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.