Warning SPOILERS!!! This was the first R-Rated film I saw in a theater as a pre-teen, thanks to the Colonial Theater in Pompton Lakes, NJ. It was walking distance from my house and I saw every film they showed during the late-'60s - early-'70s because I became good friends with the manager. No matter the rating (I saw the X-Rated versions of ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN & DRACULA [both 1973] there), he would let me in. It was great being able to walk to a movie theater, pay fifty cents to get in and see all kinds of movies, not just horror. Wiping all nostalgia aside and not realizing at such a young age that I was watching a heavily edited version of the film (a common practice by American International Pictures [A.I.P.], who distributed this film in the United States), let's get on with the review of the uncensored version.
Based on Oscar Wilde's novel "The Picture Of Dorian Gray", the film opens with Dorian Gray (Helmut Berger; THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY - 1971) complaining to some unseen elderly man that the "portrait" is the cause of all his troubles. We then see him washing blood off his hands and then covering up a painting in his attic (in an effective unedited sequence where he walks through his home). Dorian is a troubled young man who stares into his fireplace while stroking his black cat. We then travel back in time to discover why he is so troubled. It starts in 1920s London, where Dorian is the audience of a nightclub with friends Basil (Richard Todd; ASYLUM - 1972) and Alan (Renato Romano; FRANKENSTEIN '80 - 1972), watching a transvestite dance on stage. Dorian is looking for an act to perform at his rich Aunt's newly renovated retirement home. He and his friends agree that this isn't the act and leave. They part ways after leaving the nightclub and Dorian drives home worrying about finding an act worthy enough to please his Aunt. He sees a theater where "Romeo And Juliet" is being rehearsed and stops the car, goes inside and watches Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl; ANN AND EVE - 1970) rehearsing the role of Juliet. When their eyes meet, it's love at first sight (for the both of them). They have a wonderful and loving relationship. While making love, Dorian is surprised to discover that Sybil is a virgin and he is happy that she gave up her virginity to him.
Dorian tells Basil about Sybil and he tells Dorian that she must be someone special, as he paints Dorian's portrait. Basil's paintings are admired by the wealthy Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom; THE SECT - 1991) and his sister Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee; SLAUGHTER HOTEL - 1971), especially Dorian's portrait. While Gwendolyn lustfully watches Dorian taking a shower outside, Basil tells Henry that Dorian's portrait is not for sale as it is not yet finished. Basil introduces them to Dorian and mentions that he is about to get married (Henry says, "What is vice anyway? Simply pleasure without shame."). This doesn't phase Gwendolyn, who we can see has the hots for Dorian. Sybil lives with her brother James (Stewart Black) and their mother and James doesn't have a high opinion of Dorian, who picks her up and drives her to his parents dilapidated country cottage. He shows her the bed and Sybil accuses him of bringing other girls to the cottage and runs away. Dorian denies it and runs after her and they then make love under a beautiful tree.
Dorian is than at his rich Aunt's retirement home with friend Alan, when Henry shows up and quizzes him about Sybil and then says one day he will be old and wrinkled, beautiful no more (Henry says, "Beauty lasts a very, very short time."). Basil finishes Dorian's portrait, where Dorian asks, "Why should I get old, while this stays young? Why can't it be the other way around?" Henry hears Dorian say he would give up his soul to make that happen and buys the portrait as a present for Dorian. From that point on, Dorian is a different person and it is not for the better. A man with no soul can never be a real man.
Dorian becomes obsessed with his portrait and Sybil becomes jealous, asking Dorian if he would leave her when she becomes old. The old Dorian would have said no, by the soulless Dorian, who is obsessed with youth, has a totally different answer. Dorian cheats on Sybil with Gwendolyn at a party the very next day. He then goes to the theater with rich (and horny) old lady Mrs. Ruxton (Isa Miranda; A BAY OF BLOOD - 1971) to watch Sybil in the play, only to discover she is a lousy actress, seemingly blowing her lines on purpose as a way to make Dorian mad. Sybil then commits suicide after losing Dorian and it doesn't bother him one bit. As the years pass away, Dorian remains young while his portrait bears the wrinkles of time, getting uglier as the passage of time progresses. Dorian begins to live the life of a rich, spoiled playboy, who uses sex as a way to climb the ladder of success. But at what price? We are also let in on who Dorian was talking to in the beginning of the film and why he had to wash blood off his hands. The film ends with a final quotation from Oscar Wilde's novel, telling us that immortality is not as great as you hope it will be.
Filmed many times, including a silent version made in 1910 and the best known one in 1945 (as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, starring Hurd Hatfield as Dorian), it is this version that is the most faithful to Oscar Wilde's (who was openly gay) novel. It is also the most sexually charged version, which leaves little to the imagination. Director/co-screenwriter Massimo Dallamano (WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? - 1972; THE NIGHT CHILD - 1975) has crafted an exquisite portrait (pardon the pun) of a man obsessed with age and how he uses his never-ending youth and beauty to his advantage until it consumes him. While his friends and family grow old and die around him (Dorian even resorts to murder), Dorian is determined to understand how to live without a soul. When Sybil commits suicide, Dorian becomes angry rather than feeling remorse and he finally accepts living without a soul, but it's harder than you may think. But how long can a person live before becoming disillusioned with life (or as Dorian says, "Even youth becomes boring")? Dallamano and Helmut Berger (who is excellent) show us down to the tiniest detail what it is like to live a soulless life. An elongated life full of sex (including homosexuality) and debauchery takes its toll on Dorian as the decades pass until there is only one thing left to do and that is accept death. Only he and Henry don't age, which brings up the question: Is Henry the Devil or is he a Devil's disciple? He very well may be one of those, as he haunts Dorian through the decades, making him do things that he really doesn't want to do. But how do you cheat the Devil? This is a wonderfully mounted film, as the screenplay by Dallamano, Marcello Coscia (YETI: GIANT OF THE 20TH CENTURY - 1977) & Günter Ebert (SADOMANIA - 1981) shows us how the sexual mores have changed over the decades, leading us into the mod, anything goes contemporary London of the late-'60s. We watch an aging Alan, who is newly married, having sex with a black model named Adrienne (Beryl Cunningham; WEEKEND MURDERS - 1970), while Dorian seduces Alan's new wife Alice (Maria Rohm; NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER - 1970), appearing nude in her bathroom doorway and then screwing her. There is no boundary Dorian won't cross. The music, by Peppino De Luca (THE MAN WITH ICY EYES - 1971), changes through the decades and adds to the film's effectiveness. This is a great discovery for me as, I have previously mentioned, this was my first R-Rated film, but this film goes beyond an R Rating and crosses over the line, not in violence, mind you, but in depictions of sex.
This Italian/West German/United Kingdom co-production was released theatrically in the U.S. by A.I.P., with the same edited version showing up on VHS from NTA Home Entertainment. The widescreen, uncut DVD from Raro Video (my review is based on this DVD) is an absolute revelation, as the print is flawless, looking like it was shot yesterday. The extras on the disc are sparse, just a filmography of Massimo Dallamano and an interview with assistant director Maurizio Tanfani, who has lots of great stories to tell (Franco Nero was considered for the role of Dorian; Dallamano got turned on by the sex scenes!; Herbert Lom's nose was so crooked, they had to use putty on it every day to straighten it out), not all about this film (he had a great career and worked with some of the genre greats). A nice presentation at a fairly cheap price. No Blu-Ray at the time of this review, but I believe that will be rectified soon. Also starring Eleonora Rossi Drago (IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH - 1970), Renzo Marignano (SEVEN MURDERS FOR SCOTLAND YARD - 1971) and Francesco Tensi (UNCLE WAS A VAMPIRE - 1959). Harry Alan Towers (who was producer here) also produced PACT WITH THE DEVIL (2002) a better-than-average take on the Dorian Gray story. Not Rated.