Saturday, 13 April 2013

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Innovative professor of science, Dr Jekyll, theorises that the primordial aggressive elements of a personality can be physically separated (and ultimately eliminated) from the benevolent nature that has superseded it through evolutionary development. On a domestic level he is happily expecting to marry the love of his life but his aspirations (and sexual desires) are thrown into disarray as her father continues to postpone approval of their impending marriage. Immersing himself in his work he decides to test his theories by consuming the chemical formula he has developed that is intended to initiate the separation. It does the trick but not in the way he was hoping: a transformation occurs that gives birth to a manifestation of his darker side. Referring to himself as Mr Hyde, this almost Neanderthal incarnation of his inner being goes about making a general nuisance of himself until he begins to form a relationship of sorts with a prostitute that Jekyll helped out earlier, a situation that the girl is too scared to end or escape from due to the escalating horrific behaviour with which Hyde conducts himself. Not realising that Hyde is the alter-ego of Jekyll she goes to visit the (oblivious?) good doctor for help again, at which point he realises what terror Hyde has caused and promises the traumatised woman that she will never see the monster again, determined himself to now leave alone the potion of his own creation. But Jekyll fails to anticipate that the formula has mixed inextricably with his blood and the transformation is no longer within his control.
This wasn’t the first adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s well known novella - following stage interpretations there were a number of cinema versions as far back as 1920 - among them, the John Barrymore vehicle where the star changed into a grimacing monster without makeup, a forty minute film by Louis Mayer, and an unofficial German adaptation (a similar situation to Nosferatu) called Der Janus Kopf. The 1931 movie was the best to date (and possibly the best, period) featuring surprisingly sexual connotations for the period, Ivy the whore being the embodiment of this aspect with perpetually low-cut tops and recurring flesh exposure (even baring 80% of a breast at one point - virtually unheard of in 30s cinema). Jekyll’s science is Freudian in essence - the separation of good from evil is basically a distinction between the id (the primitive aggressive and sexually motivated nature of a being’s driving forces) and the superego (the moral overseer) respectively, though whether that was actually an influence over Stevenson is debatable as Freud was only just forming these theories as the novella was written. There’s plenty of philosophical meat there to think about and the tale itself was highly imaginative given the fact that the text was first published in 1886. With his strange mannerisms Hyde himself may come across as strangely comical on first sight but he quickly proves himself to be a remarkably nasty individual, later on becoming quite sadistic and monstrous (I’m sure he appears to be more animal-like with each transformation throughout the film) - as his relationship with Ivy progresses so does the violence and his visits to her room (the soundtrack usually acquiring foreboding silence) become pretty frightening, accumulating dramatic effect as one empathises with the woman’s increasingly desperate plight (akin to a domestic violence situation I should imagine). There’s an impressive opening sequence where the camera adopts Jekyll’s point of view for several minutes (no mean feat; cameras were cumbersome at the time) as well as technical ingenuity of the (admittedly overused) metamorphoses. A classic of the 30s and very edgy considering the conservative attitudes of the era.

Packaged with the 1941 version of the same story the UK Region 2 Warner disc is excellent value for money. The 1931 film itself, presented 1.33:1 B&W, looks as beautiful as you can expect. Problematic censorship history notwithstanding (footage excised from older films has often been difficult to re-obtain) I also believe that it’s complete at 92 minutes (PAL, running 25 fps) - in British cinemas back in the 30s it only ran for 81 minutes! As a vintage chiller of great worth it’s up there with Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.

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