There is blood on the hands of Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger), literally, for he has just committed an act of murder. To find out why he has done this, we must go back in time to when he was working out what he wanted to do with his life as a young man, mostly drifting and capitalising on his physical attractiveness to see him right. He poses for a painting by his older friend Basil (Richard Todd) that will capture his handsome looks for all time, but isn’t particularly interested in art; something that does catch his eye is actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) who he meets as she rehearses for the female lead in a theatrical production of Romeo and Juliet. They both have such promise to fulfil…
Producer Harry Alan Towers continued his raiding of the public domain with this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated novel which has been returned to a number of times by filmmakers, most famously in the Hollywood version of the nineteen-forties. This incarnation was considerably less classy, yet while the best known variation couldn’t depict the debauchery that Dorian is meant to be getting up to, when this was filmed in 1969 the censors were relaxing their rules of what could be shown and Towers obliged all those audiences looking for something more racy by adding the sex scenes and nudity to the story that had not previously been allowed. It was a mark of how time marches on that this didn’t appear that controversial now.
Indeed, for much of the running time it was rather tame, only occasionally, even tentatively, putting the lurid business of Dorian’s days and nights on the screen but even then, say, shooting an outdoor sex scene with a bunch of foliage in the way so we could be well aware what was happening, but not getting an eyeful of anything too graphic. It was then you realised Towers and his Italian director Massimo Dallamano were not going to go full throttle with the naughtiness, and instead offered the occasional coy example of that sort of thing when the rest of it was mainly earnest conversations, which may have been cheap to film but didn’t exactly make for a riveting experience to watch, no matter how much late sixties chic they dressed the movie with.
To be fair, Berger was a pretty good choice for Dorian, fresh off his big break in The Damned and as in that lending a more sinister quality to his pretty boy blonde looks that the role really needed. The opening couple of minutes suggested a better film was about to unfold than the one we had, as Dallamano presented his protagonist’s bloody hands from the character’s point of view, then Dorian settles in front of a roaring hearth, petting his black cat and contemplating what giving up his life to as much sex as possible has done to his state of mind. Thereafter, this was a bit of a plod, with even Herbert Lom as Henry Wotton not getting the witty lines you would have expected from a Wilde adaptation, though he was offered the surprising sight of him soaping up Berger in the shower for some implied rumpy-pumpy.
But that was the trouble, with so much implied you never had the impression all concerned truly had taken the material by the scruff of the neck and really let loose with it, so when there was so much geared to be shocking, it was a letdown to be left contemplating what a better version would have looked like. When the most repulsive activities Dorian gets up to are offscreen and largely alluded to, such as the sequence where he catches the eye of a strapping black gentleman on holiday and they… end up relieving themselves at urinals next to one another, which was presumably some sort of metaphor, then you had a right to ponder how resolutely unexciting this was. All you had was the imagery of Swinging London (and swinging other locations) to offer a historical interest, and that was heading towards the decidedly non-swinging seventies very quickly, and the occasional unintentional amusement such as Dorian satisfying the ageing horse breeder from behind in one of her own stables as she politely greets her staff when they pass by. Groovy music by Peppino De Luca and Carlos Pes.