Mild-tempered Dr Jekyll faces ridicule from the medical fraternity when he proposes his theories about the duality of man. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, he begins using chemicals to separate the good and bad sides in man. Unfortunately, he chooses to experiment on himself…
It’s fair to say that, although filmed countless times, there has never been a definitive version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic cautionary tale. Yes, Frederic March won an Oscar for playing the role(s) in 1931, and both makeup and SFX were impressive (for their time) but the rest of the film is creaky and stilted at best. The big budget MGM remake a decade later may have looked the part but suffered from the terrible miscasting of Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Subsequently, there’s been dramatic versions, re-imaginings, comedies, a TV musical with Kirk Douglas (yes, it’s bad) and Hammer even gave us a transgender take with ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) (surprisingly rather good). We’ve had Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, John Barrymore, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Bresslaw, Boris Karloff, John Malkovich and even David Hasselhoff! The list goes on. But no definitive version.
TV producer Dan Curtis had hit the big time by creating horror-soap ‘Dark Shadows’ which first hit the small screen in 1966, ran for over 1,000 episodes and has been revived several times since, including Tim Burton’s big budget remake with Johnny Depp. During the show’s original 6 year run, Curtis began developing other projects, the first of which was this serious adaptation of the classic horror story. Filming began with Jason Robards in the title roles but was halted due to industrial action. When it resumed, Robards was no longer available, so Curtis re-cast, his surprising choice being Jack Palance, mostly known for playing villains in cinema Westerns. It’s reasonable to assume that a modern audience’s expectations for a studio bound 2 hour television production from the late 1960s starring that old cowboy geezer from ‘City Slickers’ (1991) would not be high. Obviously, there were budgetary and technical limitations with such an endeavour that have not stood the test of time too well, but what it does have in its favour easily outweighs such considerations.
First, we have what is quite probably the most literate, intelligent and fine adaptation of Stevenson’s novel ever to be filmed. The original work is a fairly short piece and screenwriters are usually obliged to embellish and add elements, usually Hyde’s dalliance with a prostitute and a tiresome love interest for Jekyll in the form of a fiancee from high society. Instead, Ian McLellan Hunter takes the main elements of the story and comes up with his own version of how events develop. These are completely in tune with the spirit of the original text and open out the story perfectly. There’s a superb opening scene where Jekyll is ridiculed by his peers which provides motivation for his reckless experimentation, a shady chemist (Oscar Homolka) who provides the doctor with the necessary chemicals, and Billie Whitelaw as the good time girl abused by Hyde, who rather foolishly sets her sights on Jekyll. Purists might complain at the changes but I don’t think anyone could argue that the novel needs serious adaptation for filming purposes and Hunter makes a good a job as could be imagined, even retaining the critical subtext about Victorian society and the evils of repression in general.
A fine cast of respected British actors talent provides excellent support, including Denholm Elliott, Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher (the nasty magician in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958)), Duncan Lamont, and music hall star Tessie O’Shea. Although only making a brief appearance, O’Shea won an Emmy for this, which is a little puzzling. Rather amusingly, Billie Whitelaw gets an ‘introducing’ credit, despite first appearing on British TV 16 years before. Probably she was unknown to American audiences.
But the revelation here is Palance. Of course, he’d played plenty of psychotic villains in the past, but his Hyde is truly out of control; homicidal tendencies always lurking just below the surface, ready to be indulged at the slightest whim. Initially, the makeup may seem a little corny with the heavy monobrow, but, by the climax, the power of the performance transcends these limitations. Likewise the star gives us one of the best screen Jekyll’s; slowly seduced by the dark passions of his alter-ego, he becomes more assertive in his own life but ultimately cannot control his urges. It’s an excellent reading of the character, all the more remarkable when you consider the actor was a late replacement.
Of course, there are some problems. Director Charles Jarrott struggles to get any atmosphere out of the cheap, and tatty stages sets, with actor’s heavy footsteps often betraying the nature of their temporary construction. Also the camera work is uninspired, and features some unfortunate rapid ‘zooms’ which look pretty shaky. Producer Curtis and star Palance went onto collaborate on a version of ‘Dracula’ (1973), which is also well regarded in some quarters.
Definitive? Maybe not, but on balance, this is probably the best version of the tale filmed to date, and anyone looking to mount a new production could do a lot worse than look for pointers in Hunter’s excellent script.
Well worth seeking out.