The 1970’s was the magical era for wild, decadent Eurocult fare. Europe had the early lead on U.S. filmmakers when it came to the depiction of adult themes and fittingly, the exploitation filmmakers of Europe embraced the opportunity to go wild. A good example was Harry Alan Towers, a producer who loved to mix period settings and pseudo–Masterpiece Theater literary content in with the required sex and violence. The Secret Of Dorian Gray is one of the more underrated entries in his filmography, which benefits from an added boost of artsy Italo-sleaze courtesy of director/co-writer Massimo Dallamano.
The script updates its Oscar Wilde source novel to a modern setting to give it a swinging, “au courant” feel for its 1970-era target audience. Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger) is young, handsome and enjoying the prime of his life. He falls in love with Sybil (Marie Liljedahl), a young actress, and the two decide to spend their lives together. Unfortunately for both, Dorian’s attitudes towards life and love take a turn after two fateful incidents. The first is a meeting with Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom), a debauched and wealthy type whose philosophy of selfish self-indulgence — and circle of similarly decadent friends — take sway over Dorian.
The young man is also stunned by a lifelike portrait of himself painted by his gifted friend Basil (Richard Todd). Dorian says he’d give anything to stay that beautiful forever. After Sybil commits suicide following an argument, Dorian vows to live a life of pure hedonism — and he discovers that his portrait is aging in his place, become ever more twisted and ugly in a way that keeps pace with all of Dorian’s evil acts. As the years pass, Dorian’s behavior becomes more and more twisted but he eventually tires of being wicked — and discovers that his freedom is a very expensive sort of trap.
The end product makes gestures towards social relevance but don’t be fooled — the main draw with The Secret Of Dorian Gray is all the sinning that is shown en route to the moralistic finale. In fact, the dialogue and characterizations remain fairly sketchy throughout and the key emotional elements, particularly the relationship between Dorian and Sybil, are played out a in cheaply melodramatic style that has more to do with Harold Robbins than Oscar Wilde.
Another flaw is that the film doesn’t do so well at depicting the passage of time: it pretty much looks like 1969 from start to finish despite the supposed passage of a few decades and the easiest way to keep track of time is pay attention to the amount of white shoe-polish mixed into the hair of Dorian’s friends as the film progresses.
That said, Eurocult fans won’t care about such problems because whatever this film lacks in depth, it makes up in flash. Dallamano had a background in cinematography and he brings a distinctly Italian touch to the visuals — a great point-of-view sequence filmed with wide-angle lenses comes directly from the giallo playbook — and he brings a similar stylization to the film’s depictions of Dorian’s sins. Other standout moments include a sequence where Dorian’s rich friends pass him around like a party favor during a yacht ride and a scene where he seduces a best friend’s wife while a photographer/partner in blackmail clicks away. Otella Spila’s slick lensing and Peppino De Luca’s psych/lounge score go a long way towards creating the atmosphere that supports these scenes.
There are also a few memorable performances. Berger was in the prime of his fame here, going back and forth between Luchino Visconti epics and sleek sleaze like Salon Kitty, and he has no problem embodying the pansexual, androgynously attractive evil the film requires. He and Liljedahl aren’t that convincing as the doomed couple but when it comes to seductions and scheming, Berger is effortlessly believable. There’s also a legitimately effective turn from Lom, who sells his frequent monologues about the pleasures and pitfalls of decadent living with a solemn, underplayed sense of world-weariness.
In short, The Secret Of Dorian Gray is an entertaining representation of Eurocult’s swinging, stylishly trashy side and well worth rediscovering for genre fans who might have passed it by. Who says classic literature is inaccessible?