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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

December 26, 2008

One of the peculiarities of Western pre-scientific thought is its fondness for certain numbers.  For example, consider the tenacity of the four elements that became the four humours or the trinity that also pops up in the works of Freud and Clausewitz.  However, the undisputed king of pre-scientific theoretical numbers is the number two.  From politics to ethics, metaphysics to epistemology,  and cosmology to the philosophy of mind, humanity seems deeply wedded to the idea that reality can be seen as made up of two different kinds of things.  I suspect that this strange fetish has its roots in some banal fact about us as a species; perhaps just as our fondness for base-10 arithmetic stems from having ten fingers, perhaps our love of dualisms comes from the fact that we can all hold up our hands and say “on the one hand… but on the other…”. Indeed, the near-universality of the concept of the ‘duality of man’ is unarguably behind the enduring popularity and the flexibility of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Over the years, the story of a Victorian scientist who unlocks his darker side has been interpreted in a number of different ways.  As well as the original duality of man as a mixture of good and evil, Jekyll and Hyde have also been used as personifications of introverted intelligence vs. extroverted cunning, superego vs. id and as metaphorical explorations of the use of drugs.  However, while it would be interesting to compare and contrast all of the different tellings of Stevenson’s story, this review will deal only with one; the 1931 adaptation directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March, an adaptation that deals with the tension between man as an animal and man as a civilised being.

Mamoulian’s Jekyll (March) is a handsome and charming scientific firebrand. Capable of packing lecture theatres thanks to his willingness to take on the scientific orthodoxy, he is also a deeply philanthropic doctor who works hard tending to the ailments of the poor.  He is also deeply in love with his fiancee Muriel (Hobart).  The first seeds of Jekyll’s character is planted when he whisks Muriel into the garden and starts to speak of their impending marriage:

“I can’t wait any longer.  We shall go to Devon for our honeymoon and live on love and strawberries and the sight of the sea.  Oh, I do love you seriously, so seriously that… it frightens me.  You’ve opened a gate for me into another world.  Before that my work was everything.  I was drawn to the mysteries of science, to the unknown.  But now the unknown wears your face, looks back at me with your eyes”

As the timbre of Jekyll’s speech changes from the airy generic froth of romantic banter to more insightful commentary about himself, it becomes clear that beneath Jekyll’s eagerness to wed lies a deep physical yearning.  A yearning made flesh when, after foiling the assault of a music hall singer named Ivy (Hopkins), Jekyll is forced to resist her advances.  Walking home with a companion, Jekyll is chided for his lack of modesty and his betrayal of Muriel.

“ – A Pretty girl kissed me.  Should I call the constable?  Even suppose I’d liked it?
– Perhaps you’ve forgotten you’re engaged to Muriel?
– Forgotten it?  Can a man dying of thirst forget water?  And do you know what will happen to that thirst if it were denied water?
– If I understand you correctly, you sound almost indecent.”

Jekyll then goes on to explain that :

“I want to be clean.  Not only in my conduct, but in my innermost thoughts and desires.  And there’s only one way to do it… separate the two natures in us.”

What is not initially clear is what Jekyll means by ‘clean’.  Jekyll is undoubtedly a lusty man and his anger at the rebuke for his impropriety with Ivy suggests that he feels not guilt over his lustful urges, but anger and frustration at the fact that he feels obliged to follow the rules of a society in which he must wait months before being able to have sex with the woman he is clearly in love with.  Jekyll wishes to be free from the taint of civilisation. to be the kind of man who would ignore his future father-in-law’s ridiculous notions of propriety and the kind of man who would not turn down the chance to bed a woman like Ivy.

Mamoulian’s Hyde bears an uncanny resemblance to old-fashioned conceptions of what cave men might have looked like; he is hairy with sloping brow and hideous teeth, forever shifting from foot to foot, licking his lips, sucking his teeth and looking shiftily about him.  Stripped of Jekyll’s prudish conformism, Hyde sets about seducing Ivy.  His technique is insultingly crude and direct… he promises her riches, plies her with drink and then covers her with little sobriquets that serve as an eerie parody of Jekyll’s words of love for Muriel.  “My dove… my lamb… my little bird” Hyde whispers but Ivy senses the threat of violence behind his words and yields to him more out of fear than lust or self-interest.

With Muriel out of town for a month, Jekyll gives himself up entirely to Hyde whose increasingly twisted obsession with Ivy results in some scenes of astonishing intensity as March and Hopkins feed brilliantly off of each other.  Hyde is not only a creature of lust but of boiling rages and all-consuming inadequacies; he uses mind games and mockery to break Ivy down but her enduring hope of landing herself a gentleman like Jekyll forces Hyde into increasingly violent fits of rage that climax with him whispering his love for Ivy as he strangles her.

Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde are both extremists at opposite ends of a spectrum of civilised behaviour.  Jekyll is the very flowering of Victorian civilisation, this is displayed in one remarkable scene in which he celebrates his wedding by playing the organ while images of works of art are superimposed upon the screen.  However, he is also trapped by the expectations of his social class, expectations that demand he spend months courting Muriel  instead of having fun with Ivy (indeed, it is the desire to be with Ivy that makes Jekyll become Hyde).  Hyde, by contrast, is free from bourgeois false consciousness but he is incapable of detaching himself from the here and now, the intelligence and passion that Jekyll devotes to medicine and the sciences are channeled by Hyde into satisfying his lusts and acting out of his inadequacies and insecurities.

Indeed, the duality that the film explores is not, strictly speaking, the duality of man but rather the duality of civilisation as expressed in Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651).

Hobbes argued that without civilisation, the life of man is to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  In order to free himself from this terrifying condition, man must enter into a social contract whereby he chooses to curtail some of his own liberties.  In other words, you give up one freedom in order to gain another; freedom comes from surrendering freedom.  In choosing to create Hyde out of frustration with his society’s rules, Jekyll has forgotten that the very rules that impede his desires also support him by encouraging him to devote his energies outwards into science and philanthropy rather than inwards into self-loathing and debauchery.  Hyde is a man who refuses society’s most basic compromises.

It is possible to read Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as either a critique of oppressive Victorian society or as a more reactionary morality play about the dangers of transgressing society’s laws but a more correct reading seems to me to be the liberal one, namely that Jekyll and Hyde are both flawed creations in that they refuse to make compromises; Hyde refuses to make the basic compromises that allow society to form and Jekyll refuses to compromise his commitment to bourgeois morality in a way that might bring about social progress.

Having praised the film’s writing and its acting, I feel obligated to also mention its superb camera work.  Made only three years after Marcel L’Herbier’s lavish but arguably anti-Semitic film L’Argent (1928), it is interesting to note that a same willingness to use experimental techniques existed on both sides of the Atlantic.  Particularly noteworthy are Mamoulian’s split-screen effects and the use of the first person.  Indeed, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde opens with a spectacular first person scene in which we inhabit the head of Dr Jekyll Being John Malkovich-style (1999) as he prepares to go out and then takes a cab to work.  One particularly impressive moment sees the camera look into a mirror to reveal only Dr. Jekyll.  Presumably the scene required a hole in the wall and actors willing to scramble round the scenery out of camera-shot.  Interestingly, Mamoulian returns again and again to the first person shot at moments of heightened emotion as actors talk directly to the camera in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

Well written, beautifully acted and imaginatively filmed, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a genuine pleasure to watch and proof that even as special effects get better, genuine cinematic art never grows old.

2 Comments
  1. January 8, 2009 12:03 pm

    I think this is one of your best reviews Jonathan, and a pleasure to read you reviewing something you really like too.

    I’ve added the film to my Amazon basket (bizarrely it comes packaged with the 1941 version, which apparently isn’t a patch on this one).

    You may be interested to know, or may well already know, that the original novel is heavily influenced by James Hogg’s earlier novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which itself is well worth a read in my view.

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  2. January 9, 2009 12:14 pm

    Thanks again :-)

    The decision to write about the stuff I liked as opposed to the stuff that was topical has definitely done wonders for my desire to write. It might mean that there are lean patches but it also means that I don’t have to force myself through books that I’m not enjoying purely in order to get a review out of them.

    The 1941 version is terrible. I saw it a while ago thinking that it was this version and I was completely perplexed as to why people spoke so highly of it. Evidently when the ’41 version was made, the film company set about destroying the negatives of the ’31 version. Mercifully some escaped.

    80s BBC version is also very good but rather unsubtle as it has Hyde raving about the marvels of mescaline and beating an urchin for daring to demand payment for sex. It’s worth chasing down though.

    I have not read Hogg’s book but I did know of the connection. I might have to track it down when I am finished with my rather uneven collection of Poe stories.

    I haven’t read Hogg’s novel but I have heard good things about it.

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