I recently watched Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray for the third or forth time and I was inspired to write about the movie. When the opportunity to contribute to Neil’s Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-a-thon arrived I figured a review of the film would be the ideal contribution since it definitely qualifies as a trashy movie – eurotrash to be exact – and it’s also a personal favorite.
Oscar Wilde’s classic tale of a vain, wealthy and beautiful youth whose sins are preserved in a portrait that ages horribly, while he remains young, has been adapted for the screen many times. But I don’t think any movie except Massimo Dallamano’s 1970 film has been able to really capture the decadence of Wilde’s original story. Dallamano set his film version of Dorian Gray in the present, which at that time was the height of the sexual revolution in the late sixties. This gave the director ample opportunity to explore the world of swingers, uninhibited sex and gender bending through the eyes of the curious Dorian Gray.
The movie stars the attractive German actor Helmut Berger who made a name for himself in some of Luchino Visconti’s best films including The Damned, Ludwig and Conversation Piece but he also appeared in many European thrillers and various other trashy movies such as the notorious Salon Kitty. The critics have never been too kind to Berger, which is a shame because when he’s good, he’s very very good and when he’s bad, he’s still a lot of fun to watch! Helmut Berger has what so many actors lack today, charisma and screen presence.
Massimo Dallamano really couldn’t have picked a better actor to play the vain and self absorbed Dorian Gray. Helmut Berger is clearly enjoying himself in the role and it’s easy to believe that women and men of all ages and sexual persuasions are attracted to him. Berger’s erotic persona and fluid sexuality are used to their fullest extent in the film and the audience is easily able to project their own fantasies into the movie if they’re willing.
The movie opens with a shot of Dorian’s blood-stained hands signaling what’s to come and then we’re immediately taken to a cabaret where a drag queen is performing as Dorian and his companions watch. When the drag queen strips down to reveal sexy black lingerie, you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s impossible to watch the opening moments of Dorian Gray and not be reminded of Helmut Berger’s own drag performance in Visconti’s The Damned where he impersonated Marlene Dietrich. The Damned was released a year earlier and Dallamano’s sly tribute to Helmut Berger’s earlier performance in Visconti’s movie acts as a wonderful introduction to Dorian Gray.
Dorian’s friend Basil Hallward is played by the veteran British actor Richard Todd. Basil is the artist who paints Dorian’s doomed portrait and Richard Todd is convincing as Dorian’s concerned and more mature friend. Thanks to Basil, Dorian is introduced to the conniving and depraved Henry Wotton who’s brilliantly brought to life by another veteran British actor, the great Herbert Lom. Henry and the beautiful Alice (Maria Rohm) introduce Dorian to the dark underbelly of high-society and encourage Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle.
As the film progresses Dorian meets his first love interest in the tragic figure of an aspiring Shakespearean actress named Sybil Vane. Sybil is played by the pretty Swedish actress Marie Liljedahl who’s mostly remembered for the erotic films she made including Jess Franco’s Eugenie. In Dorian Gray we’re asked to believe that Marie Liljedahl is an innocent virgin seduced by the devilish Dorian and it actually works. Thankfully the director doesn’t bore us with their courtship. Dorian and Sybil seem to fall in love at first sight and their relationship quickly turns sexual. The audience knows they’re in love because key lines from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet are played over and over again in the background as the two lovers gaze into each others eyes and roll around in bed together. Sybil devotes herself to Dorian but after he falls in love with his own portrait, Dorian can really only be faithful to himself. Under Henry’s influence Dorian forgets his feelings for the naive Sybil and begins to dabble in the decadent lifestyle that will soon destroy him.
At first Dorian’s passions are rather mild, and include occasional make-out sessions with wealthy socialites, as well as fancy parties with expensive foods and lots of booze. Sybil doesn’t appreciate Dorian’s upper-class friends or approve of their lifestyle and her jealousy turns to delirium when she notices other women flirting with Dorian. After Sybil suddenly kills herself in an act of desperate passion, Dorian succumbs to his most depraved desires. He claims that he feels nothing after Sybil’s death but Dorian tries to bury his grief in random sexual encounters, yacht parties and go-go clubs. He visits bath houses with Herbert Lom, cruises the docks for sailors and seduces a wealthy elderly woman in a horse barn. The Dorian in Massimo Dallamano’s movie has no inhibitions and we get to enjoy his decadent adventures as they’re divulged.
There’s an unusual voyeuristic element added to the film after Massimo Dallamano introduces a pretty female photographer into the story. The photographer starts following Dorian around and snapping photographs of him whenever she can. She seems to become Dorian’s constant companion and helps him blackmail his friend Alan (Renato Romano) by snapping photos of Alan’s lovely wife (Margaret Lee) and Dorian together in bed.
As you may have noticed by now, many of the actors in Dallamano’s film are regulars in Jess Franco’s movies. I’ve read that Franco was originally supposed to direct Dorian Gray before Massimo Dallamano took over so it’s not surprising that the movie’s cast resembles the cast of a Franco film. It would have been interesting to see what Franco could have done with the story but Dallamano’s a skilled director, writer and cinematographer and his talents are on full display in Dorian Gray. Dallamano’s film is fairly faithful to Wilde’s original story and where previous film adaptations rarely suggested any of the sexual decadence that Wilde could only hint at in his book, Dallamano’s movie revels in it. Critics have called the film trashy and lifeless. The movie is undoubtedly trashy but it’s anything but lifeless, especially when it’s compared to other film adaptations of Wilde’s original story
Oscar Wilde was part of the Aesthetic Movement in British literature, which developed the “cult of beauty” and believed that the arts should offer cultivated sensual pleasures instead of morality and sentimentality. The British Aesthetic movement stressed the importance of symbolism and suggestion rather than statement. Intentional or not, Dallamano’s film follows an aesthetic that would have made Wilde proud. The movie celebrates the fashions, decadent lifestyles and sexual freedoms of the times that it was made in with lots of style and very little sentimentality. The beautiful Dorian and the sensual pleasures he indulges in are captured with an unflinching eye and no concern for morality.
Of course in some ways Wilde’s Dorian Gray was a statement against everything the Aesthetic Movement stood for. The story of Dorian Gray celebrates decadence while it criticizes its indulgences. As Dorian’s eventual end approaches he is forced to pay for his sins but the joy of traveling with Dorian on his hedonistic journey is not lost in Dallamano’s film as it is in so many other movie adaptations of Wilde’s story. One of the most interesting things Dallamano does with Dorian is to wrap him in Zebra fur. Dorian has zebra drapes on his windows and zebra fur rugs on his floors. By the end of the film Dorian is dressed in a floor length zebra fur coat that would make many pimps in 1970 envious.
It’s interesting to note that zebras each have a unique stripe pattern that is similar to a persons fingerprint. Zebra can often represent individuality and in occult symbolism a zebra can even suggest knowledge both seen and unseen. Their stripped patterns of black on white or white on black hints that what you see is not always what you get. When the zebra appears in your dreams it can even indicate a time of change or represent hidden knowledge that is about to be revealed. I have no idea if the director had anything in mind when he draped Dorian’s body and decorated his home in zebra fur but I think it’s fascinating to explore what this possible symbolic gesture might suggest.
Finally, I can’t talk about Dallamano’s movie without mentioning the exceptionally groovy score by composer Giuseppe De Luca (A.K.A. Peppino De Luca). It adds many layers to the film and it also celebrates the movies most decadent moments with lots of rhythmic flair.
Unfortunately the film is only available on VHS at the moment and the quality of the prints that are available are rather awful. Hopefully a DVD company like Blue Underground or Mondo Macabro will rescue Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray and restore it to it’s original splendor. The movie really deserves another look and I think critics will be able to appreciate its eurotrash charms now that over 35 years have passed since it’s original release.