Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dir. Rouben Mamoulian

From Dracula to Jekyll and Hyde, one literary creation to another. The humane doctor Jekyll (played here by Fredric March) creates of elixir that inexplicably backfires and brings out Mr. Hyde, all of his evil and base desires personified in a repulsive beast man (also played by March). It's less about duality than the notion of evil and/or animalistic tendencies existing in all people, even the good, the undesirable of one's self unavoidable. Explicit to this film is that, set in Victorian England, though the main actors speak in Hollywood American, the views of chastity and modesty are heavily restricting, Jekyll waiting in agony to marry his fiancée Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) but prevented by her father's code, the result pushing him as well to becoming Hyde repeatedly until it cannot be controlled. From there, there's romance, pathos and horror, well acted with some levels of heightened melodrama, rare these days, later on when tragedy is closing in.

What immediately caught me is how bold this film is cinematically, as the first few minutes or so of the film are entirely in first person from Jekyll's eyes, the camera seeing through the main character's perception. Drastically bold camera and editing tricks continue throughout the film. More first person shots, tracking along like the beginning one or single frames facing a character directly as they talk straight at the viewer. Dissolves to new scenes linger on so more of the original scene plays out on top of the next, two spaces existing in one time, and another form of transition, an angular screen wipe, does the same, almost always stopping in the middle so an unconventional form of split screen, between two different environments, takes place. It is exceptional filmmaking, and it's more significant in context of the use of sound at this point. This is only a few years after The Jazz Singer (1927), which famously included a few scenes of sound, though mostly a silent film, thus helping to push cinema into a sound medium as well as a visual one; it was still a problematic issue in the early thirties to have cinematic grammar as bold as the silent films because the sound technology could restrict what people could do. Here, there are so many elaborate stylistic moments in this adaptation of the Robert Lewis Stevenson's novel that it's amazing to see. And it's as much to the talent of the director Rouben Mamoulian as it would've been the film crew; while I need to rewatch it, an earlier film Applause (1929) by Mamoulian - which was a film that had to adapt to include sound while there were still silent films being made or having sound added afterwards - was immensely accomplished considering the situation with this new technology whilst being cinematic. It adds to the story, never becoming mere style but adding a grandeur. Just for the first transformation of Jekyll to Hyde, a lengthy build up, agonising knowing what'll happen, then the transformation itself in first person from Jekyll's eyes with a delirious spinning camera and silent film levels of superimposition of flashbacks, hazy greys and swirling light effects, this level of elaborate cinematic grammar is a godsend to the material. Even the more conventional grammar, a panning camera from one side of a location to the other side, has a sense of a whole toolkit being made available again when a film like Dracula (1931) was frozen into static scenes because of the technology.

Also with this adaptation, it's a Pre-Hays Code film. The Hays Code, which would severely restrict the content of Hollywood films unless the creators found ways to hide material in their films skilfully, had been created around this time but there were a few years, before the rules were fully enforced, where the films got away with harsher content. The film is pretty chaste, despite some bold sexuality, and "tame" by modern standards, but its frankness is surprising. It's major subplot, which connects to the main and lines it with a dark message, with the character Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) being trapped by Hyde as his pet, is still shocking now in theme, dealing with domestic abuse in a blunt way without being explicit. Against the pantomime hysterics of Hyde or the horror of the rest of the film, this still a brutal and nasty story arch to have, especially as a viewer will have it in the back of their mind when it gets to Jekyll having this in the back of his mind too. In general, whilst the film tries to get moralistic at points, Jekyll proclaiming to God and planning to sacrifice his love Miriam for punishment for his sins, the film doesn't try to cover up the dark material even if it doesn't repeat on about it through the narrative. The bluntness is refreshing, without being childishly nihilistic, and for being in a Hollywood film this old when, after the Hays Code, you do find some films kneecapped and prevented from being this thorough in the morality at play. The film itself shows its hand in a poignant way, halfway through, to Jekyll and to the viewer, as the doctor had intended, through his compound drink, to remove the evil and leave a good demigod in himself and others - a bird singing beautifully in a tree, with Jekyll admires, repeating an affirmative mantra, only for a black cat to appear in the tree and, off-screen, kill and probably eat the bird. As a horror film, first and foremost, it can still have some thoughts of interest as a morality play that, thankfully, didn't cop out and try to soften this message.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
It doesn't qualify for the list, but it does contain cinematic grammar that, by itself, is abstract and worth briefly talking about. The first person sequences are inherently abstract in context of the camera usually being a third person onlooker to scenes, the position within a person's head, through their eyes, disorientating space for what viewers seeing through another's perceptions, (Lady In The Lake (1947), the film noir almost all in first person, will inevitably crop up for this reason if covered on the site). The use of dissolves, screen wipes and the entirety of the first Hyde transformation manipulates the form of this narrative in fascinating ways. The whole film is not abstract, too normal altogether to qualify, but it's as entertaining, especially in the context of a horror film, to see such unconventional tricks being used for added impact. That it won and was nominated for Oscars proves that once the Academy also had a sense of taste to appreciate good filmmaking like this.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Probably not, but as the previous paragraph, and the film itself, can attest to, a mainstream horror adaptation can be aesthetically bold, have the ability to explore serious content and still be a good film to just enjoy. With countless, countless adaptations of this story in existence in cinema, there's more than enough interpretations to dissect and compare to this one, which will be a difficult film to top in terms of an adaptation. That is enough to make something like this particular one appropriate for the blog.

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