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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted by martinteller on October 18, 2012

Dr. Harry Jekyll (Frederick March) is a London scientist with radical ideas.  His latest theory is that man can be scientifically divided into his good self and his evil self.  Jekyll (here pronounced “Jee-kull”, as was apparently Stevenson’s intention) is engaged to Muriel (Rose Hobart), but her stern father insists on delaying the wedding for several months, and take his betrothed away on an extended trip.  While waiting, Jekyll tests his chemical concoction on himself and transforms into his evil side, which he dubs “Mr. Hyde”.  He spends more and more time as Hyde, particularly in the company of Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), a prostitute who torments physically and psychologically.  When Muriel returns, Jekyll swears to give up Hyde… but finds it may no longer be his choice to make.

Normally I wouldn’t recap such a familiar tale, but one thing the movie (Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation) showed me is how little I was familiar with it myself.  I expected Hyde to be more like a werewolf persona: primal, bestial, out of control.  Hyde is rampaging id — from a story written years before Freud made the term popular — but it’s a calculated, somewhat controlled rampage.  He’s able to function in society and have conversations, scheme and manipulate to get what he wants.  He’s a monster, but what perhaps makes him more frightening is that he’s not a simple-brained monster.  And what’s interesting is that Jekyll so willingly, even enthusiastically, dons the Hyde personality.  He is eager to indulge his basest impulses, free from the societal restraints of having his actions associated with his public image.

Mamoulian’s direction is quite artful.  It opens with a first-person camera sequence, putting us in the position of Jekyll… a motif that will repeat in both personas.  There are rather nifty mirror tricks… easy to see how they were done, but startling at first nonetheless.  Some of the later transformation scenes are very obvious fade cuts.  But the early ones are marvelous technical achievements, utilizing lens filters, makeup and nearly invisible cuts that morph Jekyll into Hyde as you watch.  It’s not only dazzling for its time, but still dazzling today.

March is generally pretty compelling, especially as Hyde, though occasionally he gets a bit hammy and melodramatic.  It’s always a joy to see Hopkins… and we see plenty of her.  This film was coming at the end of the pre-Code era, and there’s a very saucy strip tease where the camera lingers on her legs as she removes her stockings, and plenty of skin as she slips naked into bed and embraces March at their first meeting.  The image of her leg dangling over the side of the bed remains superimposed for a long time afterwards, haunting March and arousing his sexual desire.  The whole movie can be seen as an expression of pent-up sexual frustration.  The only problem with Hopkins is that her cockney accent comes and goes as it pleases.

The film does feel a trifle long for what it is.  There is a truncated version… from what I’ve read it cuts some of the more interesting scenes, but also some of the Muriel stuff, which is what I would have missed the least.  But I think the movie works very well on the whole.  The cinematography is not elaborate, but very expressive, with wonderful use of candles (perhaps representing burning desires) and statues.  Rating: Very Good (85)

IMDb
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