Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the classics of Victorian gothic fiction. There have been countless movie and television adaptations of the novella. This 1968 US-Canadian made-for-TV movie is one of the more disappointing adaptations although not entirely without interest.
Dr Henry Jekyll (Jack Palance) is a distinguished London physician whose latest researches have aroused the ire of the medical and scientific establishment. Dr Jekyll believes every man has within him two conflicting sides of his nature, one good and civilised and one savage and animal.
Dr Jekyll naturally uses himself as the guinea pig in his research and his potion unleashes the dark side of his nature in the person of Mr Edward Hyde. Hyde lives purely for pleasure and instant gratification and resorts to violence at the slightest provocation. Even worse, he enjoys inflicting violence.
His friends grow increasing worried about Henry Jekyll. Dr Lanyon (Leo Genn) had misgivings about Jekyll’s experiments right from the start. Jekyll’s solicitor and friend George Devlin (Denholm Elliott) stands by him despite his concerns.
Mr Hyde acquires a mistress, Gwyn (Billie Whitelaw), a dancer and singer in a very low-class music hall. He sets her up in a flat in Greek Street. Gwyn was initially attracted by Hyde’s wildness but soon the violence becomes too much for her. Escaping from Hyde is however no easy matter. She is aware that he has already committed several murders. The police are on Hyde’s trail but he seems to have the ability to vanish without trace.
Jekyll knows that Hyde is becoming uncontrollable but his own life is increasingly difficult and he finds that he can use Hyde to solve some of these difficulties.
Of course Dr Jekyll eventually discovers that Hyde is entirely out of control and events move to their inevitable conclusion.
There have been so many screen versions of the story that even by 1968 another adaptation could scarcely be justified unless it added something significant or took a fresh new approach to the material. This TV-movie does this to a limited extent. Of course by 1968 horror movies were becoming obsessed by sex and so making the mainspring of the action Dr Jekyll’s repressed sexual longings, something that seemed fresh and exciting at that time, now seems rather hackneyed. This production takes the line that not only does Hyde represent Jekyll’s repressed sexuality, this sexual obsession also (at least partly) explains why Hyde is eventually able to become the dominant part of his personality.
A more interesting twist is that far from being a kindly dedicated scientist led astray by scientific hubris Dr Jekyll is portrayed as being very much responsible for his own downfall. He deliberately and consciously uses Hyde to commit crimes that he wants to commit but that he lacks the courage to execute himself. He is in his own way as evil as Hyde (a point made explicit by George Devlin late in the film).
This slightly novel approach is aided by the choice of Jack Palance to play the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde. Palance makes Dr Jekyll a somewhat sinister character. He is short-tempered, arrogant, selfish and even vindictive, qualities that he just barely manages to conceal. The downside of this is that it makes Dr Jekyll a thoroughly unsympathetic character and weakens the tragic element in the story. There is also a very real problem with Palance’s acting as he is entirely unable to convey and good qualities that Dr Jekyll might possess. As a result Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde becomes not a character split between good and evil but a character split between a very evil side and a lesser evil side.
Even as Jekyll Palance is histrionic but once he becomes Hyde his performances crosses the line into full-blown hysteria. The idea of emphasising that the evil of Hyde is inherent in Jekyll is a good one but it needed a better more controlled actor to make it work.
The supporting case is adequate with Denholm Elliott being as reliable as ever. Billie Whitelaw gives a shrill rather one-note performance which makes it impossible to feel much sympathy for her, which means the audience is left without anyone to care about apart from the faithful Devlin.
This is very much a made-for-TV movie, visually uninteresting and rather slow. Director Charles Jarrott spent most of his career in television. He made a few features in the late 60s and early 70s only to disappear back into relative obscurity. There’s nothing in this fairly pedestrian production to suggest that he had any great ability.
The makeup effects are wisely not overdone and Hyde looks human (although his eyebrows are a bit Star Trek-ish). This is a definite point in the movie’s favour.
Rod Serling was to have been the screenwriter but departed from the production at an early stage (to be replaced by Ian McLennan Hunter), and the lack of the trademark Serling preachiness is another point in the movie’s favour. Dan Curtis was the producer and it does have a rather Dan Curtis look to it.
I personally think the 1920 silent version with John Barrymore is the best adaptation of Stevenson’s novella. I think the 1932 Fredric March version is overrated. Hammer did two versions of the story, the underrated Terence Fisher-directed The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960) and the unconventional and extremely interesting 1971 Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Walerian Borowczyk’s bizarre 1981 Dr Jekyll and his Women also emphasises Jekyll’s complicity in Hyde’s evil and is worth a look (and it does have Udo Kier which is always a plus).
On the whole a rather disappointing movie that might have worked with a better lead actor. Possibly worth a rental if you have a greater tolerance for Jack Palance than I have.