Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Spencer Tracy as Jekyll and Hyde

I'm sure they've been around for a while, but I've only recently discovered free on-demand movies. I've never bothered with a DVD player or a service like Netflix, so this is a good opportunity for me to see old movies with frequent breaks to accommodate my inborn restlessness.

Over the weekend, I watched Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman. I wish I could remember the novel, but it has been decades since I read it. Even if the movie is not true to the book, it stands on its own as an interesting story.

I found the premise somewhat confusing; Dr. Jekyll seems to think that good and evil could be separated, although I'm not sure how the yelling man at the church service fit into this. He appears to be mentally ill (schizophrenia) rather than evil, and there are many worse crimes against humanity than disrupting a church service or interrupting the minister.

Like other fictional scientists of the 19th century, Dr. Jekyll experiments with the fundamental concepts of existence. Frankenstein creates life, while Dr. Jekyll tries to penetrate the secrets of the human soul.

According to Wikipedia, "Spencer Tracy's performance in this film, out of all the performances he ever gave, was judged inadequate, and was one of his few critically roasted roles (Tracy was not considered frightening enough as Mr. Hyde, though he was quite good as Jekyll) . . . Tracy's performance was routinely savaged when compared with March's more monstrous version."

My reaction was a little different. Tracy is not convincing as either a Victorian or as a scientist too ambitious to consider the ethical ramifications of his work. He doesn't quite convey the single-minded devotion to his idea that is the hallmark of the mad, or nearly mad, scientist. The story line has him engaged to the Lana Turner character, although he is pointedly shown missing society dinners and functions with his fiancée and her father to indicate his commitment to his work. I'm not familiar with Tracy, but his Jekyll lacks an edge that seems vital to the character. He's so bland that he doesn't even seem to notice the very obvious advances of Ingrid Bergman's barmaid/prostitute.

In this production, Hyde is more malicious prankster than personification of pure evil. While he is not handsome, he is not homely, either. The choice to use minimal makeup and effects makes Hyde even creepier than if he were shown to be a physical monstrosity, as he was in other versions. It is the combination of his words, his leering eyes, and his toothy smile that Ivy Peterson (Bergman) finds disturbing. Then, with much racy innuendo for 1941, she learns the painful way that he is not only a rapist, but a sadist who punishes her for the hatred he feels toward the man she loves—Dr. Jekyll.

The Victorians believed in physiognomy, the idea that outer appearance reflects inner temperament and character. This movie is better for eschewing this approach because a normal appearance encourages us to let down our guard. Unconsciously, we still expect a monster to act monstrously; we don't expect a handsome, seemingly normal man like Ted Bundy to be a serial killer. Tracy's Hyde dresses and looks like a gentleman, with a touch of something unsettling behind his eyes. While he is a prankster, slyly tripping a waiter and instigating a brawl, he is much darker, too, not only raping, beating, and murdering, but also gleefully gloating over the fear and loathing he inspires. His crimes are the culmination of the sadistic thrills that feed his existence. Ivy would rather die than live with the uncertainty of the depravities in which he may indulge. As I watched the movie, I did not experience a specific, all-out fear, but a more subtle, insidious, persistent anxiety, similar to Ivy's.

Lana Turner is believable as the virtuous fiancée. She conveys the kind of sexuality that must have driven sexual tension in repressed Victorian society. When Dr. Jekyll says, "We love each other very much and want to be together," his vision does not seem to be one of home, hearth, and family, the Victorian ideal, but of a sexy Lana Turner in his arms at last.

Unlike others, I was unimpressed by Bergman's portrayal of the barmaid/prostitute, Ivy. In her first encounter with Dr. Jekyll, her rolling eyes and self-conscious smirks are hammy rather than naughty, flirty, or seductive. She can't decide between her own accent and a lower-class English one. She also wavers between a tough-as-nails woman-of-the-street persona and a weak, naive one that finds Hyde's depravities horrifying, perhaps even shocking. Her breakdown before Dr. Jekyll, as she asks for his protection, seems staged rather than spontaneous.

Despite the weaknesses in casting and performances, the flatness of the setting and atmosphere (which lack seediness and menace), and the glossing over of the ethical questions central to the story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still manages to disturb me and to remind me that horror doesn't arise from what is seen and known, but from what is felt and anticipated. Hyde isn't a monster because he's ugly, physically deformed, and criminal; he's a monster because our imagination gives him the power to frighten us with what he might do, and an ignited imagination is more powerful than any reality—or any film.

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