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?

The Secret of Dorian Gray, direct­ed by Massimo Dallamano from Rarovideousa on Vimeo.