Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Retro Review: DORIAN GRAY (1970)

(Italy/West Germany - 1970)

Directed by Massimo Dallamano. Written by Marcello Coscia and Massimo Dallamano. Cast: Helmut Berger, Richard Todd, Herbert Lom, Marie Liljedahl, Margaret Lee, Maria Rohm, Beryl Cunningham, Isa Miranda, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Renato Romano, Stewart Black, Giancarlo Badessi, Bobby Rhodes. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Calling itself "a modern allegory based on the work of Oscar Wilde," DORIAN GRAY is an adaptation of Wilde's scandalous 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, updated to the mod, swinging London of its present day 1970. The shift to a then-contemporary setting seems gimmicky, especially with its protagonist becoming a cover-boy centerfold in a gay nudie mag and seen in some garish outfits that Austin Powers wouldn't be caught dead in, but more importantly, it helps allow the film to go to places forbidden in the era of the prestigious 1945 version from MGM. Produced by the well-traveled Harry Alan Towers, who never found a public domain source novel he didn't love, the film is explicit and exploitative, but it's also surprisingly faithful to both Wilde's novel and the 1945 film, and with its supporting cast comprised largely of Towers stock company regulars, it feels very much like a high-end, Towers-produced Jess Franco film of the era, such as VENUS IN FURS, COUNT DRACULA, or THE BLOODY JUDGE. But it's directed by Massimo Dallamano, a veteran cinematographer (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE) who would soon cement his place in Eurocult history with the 1972 giallo/krimi hybrid WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?  Dallamano is a much more disciplined filmmaker than Franco, and while he doesn't shy away from numerous gratuitous sex scenes, they're handled with a certain degree of eroticism that avoids the inevitable erratically-focused crotch-zooms that Franco would've offered.

DORIAN GRAY was also a showcase for Helmut Berger in the title role, fresh off his star-making turn in Luchino Visconti's controversial, X-rated 1969 film THE DAMNED. Openly bisexual and known for his many conquests and indulgent playboy lifestyle, Berger was involved with the 35-years-older Visconti from 1964 until the director's death in 1976, and while he starred in several other Visconti films like 1973's LUDWIG and 1974's CONVERSATION PIECE, his influence was apparent and his presence felt even when he wasn't in one, such as 1971's DEATH IN VENICE, where Dirk Bogarde's aging composer grows obsessed with the "stunning beauty" of a 14-year-old boy. As he got older, Visconti's films exhibited a fixation on the beauty of youth and the inevitable decay brought by age. Like Visconti, DORIAN GRAY is obsessed with Berger, the camera lingering all over him, its infatuation with him rivaled only by the salivating attention paid to him by every character, female and male, throwing themselves at Dorian. Wilde's novel wasn't exactly subtle in its homoeroticism, and the subtext may have been there between the lines in 1945, but DORIAN GRAY, while not shying away from gratuitous female nudity, fully embraces the gay aspects of Wilde. Presumably, some of the more salacious material was toned down for AIP's US release, which was cut from 101 minutes to 93, but considering the time of its production, the homosexual element of DORIAN GRAY, even with more implied than actually shown, was unusual territory for Towers. The veteran producer obviously saw some of Berger's work with Visconti and, along with Dallamano, co-opted those recurring themes into a film that's still "exploitation" at the end of the day, but nevertheless a bit more classy than what Towers was making with Franco at the time.

Dorian starts out as just a good-looking, 21-year-old Londoner with a penchant for velvet scarves and tight jeans, introduced posing for a portrait painted by his artist friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd), an older man clearly nursing an unspoken attraction.The finished work haunts Dorian, who says aloud that he'd sell his soul to maintain the perfect vision of beauty captured on the canvas. Dorian falls hard for virginal actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl, from Franco's EUGENIE: THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION), but is inspired to explore his wild side after a chance meeting where Basil introduces him to wealthy art enthusiast, nobleman, and all-around perv Sir Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his nymphomaniac sister Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee). The hedonistic siblings are both instantly infatuated with Dorian, persistent in persuading him to ditch Sybil, even openly mocking her limited acting abilities when Dorian drags them all to see her performance of Romeo and Juliet at a tiny, sparsely-attended theater. Sir Henry convinces Dorian to indulge in every whim and desire while he's young, before time turns him into "an old and hideous puppet" reflecting on his long-gone days of carefree youth. Dorian takes Sir Henry's advice and runs with it, bedding both Gwendolyn and elderly society matron Mrs. Ruxton (Isa Miranda) before a fight with Sybil ends their relationship. He plans on reconciling until Sir Henry almost joyously informs him that Sybil was so distraught over Dorian leaving her that she committed suicide. Sir Henry consoles his grieving young friend with these comforting words of sympathy like a devil on his shoulder: "Everything is yours. Take it. Enjoy it."

And boy, does he. And with every debauched, perverse transgression--diving into S&M with Gwendolyn and sleeping with wealthy Esther Clouston (Eleonora Rossi Drago) before encouraging them to explore one another; a leering seduction by Sir Henry, who joins Dorian in the shower and lathers him up after helpfully picking up the young man's dropped bar of soap;  seducing the new bride (Towers' wife Maria Rohm) of his friend Alan (Renato Romano) and forcing her to fellate him; and cruising the marina for men and picking up a stranger (DEMONS' Bobby Rhodes!) in a public restroom--Basil's portrait of Dorian, hidden in Dorian's attic, ages and grows more grotesque, reflecting both the years and the moral corruption and self-absorbed decadence that he's adopted as a lifestyle. The years go by, and as Sir Henry, Basil, and everyone age, Dorian looks the same and hasn't changed. This ultimately leads to murder, blackmail, and revenge, as Sybil's brother James (Stewart Black) enters the picture, following Dorian on his nightly prowls of houses of ill repute in the red-light district (including a gay bar subtly named "The Black Cock," where Dorian's a regular known by the patrons as "Sir Galahad"), sworn to avenge his sister's suicide after she was cruelly dumped many years ago.

For a sleazy Harry Alan Towers production, DORIAN GRAY is well-made and surprisingly engrossing, though it does bungle the time element. If we're to assume 1970 as a starting or ending point, with the passing of 20 years being a key element, then the characters here were either wearing hip-hugging bell-bottoms in 1950 or were still wearing hilariously dated mod, shagadelic clothing in "the future" of 1990. There's also an interesting but under-explored layer added to the story with Liljedahl playing a different character later in the film, instantly reminding Dorian of the dead Sybil, a development that owes more to Italian horror than Oscar Wilde. Better handled is a framing device involving a bloody murder where the identity of the victim is initially unclear but gives the film somewhat of a giallo vibe, not surprising given Dallamano's interest in the subgenre. Its scenes of sexuality go far but are tastefully handled, though an insane montage of Dorian's conquests on a yacht excursion, accompanied by some Edda dell'Orso-esque "La-la-la-la-la..." Eurolounge vocals, is a gift that never stops giving. DORIAN GRAY played US grindhouses and drive-ins in the fall of 1970 and well into 1971, and was in regular rotation on late-night TV in a version that had to be cut to shreds. It was released on Blu-ray and DVD by Raro in 2011 but was quickly recalled due to some technical glitches and re-released even though the transfer left much to be desired. In late 2018, Raro quietly unveiled a brand-new Blu-ray edition of DORIAN GRAY (because physical media is dead) with a new and much-improved transfer, under its European title THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY, and it's unquestionably the best it's ever looked, helping make the case that this is a forgotten gem worthy of rediscovery.

DORIAN GRAY opening in Toledo, OH on 6/2/1971, on an unlikely
 drive-in double bill with AIP's G-rated WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

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