In my never-ending effort to fill in the gaps of my film-viewing experience, I have been sloshing around in the silent era (another analysis on its way), but happened to have available to me two quite different offerings from 1945. Most film folks immediately think of The Lost Weekend, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound, and Anchors Aweigh when that year is mentioned. Few think of these other offerings, and there are good and bad reasons for that.
The Body Snatcher is the better film. It’s a Val Lewton film (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), but with higher production values and an award-worthy central performance. It’s based not on a script calling on Lewton’s Russian folklore memories, but on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. To be brief and spoiler-less, it concerns a doctor needing corpses to help him teach future doctors about anatomy and surgery.
The doctor, played by Henry Daniell—who had some success in films and later in television—is solid enough, if not particularly exciting, and is almost imprecise at times in his characterization. His young student is played by Russell Wade, who is that generic nice-looking romantic male lead who has a pleasant screen presence and generic acting skills.
By far the best part of the film is the performance of Boris Karloff, who erases our memory of his playing Frankenstein’s monster with his work here. This is the kind of performance often described as “delicious,” as he is figuratively smacking his lips with enjoyment at sinking his teeth into such a juicy part. He blows everyone else out of the frame, and is intelligent, funny, and dangerous all at once. He’s a distinct pleasure to watch.
This is the last of several films that Karloff made “pairing” him with Dracula’s Bela Lugosi. This is hardly an actual pairing, though, as Karloff owns the film, and Lugosi plays a relatively unimportant and small role that could have been played by any actor his age. (The film even goes out of its way to provide some kind of lame excuse for the actor’s Hungarian accent, further dismissing the character.)
The film is directed by Robert Wise, now better known as the Oscar-winning director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Then he was the man who edited Citizen Kane, and had directed Curse of the Cat People for Lewton. The film lacks the unseen horror brought by director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca that so distinguished Cat People, but has its own sense of foreboding. For those interested in Lewton’s work, or Wise’s, the film is a must. For everyone else, there is the sheer joy of watching Karloff in perhaps his best role.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is too fast, too slow, too focused, too unfocused, and all over the place in the quality of its performances. It tells the Oscar Wilde tale [spoiler alert] of a young and very handsome dissolute man who doesn’t age and a painting of him that does. Wilde’s cynical view of life is represented, fittingly, by George Sanders, who speaks so quickly that I was wondering if his pace was an attempt to confuse the censors by blowing right past them in his haste to get Wilde’s decadent worldview out. The title role is the weakest link—Hurd Hatfield—who is something of a soft pretty boy, and nothing like a real actor. (It’s been pointed out that the relatively small part played by Peter Lawford suggested how well he might have done in the part instead of Hatfield. He certainly was more conventionally handsome.)
Gray’s escapades could only be hinted at or softened greatly for a studio film of the mid-century, so his wild and decadent life is generally alluded to, a deadly aspect for a film that already was leaning far too much on the spoken word. We get the idea that he is hell-bent on pleasure, but we really aren’t allowed to find that out for ourselves as much as it is explained and explained and explained. Gray is supposed to remain the same on the outside while growing more depraved on the inside, but Hatfield can’t manage that, so he remains something of a blank throughout.
There are two reasons to see the film beyond its status as some kind of classic, or at least a film version of a classic novel. One is the cinematography, which features rich, deep-focus photography that won an Oscar and should be held up as a model of what deep-focus could do. It’s a different look for an MGM film of the time, and fits in nicely among its film betters such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, and The Best Years of Our Lives. Believe it or not, there are spoilers connected with the cinematography, so you have to see it for yourself to discover them.
The other reason to see this (and you’d be forgiven for turning off the film after her character leaves the film) is a young Angela Lansbury. She’d won a Best Supporting Actress nomination (deservedly) the year earlier for her first film, Gaslight. This was her second, and it also—deservedly—earned her another nomination. It’s a different character from her role in Gaslight, much sweeter and more vulnerable. It’s also a far cry from either her frightening work in the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate or her more well known work as Jessica Fletcher in television’s Murder, She Wrote. She’s lovely and touching, and she owns every scene she’s in. She not only blows away everyone else she shares the screen with, but also makes Donna Reed, who plays the next “girl,” look pale and uninteresting by comparison. If someone only knows Lansbury from the stage or her later film and television work, it’s a delight to see her work in these first two films; it will be a delightful rediscovery of one of the greats.
These two films from 1945 are in most ways quite different from one another. One was quite costly, and the other was created on a shoestring. Yet they have in common an intriguing story, intriguing cinematography, and a performance well worth enjoying.