I recently rewatched Dan Curtis’s 1968 adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and found it surprising in a number of ways. I had remembered it as a (largely) faithful adaptation of the original story, and one that was concerned to demonstrate respectability and restraint. However, rewatching it, I was struck by how distinctly unfaithful it was; how it was explicitly intended as a re-interpretation of the original story. I was also struck by how much it didn’t feature the production values of later made-for-television films, but looked instead like a BBC quality drama of the period. It seems to have been entirely shot in the studio and looks very stagey.
Not that being stagey is a problem here. The film actually has that tight, closed claustrophobic feel that studio-shot television drama can create, and rather than simply feeling low budget, the stageyness actually works well with the horror material. The lack of naturalism in the sets somehow works with the fantastic elements of the story, and makes the monster look less ridiculous – it was often a problem in the late 1960s and 1970s that horror monsters were frequently dumped into settings that were modern and/or naturalistic, a context in which the monster could look quite odd. Certainly this juxtaposition could be used to great effect, as in The Night Stalker, or the fabulous Time After Time, in which Jack the Ripper escapes from 19th Century England to 1970s San Francisco (using H. G. Welles’s Time Machine) where he finds that he fits right in (‘ninety years ago I was a freak; today I’m an amateur’); but this juxtaposition could also seem incongruous, as in Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (although I must admit a fondness for The Satanic Rites of Dracula, which seems to neatly side step the problem).
However, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also notable for its interpretation of the story, which starts with an idealistic Dr. Jekyll being attacked by his blinkered fellow scientists, but soon starts to demonstrate that Jekyll may actually be the problem. While adaptations often present Jekyll as an idealist who looses control over his experiment, this adaptation actually ends up blaming Jekyll and presenting Hyde as his creation. It makes considerable efforts to demonstrate that Jekyll uses Hyde to act out his desires, desires that he can’t act upon or acknowledge as Jekyll. Hyde is not the dark half from which the idealist cannot escape; but that which the idealist creates to disown his desires.
Indeed, the story both opens and closes with a line from Delvin (Jekyll’s lawyer) which undercuts the normally idealistic claims of Jekyll’s research: ‘It has been said that many men find their way from the valley of violence to the palace of wisdom; but if all men must learn wisdom tomorrow through violence today, then who can expect that there will be a tomorrow.’ Jekyll may attain wisdom in the end (which is questionable anyhow) but his science is violent and destructive, and may involve an irresponsibility that threatens the very future of humanity. At the end, Delvin even reverses the normal values of the story when Hyde seeks to preserve himself by warning Delvin that ‘if you kill me, you’ll be killing Henry Jekyll’, a warning that Delvin dismisses in a most surprising way: ‘You don’t understand, do you? Jekyll deserves to die – he’s the one who’s responsible, not you.’
The adaptation is full of great performances, too. Jack Palance’s Dr Jekyll is terrific, and my only complaint is that the Hyde make up is a disappointment, and that Palance could probably have pulled off a wonderful Hyde (that was clearly distinct from his Jekyll) without the use of any make up. Billie Whitelaw (who at the time was regularly appearing in Samuel Beckett plays on the British stage and, whom the playwright referred to as ‘the perfect actress’) gives a wonderfully subtle and complex portrayal of a ‘dancer’ who becomes the center of Hyde’s villainous obsessions. Its worth watching the film if only for her confused emotions. Oh, and along the way we have various excellent turns by others, including the ever wonderful Denholm Elliot as Delvin.
In short, this is a really interesting made-for-television horror film and if you haven’t seen it, I would strongly recommended it and, if you have, it may well deserve another look.