Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is lavishly directed in a maximalist style that doesn't always exactly suit the material. Mamoulian stages the action ingeniously and, often, deploys conspicuously perverse camera angles that, in fact, mirror the perverse elements in the plot. I have always been surprised at the elaborate and florid prose style that Stevenson uses in his novella -- a style that masks, I think, something fundamentally simple-minded about the story. Mamoulian's often bizarre camera angles and prolonged superimposed images suggests something of the complexity in Stevenson's prose as well as, perhaps, its fundamentally hollow character.
In the first four or five minutes, Mamoulian fuzzes up the edges of his rectangular screen and makes us see everything as if through Jekyll's eyes. The opening sequence, really a throw-away that does nothing more than introduce us to Jekyll and his daily routine, is all shot in the first-person. But when Jekyll lectures on his idiotically simplistic theory of good and evil ("each of us contains good and evil!" he thunderously declaims), the camera films him from the subjective POV of the learned men to whom he is lecturing before advancing into extreme and unrealistic camera angles -- half of the speech is filmed from a very low angle, as if the camera had burrowed into the floor in front of Jekyll's lectern. The clash between the subjective point of view in the first few minutes and, then, the Soviet-style montage filming Jekyll from just about every imaginable angle couldn't be more vivid, startling, and disconcerting.
The story is familiar and, rather, barren. The noble Dr. Jekyll (Frederic March, so young here as to be unrecognizable) who sacrifices himself for charity patients, is engaged to a debutante, Muriel (Rose Hobart). For reasons that are never fully established, the marriage between Jekyll and Muriel is delayed for a month -- the girl leaves town for several weeks. Jekyll, who is sexually frustrated, tries out his potion, an elixir that distills from him the simian and vicious Mr. Hyde. Hyde goes out and finds a member of the demi-monde, "Champagne" Ivy, to torment. It turns out that Hyde is a vicious sexual sadist. ("Champagne" Ivy is played by Miriam Hopkins and her performance, alternately lewd and pathetic, is the best thing in the film.) Muriel returns but, by this time, Jekyll perceives that his inherent sexual sadism makes him unworthy of her. Further, Jekyll has lost control of the transformation process -- whenever he is aroused, he reverts to the ape-like Hyde. As Hyde, he strangles Ivy and, then, attacks Muriel. Hyde is hunted down and killed, his hideous corpse, then, reverting to the placid, serene profile of poor Jekyll. The transformation scenes are handled with alarming aplomb -- I believe that the effect was achieved by changing the lighting so that make-up otherwise hidden in normal light, gradually appears when red filters are used. Hyde is horrific: he has a mat of tangled Negroid hair over his brow, which seems, as Shakespeare puts it: "villainously low". There is something of the otter about his sleek head with its massive array of Jack-o-lantern teeth -- he has so many teeth that they seem to bulge out of the sides of face. In a great early scene, Hyde luxuriates in a downpour, allowing the water to spill into his gaping open mouth, and he twitches extravagantly -- he is purely and exuberantly bestial. When challenged, Hyde acts with decisive violence: he leaps down stairwells, swinging from floor-to-floor like an orangutan and he dives through the fork of a tree as if shot from a slingshot; he scales walls and dives through glass windows. The scenes in which he torments the pallid and quivering Miriam Hopkins are effectively vile. Love scenes are shot with opposing rim-lit profiles, the actors posturing as "movie stars" interposed, with huge moist close-ups. When Mamoulian wants to emphasize a point, he uses a frontal posture -- the actor facing the camera directly and acting for the lens. The décor is lavish and symbolic: when Hyde kills Ivy, she sinks out of sight revealing a huge effigy of Cupid and Psyche made from a licked-smooth white alabaster. Some of Mamoulian's effects are simple and brilliant -- in every scene in Jekyll's laboratory, we have seen a fully articulated but grim-looking skeleton in the corner of the room. When one of the characters shoots, Hyde, the gunman steps to his side revealing the skeleton looming behind him -- it's just a matter of blocking but the shot takes your breath away and, of course, this is what is intended. This is a pre-Code film and highly sexual: Ivy claims a broken rib to get Jekyll to caress her breast: Jekyll, who seems obsessed with Ivy, is shown strolling through London's streets with Ivy's superimposed white thighs showing through him: she suggestively swings her foot back and forth and we see this as a leit motif in a double exposure as Jekyll walks home. Some of these effects are so obvious as to be lurid and tasteless -- there is a repeated image of a pot boiling over to suggest Jekyll's sexual frustrating and many of the forced perspectives full of phallic finials and balusters are pointlessly emphatic. There's no need, for instance, to film a final confrontation through a veil of flickering fire. It's an impressive movie but, also, strangely primitive -- indeed, the film has some of the double aspect of its hero: it's suave and ingenious but, often, in the service of ugly notions.