DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941) dir. Victor Fleming

Director: Victor Fleming
Producer: Victor Fleming, Victor Saville
Writer: John Lee Mahin
Stars: Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman

Good and evil are so close as to be chained together in the soul. Now suppose we could break that chain, separate those two selves … free the good in man and let it go on to its higher destiny …

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DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

This Halloween season, the Turner Classic Movie channel did not disappoint. (It rarely does.) I was busy enough that I wasn’t able to tune in until the week before Halloween and, when I did, I started off with DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941), director Victor Fleming’s interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous gothic tale. In case you’re unfamiliar with the plot, “The Mysterious Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” concerns the Gothic theme of the double (or, as it’s more familiarly called today, the doppelgänger). Dr. Jekyll, a prominent scientist, is fascinated with man’s spiritual duality, particularly after observing the case of a mentally ill gentleman who is transformed from friendly family man to hostile recluse after sustaining brain damage. Jekyll begins to develop a potion that he believes will cure the man, exorcising the evil from his spirit and leaving only the purest good, but the subject dies before he can test his groundbreaking new formula. Left with no other choice, he decides to test the potion on himself, consequences be damned. What emerges is Mr. Hyde, a sociopathic monster who wreaks havoc and threatens to end Jekyll’s life as he knows it.

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Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy), hard at work developing a rather controversial new medicine. (Image via IMDb.)

Spencer Tracy is Jekyll and Hyde. Occupying one persona, he is unrecognizable as the other, a feat that is equally one of both acting and costuming. While Jekyll often looks faintly sinister—which is either just a fact of the drab outfitting of the time period or a deliberate allusion to the evil that lies within—he is, at heart, passionate, noble, and kind, if occasionally swayed by temptation. Hyde is something completely different—not just villainous, like Iago, or psychologically complex, like Travis Bickle, but downright monstrous. He isn’t interesting. He isn’t darkly funny. He’s evil to the core—perpetrating terrifying physical abuse, violently raping Ivy (Ingrid Bergman), a vulnerable young beauty who lives alone, and using newfound supernatural capabilities to strip others of their sense of safety. Like Hyde, he tramps about town sheathed in a dark cloak and top hat. Unlike Hyde, his face is horrifically twisted and pale, reminiscent of the cobbled features of Frankenstein’s monster.

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Is it Jekyll or is it Hyde? It’s impossible to tell, because that creepy cloak is actually worn by both. (Image via OldHollywood.tumblr.com.)

In striking black and white, Tracy’s Hyde is all the more terrifying. The effect of the dramatic lighting is varied throughout the film, texturing what could have been a humdrum remake of a decades-old tale that had already been adapted twice (1920, 1931). The contrast between the shadowed streets of London where Jekyll and Hyde alike tread and the 1940s opulence of a dinner banquet is nearly as polarized as the difference between good and evil. The characters wear black and white like a style—Ivy is a vision, her pale features emphasized by the colorless picture; Bea (Lana Turner) is impossibly elegant, all blonde hair and black lace. The music, too, moves in perfect sync to the action, often touchingly beautiful, sometimes as heart-stopping as the onscreen horror. The multi-sensory result is a motion picture that is captivating even over a half a century later.

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Dr. Jekyll and his fiancee, Bea (Lana Turner) at a dinner banquet. (Image via FictionFanBlog.wordpress.com.)

TRIGGER WARNINGS:

  • Animal cruelty
  • Mental illness
  • Sexual assault

Gore: N/A

Horror: ★★★★

Suspense: ★★★

Terror: ★★★

Quality: ★★★★★

Overall: ★★★★

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