Because Fredric March won the best actor Oscar for his double-role as the twin protagonists in the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the film is primarily remembered for his performance. Yet to ignore the astonishing filmmaking on display by the great Rouben Mamoulian is to miss one of the most elegant, technically audacious Hollywood horror films of all time, not to mention one of the most truly dangerous. This is definitely pre-Code stuff: a flash of nudity, sure (from madman’s prey Miriam Hopkins, in bed), but also a surprising rawness in its violence and a vivid anger permeating its every shock. It feels particularly fresh today in the way it dares to go deep—not into the psychology of its two-faced protagonist, but into the animalistic undertones that permeate Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story and that influenced every “dual side of man” tale that popped up in its wake.
As a filmmaker in an era when talkies were new, Mamoulian clearly had free reign to try new things. And this being his second film (after Applause), he pulled out all the stops. The film begins with an extended, extreme point-of-view sequence, in which we see Jekyll’s house through his own limited eyes, even as he walks up to the mirror to get ready to leave for a lecture. The claustrophobic images set us up for an awkward identification with the good doctor, as well as give us a fluid, maze-like sense of the laboratory and house in which he will turn himself, inadvertently, into a tragic character. This is gorgeous work by cinematographer Karl Struss (Island of Lost Souls, The Great Dictator), and throughout the film he’s always putting the camera in surprising places—not only did he make expressive use of the frame, he seemed to really understand horror cinema in a preternatural way; there’s nothing scarier than a hushed, detached camera resting quietly while the monster enters blurred in the background, creeping closer. Read the rest and keep checking back for new Great Pumpkins.