fares poorly in the new transfer. Liljedahl was at the height of her beauty here and is ravishing to behold both clothed and bare. Rohm does not have as much to do here compared to her Franco works (she was mainly a visual presence in VENUS IN FURS but gave a compelling performance in EUGENIE – THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERFORMANCE that eclipsed Liljedahl’s heroine). Margaret Lee has only a small bit as Henry’s wife, who Dorian sleeps with the same night he dumps Sybil. Isa Miranda (BAY OF BLOOD) shows up as a society dowager with a taste for younger men (and horses). Cunningham is, as usual, an entertaining and exotic presence as the photographer-turned-Dorian’s hedonistic cohort (she escorts a drunk Alan home so Dorian can seduce Alice again).
THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY was one of two Dallamano films released in the US by Commonwealth United (the AIP offshoot that distributed Franco’s 99 WOMEN, VENUS IN FURS, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, and Lenzi’s ORGASMO as PARANOIA), the other being A BLACK VEIL FOR LISA with John Mills, Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Hoffman (which, like PARANOIA, was re-edited but also had a theme song added by “Happy Together” lyricists Alan Gordon and Gary Bonner). Just as the Towers-produced 1988 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” adaptation EDGE OF SANITY – directed by Franco editor Gerard Kikoine (BURIED ALIVE) – also feels like it might have started life as a Franco project in the 1970s (it’s scripted by one “J.P. Felix”), DORIAN seems like it might have been intended for the Spanish director. Dallamano’s direction, however, is better suited to the more focused script. I can’t help but wonder if Towers penned the English dialogue, since he wrote the films he produced during this period under the penname Peter Welbeck. It does feature a Franco-esque cast with Lom (99 WOMEN and COUNT DRACULA), Liljedahl (EUGENIE – THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION), Rohm (all of Franco’s Harry Alan Towers ventures), and Margaret Lee (THE BLOODY JUDGE). Berger would not work with Franco until the director’s 1980s “work for hire” period, while Todd and Beryl Cunningham (SO SWEET…SO PERVERSE) – as a kinky fashion photographer – never worked with Franco. Editor Nicholas Wentworth also cut Franco’s Towers-produced JUSTINE and VENUS AND FURS as well as James Kelley’s WHAT THE PEEPER SAW/NIGHT HAIR CHILD (credited to BURIAL GROUND’s Andrea Bianchi on Italian prints).
Very un-Franco-like is the cinematography of Otello Spila (THE VIOLENT FOUR) frames Dorian’s and Sybil’s love scenes – as well as his first POV shot of her – behind drooping leafy vines and branches evocative of Eden and utilizing subtle to progressively prominent red, violet, and green gel lighting to underline the increasing decadence of Dorian’s jet-set crowd (culminating in the discotheque sequence). The lighting becomes more naturalistic again during the downward trajectory of the last 20 or so minutes of the film with the garish colors being transferred to Dorian’s altered portrait. Spila’s camera movements and usually striking wide-angle framing, combined with some eye-popping costumes, provide for a frequently dazzling visual experience compared to his preceding erotica effort VENUS IN FURS with Laura Antonelli (made the same year as the Franco film). Spila is only credited as cinematographer on three films, but he was a camera operator on Roger Vadim’s BLOOD AND ROSES, Polanski’s WHAT?, Pasolini’s TEOREMA, as well as Dallamano’s own KILLER COP. The main title of Carlo Pes (THEY WERE CALLED GRAVEYARD) and Peppino de Luca (THE MAN WITH ICY EYES) spikes its romantic main theme with electronically processed sounds while the rest of the score grounds (the soundtrack was recently released on CD by Digitmovies in Italy). The solarized, art collage credits seem to have also been a contribution of the Italian side of the production. I’m assuming art director Mario Ambrosino (AUTOPSY) was also responsible for the costumes since his CV also includes Fellini’s AMARCORD as an assistant costume designer.
DORIAN GRAY was released twice on video cassette in the U.S., first by NTA Entertainment in an attractive rental case edition whose front cover made use of the Commonwealth United poster artwork, and then again in 1990 from Republic Pictures Home Video in an SP-mode slipcover sell-through edition. Both editions abbreviated the title on the cover and cassette label to DORIAN GRAY, although the title sequence retained the SECRET title (the film was also released on cassette in Canada through CIC in the 1980s with the full title on the case). These editions represented the abbreviated 92 minute cut of the film (an early UK pre-cert tape ran ten minutes shorter). The German DVD release from Kinowelt was 4:3 letterboxed at 1.66:1 and reflected the German cut of the film (running just under 91 minutes), with some footage exclusive to this cut but also lacking some bits from the English version (thanks to the good people at the British site Lovelockandload for information on the various cuts). Since the Raro Italy disc was announced with the English track, it was expected that that edition would represent the English cut of the film, but purchasers were surprised to discover that the cut on the disc was an integral version compiling footage exclusive to both the German and English cuts of the film. Raro Video’s Italian PAL edition was sourced from a standard-def edition and framed at 1.85:1 with anamorphic enhancement. The first difference is a short teaser scene before the opening credits (U.S. prints and tape releases opened abruptly with the title card). The bitrate was fairly low because the 97 minute (at PAL 25fps) film was crammed onto a single-layer disc with a 30-minute interview with the assistant director Maurizio Tanfani (featured here with English subtitles). Although it did feature the English dub, it featured no subtitles for the Italian track or the interview.
The first pressing of Raro Video/eOne’s NTSC edition had an authoring error that made the last half hour or so of the film virtually unwatchable due to heavy pixellation covering virtually the entire frame. This has been corrected on the new pressing and it is indeed a major improvement over the Italian edition. It is mastered from a new high-definition transfer framed at a roomier 1.66:1 (although the 1.85:1 framing did not impede the compositions, and would have been the choice for U.S. projection). The new master seems to have been transferred from the same source, but the HD mastering and the dual-layer encoding results in a superior image (minus the faint greenish tinge and revealing the subtle use of some other color gels in the scenes featuring the painting). The Italian audio track is in no better condition – the uncredited liner notes author assumes that it came from a old master struck for Italian TV – but the English subtitles are a welcome addition even though the cleaner English track features the voices of Lom, Todd, and Berger (an Australian import edition is reportedly a direct port of the Raro disc with the addition of English subtitles). (Eric Cotenas)
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