Sunday, 6 November 2011

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Fredric March
             Miriam Hopkins
             Rose Hobart
Run time: 98 mins
Studio: Paramount
Black & White

Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is regarded by many as the best movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, and it’s not hard to see why. Quite apart from its lavish production values, its attention to detail, its magnificent central performance (which earned Fredric March a well-deserved Academy Award - a rare distinction for a horror film) and its famous special effects, the film benefits enormously from having been made before the full enforcement of the censorious Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays Code, after Hollywood’s chief censor Will H. Hays), allowing Mamoulian to explore his subject matter with considerably more frankness and honesty than he might have been able to had the film been made a few years later. Basically, anyone who’s ever suspected that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is really the story of one man’s repressed sexuality erupting to the surface need look no further than Mamoulian’s film for confirmation of their suspicions.

That the film is to be an exploration of one man's psyche is established from the outset, with Mamoulian using subjective camera lensing in the opening scene to place the audience directly inside Jekyll’s head. The man we encounter there is a cultured and seemingly untroubled individual, used to the luxuries of life and happy to spend his time reciting Bach amid the opulent surroundings of his London home (and gently rebuking his manservant Poole (Edgar Norton) for failing to be moved by the music) rather than attending the local doctors’ symposium, where he is due to give a lecture that evening. Jekyll’s lectures, we are told, are popular and always sensational. He is quite the celebrity and clearly one of the leading intellectuals of his day; but Mamoulian’s use of the subjective camera alerts us to the fact that with this success has come an unhealthy degree of self-absorption, possibly bordering on narcissism, a point that is underscored by the fact that our first sight of Jekyll (while we are still viewing the world through is eyes) is his reflection in a hall mirror as he is preparing to leave the house.

Jekyll, we quickly learn, sees himself as a visionary who recognises no limits to scientific enquiry, unlike his learned colleagues.  During his lecture at the symposium he chides them for allowing the London fog to penetrate their minds and cloud their reason. He informs them that he has analysed the human soul and has come to believe that man is not truly one. Part of man strives for nobility (the good side) while the bad side seeks an expression of impulses that ‘bind him to some dim animal relation’ of the earth. The two sides are chained together but carry out a struggle – repression to the evil, remorse to the good. Jekyll believes that if he splits the two sides then the good will reach greater heights and the bad will be able to fulfil itself and leave us alone. To this end, he has begun experimenting with certain chemicals.

The speech highlights Jekyll's youthful arrogance, but it is an arrogance that is generally tolerated by his peers because as a medical doctor he is undoubtedly a brilliant healer who has the total trust - even worship - of his patients (of course, it also helps that he is charming and good-looking); and Jekyll appears to be totally dedicated to his patients, too - a fact that causes his prospective father-in-law,  Brigadier-General Sir Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes), to observe that Jekyll spends far too much time with charity cases and needs to 'come down to earth'. While there can be no doubt that Jekyll's patients benefit enormously from his determination to excel in his chosen field, we can't help but feel that his motives are driven more by ego than by altruism. Despite all this, however, Jekyll is not unlikeable - he is clearly trying to be a good man - and another reason for Mamoulian's use of the subjective camera lens may well have been to help the audience sympathise more with the character by having us intimately connected with him from the start.

Jekyll’s impatience with the world also includes his relationship with is fiancée, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart). He cannot understand why he has to wait to marry her – he cannot understand why he has to wait for anything. To Jekyll, Muriel represents ‘the unknown’ and offers him a gateway to another world. Jekyll is a man with a passion for knowledge, which also extends to the possibilities he can explore through marriage. Though never stated explicitly, it is nevertheless quite clear that these possibilities include the sexual, a fact that Muriel’s father recognise all too well – he is very much against the idea of an early marriage; quite apart from the fact that it goes against tradition, people will suspect Jekyll’s motives and Muriel’s reputation will be sullied. In short, it would be indecent. But Jekyll, who admits to being frightened by the intensity of his passion for Muriel, is not ready to take no for an answer.

While walking home one night from a party at the Carew’s house, Jekyll and his colleague, Dr Lanyon (Herbert Holmes), witness a prostitute, Ivy Pearson, (Miriam Hopkins), being attacked by a man outside her boarding house. Jekyll drives the man away and carries Ivy up to her room to attend to her, whereupon, in an eyebrow raising scene for its time, Ivy pretends to be more injured than she is and begins to flirt shamelessly with him, exposing her bruised thighs and encouraging Jekyll to examine a supposedly injured rib beneath her breast. When he recommends rest and turns away to allow her to undress, Ivy throws a garter at him, which he tosses away with a flick of his cane. As Jekyll returns to further examine her, Ivy grabs him and kisses him just as Lanyon enters the room; but Jekyll doesn’t care – he decides to take the kiss in lieu of a fee and leaves as Ivy dangles a leg from the bed and urges him to come back soon; he is, after all, the kind of gentleman a woman would ‘do anything for’.

The superimposed image of Ivy’s swinging leg accompanies the two men down the stairs and into the street, where Jekyll confesses to having enjoyed the prostitutes kiss. Lanyon is shocked, but Jekyll reminds him that while we can control our actions we cannot control our impulses. He challenges Lanyon to deny that he also found Ivy attractive, but Leyton refuses to be drawn on the matter. To Jekyll, Lanyon is in denial, refusing to admit that the animal side of his nature exists and choosing instead to bury it. Jekyll, on the other hand, admits to it and intends to expose it, with the aim of getting rid of it. At least, that’s what he says – the fact that the image of Ivy’s leg continues to play on his mind as they talk suggests that he’s not being as honest with himself as he likes to think he is.

Spurred to action by his encounter with ‘Champagne Ivy’ and his frustration with the social conventions that are denying him the conjugal pleasures of a life with Muriel, Jekyll immerses himself in his work. When we see him next he is in his laboratory, surrounded by his chemical apparatus, working feverishly to complete the formula that will separate the two halves of his personality. The formula complete, he locks the door and prepares to drink the potion – and for the first time there is a flicker of doubt on his face. A quick glance at the skeleton hanging in the corner of his laboratory gives him pause for thought and he hastily scribbles a message to Muriel, informing her that if he dies then it will at least be in the cause of science. Then, regaining his composure, he toasts his reflection in the mirror, and downs the steaming potion.

The transformation scenes in this film are justly famous, but it is not actually until much later in the film that we witness Jekyll’s full transformation into Hyde. The initial transformation merely hints at what is to come, with Jekyll clutching his throat in agony while his face contorts and begins, almost imperceptibly at first, to take on a darker aspect  (an effect achieved with the use of contrasting make-up filmed through coloured filters) before we are back inside Jekyll’s mind, watching through his eyes as the laboratory spins around him. After several moments trapped in the maelstrom with Jekyll, the room settles and the audience is led by the advancing camera to the mirror, where they come face-to-face with Jekyll’s alter ego for the first time.

With his simian features, pointed cranium (suggestive of some of the early hominid skulls) and canine teeth, Hyde’s appearance is certainly in alarming contrast to Jekyll’s. His nervous facial twitches and jerks of the head, his rapid breathing and his scuttling, almost ape-like movements – all suggest that Mamoulian wanted Hyde to represent that ‘dim animal relation’ that Jekyll mentioned earlier; but they also give the impression of a creature unfamiliar with its body and not yet quite in control. Indeed, the alluring physicality of March’s performance, in which he conveys perfectly the strangeness of being something new, is one of the highlights of the film. “Free at last!” Hyde cries in triumph once he’s gained control; and, having been so intimately connected with Jekyll up to this point, one cannot help but share in Hyde’s exhilaration.  Seemingly overwhelmed by the possibilities now open to him, he dithers for a moment before dressing to leave the house; unfortunately, before Hyde has the chance to present himself to the world, Poole comes knocking at the door, forcing Hyde to change back into Jekyll.

Time passes; and when Muriel refuses to elope with him and announces that she is going away for a few months, Jekyll resorts to moping in his laboratory like a thwarted child. Like the exasperated parent, Poole suggests that Jekyll needs to stop feeling sorry for himself and get out of the house. Jekyll’s foot taps the floor, his fingers drum on the workbench - nearby, a cauldron bubbles and steams - and we sense the pressure building. When Poole reminds him that there are many pleasures out there in the city for a gentleman to enjoy, Jekyll realises that this is the perfect opportunity to give Hyde free reign. A gentleman like Jekyll isn’t supposed to indulge in the kind of pleasures that Poole is describing – they have to be very careful what they do and say so that they don’t get caught out. It is all hypocrisy, and Jekyll sees Hyde as a way of sidestepping that hypocrisy. Of course, he is also simply trying to justify the inevitable. The possibilities that Hyde offers have clearly been praying on his mind ever since the first transformation.

Hyde’s sense of release is even more acute following the second transformation. Dressed as a gentleman, resembling the walking embodiment of Victorian moral hypocrisy, Hyde hits the town. Thrilled and full of energy, even the feel of rain on his face is enough to bring him to rapture. What is particularly clever about March’s performance is that for a brief moment he manages to make Hyde seem almost likeable. There is something infectious about his enthusiasm;  to an extent, perhaps, we even envy him his newfound freedom. But it doesn’t last – very soon his true nature becomes all too apparent.
Hyde goes immediately in search of Ivy and when he fails to locate her at her digs, he is directed to a nearby drinking den where she is known to ply her trade. Arriving at the dive, Hyde is enthralled by everything he sees. After ordering champagne and bullying a waiter who has dared to hang around for a tip, Hyde has Ivy summoned to him. Abandoning the man she has been flirting with prior to Hyde’s arrival, Ivy accepts the invitation. She is alarmed by his appearance, naturally, but he tempts her to stay with him with the promise of fine clothes, wine, and somewhere nice to live. After all, that’s all she’s interested in, isn’t it? He admits to being no beauty, but what would she rather have? A hypocritical ‘gentleman’ who ‘likes the leg but talks only about the garter’? In the end, for a girl like Ivy, it’s all about the money. Ivy’s obvious discomfort is the same for the audience, and we sense that she isn’t going to be able to refuse Hyde’s offer even if she wants to. Hyde makes this abundantly clear when he smashes a wine bottle and threatens to glass the face of the man Ivy was flirting with before he arrived. A close-up shot of Hyde’s face looming over Ivy’s not only reinforces the hopelessness of the girl’s situation, but must also have had the film’s audiences shrinking back in their seats.

So begins an almost textbook abusive relationship, as Hyde installs Ivy in more comfortable digs and plies her with fine wares, whilst exacting violence upon her person, emotionally, physically and sexually. The classic abuser, he tells her he only hurts her because he loves her and justifies his actions by appealing to the fact that at least he is honest in what he wants, unlike the hypocrites she is used to. He bullies her into telling him that she hates him, twists her words, and takes great satisfaction in her obvious unhappiness.

When Hyde is not there, Ivy confides to a neighbour that she is living in terror and reveals the bruises on her body. But there seems to be nothing she can do – Hyde dominates and controls every aspect of her life now. 

Meanwhile, Jekyll begins neglecting his patients and his appearance. Poole becomes concerned that his master is sneaking out at all hours through the back door of the laboratory, getting up to who knows what? Gradually, as the weeks pass and Hyde’s dealings with Ivy grow ever more sadistic, Jekyll begins to realise what is happening to him and he swears off the drug. Throwing away the key to the back door, he informs Poole that from now on he will only be using the front door.

In an attempt to ease his conscience, Jekyll sends Ivy £50 by way of recompense for the pain he has caused her and resumes his relationship with Muriel, who has returned from her travels but who he has also been neglecting,  much to the Brigadier-General’s chagrin. By way of explanation, Jekyll claims to have been suffering ‘a sickness of the soul’ and begs Muriel to help him by marrying him. Between the two of them they manage to convince the Brigadier-General to sanction the marriage, despite the old man's misgivings.

Happy and revitalised, Jekyll returns to work with a determination to get his life back on track. The sense of relief which both he and the audience feel is shattered, however, when Ivy, curious to ascertain why a doctor she has never met should send her money, comes knocking. Jekyll’s panic on seeing her is barely contained. On realising that he is the same man who showed her kindness the night she was attacked, Ivy tries to return the money. When he refuses to take it, she shows him her injuries and begs him to save her from Hyde. In her desperation she offers herself to him, swearing that she will kill herself if he doesn’t help her, such is her fear of Hyde. For a moment it seems as if Jekyll is about to take Ivy up on her offer, but the reality of what he has already done to her sinks in and he restrains himself, promising her that she will never see Hyde again.

More time passes and it appears that Jekyll has finally managed to overcome his dark urges. It would seem that the promise of marriage has helped to ease the tensions within. A formal wedding announcement is arranged, to take place at the Carew’s London home. While making his way to the house through the park, Jekyll reflects on how good life is and stops to quote Keats while listening to a bird singing in a tree. Unfortunately, the bird is silenced by a cat that has climbed into the tree, and this triumph of death not only ruins Jekyll’s mood but also precipitates a spontaneous and unexpected transformation into Hyde. Struggle as he might, Jekyll cannot fight it; and liberated again, Hyde runs off, leaving Muriel and her guests to wonder what has become of Jekyll.

Meanwhile, Ivy, thinking Hyde is gone for good, is at home celebrating her freedom with champagne. Standing in front of the mirror she raises a toast to her good fortune and wishes Hyde to the fires of Hell; but our attention is not on Ivy, but on the reflection of the door behind her, because we just know that at any moment Hyde is going to make an appearance. When the door does open and Hyde enters, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. It is, in my opinion, one of the great moments of horror cinema, as heart-breaking as it is frightening. The menacing way Hyde is lit as he descends the stairs towards the terrified Ivy leaves us in little doubt what he has in store for the girl. Enraged that Ivy should have gone ‘down on her knees’ for Jekyll – the man he hates more than any other –  Hyde reveals the truth about who he is and informs Ivy that he has found a new lover for her: death. Ivy attempts to escape, but to no avail, and Hyde introduces her to her new lover by strangling the life out of her. A word should be said here about Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Ivy. Ivy is no innocent and is never painted as such; but Hopkins conveys her terror, as well as her hope for a better future, with such conviction that the horror and pity we feel at Ivy’s murder are genuine. For all that Ivy is in many ways a stereotype (the proverbial ‘tart with a heart’), Hopkins’ performance never feels clichéd and is suffused with pathos. (Personally, I think she should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside March.)

The murder brings Ivy’s neighbours running, but Hyde escapes into the London fog. He manages to send a message to Lanyon, asking the doctor to retrieve certain drugs from Jekyll’s laboratory; but when Hyde arrives at Lanyon’s house to collect the drugs, Lanyon pulls a gun on him and refuses to let him leave without explaining what is going on. Impatient to be gone, but cornered, Hyde has no choice but reveal all: he mixes and drinks the potion and we are treated to the film’s first full transformation sequence as Hyde reverts to Jekyll in front on Lanyon’s eyes. The sequence may look dated to modern eyes, but for its time it is a triumph.
Jekyll breaks down and confesses to the murder of Ivy, begging Lanyon for forgiveness, but his friend cannot give it. Realising that the drug has conquered him and that he will never be able to remove the stain on his soul, Jekyll accepts that he must give up Muriel. Tormented by his conscience he finally resorts to prayer. He goes to Muriel to beg her forgiveness and to set her free, but she is blinded by love and cannot accept what he is telling her. In a scene whose emotional intensity is almost uncomfortable to watch, she tries to persuade him that he is a good man; but her every kind word is torment to him, a reminder of all that he has lost. He has become ‘one of the living dead’ utterly without hope. Declaring the loss of love as his penance for the crime he has committed, he leaves; but when he pauses outside to take one last look at Muriel through the French windows, the drug takes hold of him again and he transforms back into Hyde. As Muriel weeps at the piano, Hyde enters and grabs her from behind. Muriel’s screams bring the household running and in the ensuing fracas Hyde clubs Muriel’s father to death with his cane (surprisingly, perhaps, the murder of the Brigadier-General is less explicit than the same murder in the 1921 Barrymore version of the story) before fleeing into the night.

A chase through the streets of London follows, during which Mamoulian transforms Hyde into an angel of death whose vast shadow looms on the side of buildings. With the police and Dr Lanyon in pursuit, Hyde manages to reach Jekyll’s house and the final confrontation takes place in the laboratory, where Hyde attempts to elude his captors by clambering monkey-like up and down the tall shelves. He is finally brought down by a single gunshot and dies amid his bottles and test tubes. The film’s final shot is of water boiling in a metal pot on a burning stove, symbolising the destructive passions that Jekyll’s experiments released (or perhaps even signifying the fires of Hell that Jekyll’s soul has gone to, given that God was invoked only a few scenes before).

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a glossy, A-grade production, given the full Hollywood treatment of the day and fully deserving of its reputation. In addition to its emotional and thematic depth, it is visually one of the most rewarding black and white horror films ever produced, with Mamoulian’s use of greyscale and shadow lending it all the richness of a full colour movie. The sets are magnificent, with the appearance of Mamoulian’s London teetering on the brink of expressionism and its gas-lit warrens representing the byways of Jekyll’s unconscious mind. It could be argued that the film is slightly ‘over produced’, but Mamoulian’s use of camera tricks and effects is never arbitrary – everything happens for a reason: the point-of-view shots and close-ups, for instance, are intended to place us directly in the minds of his characters and help accentuate their fears; the presence of mirrors throughout the film is clearly symbolic, as is the use of diagonal wipes to compare and contrast the experiences of certain characters (specifically Muriel and Ivy). With its excellent performances, high production values and,  perhaps most importantly, its willingness to bring the story’s subtext unambiguously to the fore, Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a cinematic treat and unquestionably one of the best horror movies of the 1930s.

1 comment:

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