“I’ll Show You What Horror Means”

© Paramount Pictures

Near the end of David Lynch’s harrowing Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer and fellow teen prostitute Ronette Pulaski are being accompanied through the woods at night by Laura’s demon-possessed father and rapist, Leland, who is about to murder her. Leland followed Laura to a cabin where she and Ronette were having a hedonistic night with a couple of guys and a lot of cocaine, in the course of which one of the men got the bright idea to tie the girls’ hands behind their backs, conveniently for Leland. Now, illuminated by a harsh, glaring light, Laura and Ronette scream and cry hysterically as Leland, with a frenzied expression, holds them by their bound wrists and drives them ahead of him as though they were a team of horses.

Although this demented Expressionistic nightmare image is memorable, it’s not entirely original: For those familiar with Victor Fleming’s 1941 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Spencer Tracy as the famous doctor and his doppelgänger, it calls to mind a fantasy of Dr. Jekyll’s during his first transformation: he pictures Ivy, his beautiful Cockney barmaid acquaintance (Ingrid Bergman), and Bea, his equally lovely upper-class fiancée (Lana Turner), as a team of horses whom he, the carriage rider, ecstatically whips from high above.

This is one of the few scenes in the Fleming film that does not correspond to any scene in the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian film, with a screenplay by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, of which it is a direct remake. John Lee Mahin, who adapted the screenplay of the 1941 film, has seized on the detail of the whip, which in the original is merely mentioned by Ivy to Jekyll as she shows him her back—even the marks are left to the audience’s imagination. “I’ll show you what horror means,” the 1931 Hyde, who is given to terrorizing rhetoric, tells her at one point. She shows Jekyll what Hyde means by showing him her marks in the payoff of the film’s mirror imagery, her back serving as an especially brutal mirror to Jekyll, and his face serving to tell us all we need to know.

Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde was made during the so-called pre-Code era, before studio-era Hollywood’s self-censorship to avoid government intervention began in earnest. Although the remake shows less skin than the original and changes the nature of Hyde’s abuse of Ivy to make it more psychological, in the case of the whip—the most shocking evidence of Hyde’s cruelty—the creators decided not to remove it, but to represent it. Even this showing is a kind of censorship, however: the image of the horses and driver is a Freudian dream-representation of sex, of a particularly sadistic kind. But since the work of the dream-censor, as Freud called the process, is to disguise forbidden wishes, this means that this Hyde finds it more acceptable to imagine himself torturing women than to imagine having sex with them. This psychology may have been imposed on him by the Hays Code, which permitted this stylized violence while not permitting explicit eroticism, but the remake commits to it, giving us a Hyde whose sexual impulses have all been channelled into sadism. Although the Fleming film isn’t the equal of Mamoulian’s masterpiece, it does what only the best remakes do: It serves as a fascinating commentary both on the original and on the conditions of its own making.

The Mamoulian Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the greatest American films about sex ever made. Like Fire Walk With Me, it’s simultaneously a snuff film and a tragedy, with Jekyll and Hyde exploring the tragedy of the sex murderer, Fire Walk With Me of the victim. The latter is, because of that difference, a little harder to watch—but not much, due to the sympathy and even sociological understanding that Mamoulian’s film extends toward Ivy. Her fate is sealed when she accidentally meets Jekyll, who saves her from a beating by a “caller,” and flirts with him. Jekyll is being thwarted in his libidinous desire to marry his fiancée Muriel as soon as possible by her stodgy father. During the several months that her father takes her away from England, Jekyll takes his dangerous potion specifically to overcome his sexual inhibitions and indulge himself with Ivy until Muriel’s return. However, not all goes quite as planned; his aggressive impulses are released alongside his sexual ones, and in fact the two seem inseparable. When he learns that Muriel has returned, however, he gives up these vices and—repenting—sends Ivy some money.

If the Mamoulian film’s progressive attitude toward sexuality is surprising in a 1931 film, even more surprising is its psychologically perceptive and sociologically sensitive depiction of domestic abuse and the murder of a sex worker. Ivy knows, as she tells her landlady, that the police will be no help to her, in part because if Hyde finds out that she went to them he’ll kill her, and in part because no one “cares what becomes of the likes of me.” Horribly, it is due to this realism about her situation that Ivy decides (in response to her landlady’s suggestion as one woman looking out for another) to appeal to her benefactor Dr. Jekyll, whose privilege and prestige are, she believes, the only things that can shield her from a monster like Hyde. A guilt-and-shame-ridden Jekyll, after witnessing what he has done to her back and seeing her terror and suicidal despair, promises that Hyde will never bother her again, and she takes the gentleman’s word.

What Jekyll doesn’t know is that no potion is needed anymore for Hyde to take over. In an especially Lynchian touch, Jekyll’s first involuntary transformation occurs when—his conscience clear of Ivy and his marriage finally about to proceed—he triumphantly quotes poetry about overcoming death to a singing bird, only to watch as it is killed by a cat. Jealous of her feelings for Jekyll, Hyde not only murders Ivy but, before she dies, shatters her class-determined belief in the man she calls her “angel” by repeating words from her conversation with Jekyll and revealing Jekyll’s terrible secret. The expression on Miriam Hopkins’s face perfectly renders the precise quality of Ivy’s confusion as she tries to take in what is at once impossible, undeniable, and spiritually eviscerating. It’s not unlike the scene in Fire Walk With Me in which Laura tries to grapple, even in the act of sex, with the true identity of her rapist, which is several times more horrifying than her current belief that he is a demonic serial killer.

Until David Lynch, there is nothing in American cinema like the scenes between Fredric March’s Hyde and Miriam Hopkins’s Ivy, with both actors giving tour de force performances. We are not shown Hyde beating Ivy, we only see his domineering behaviour and her frozen terror, hear his threats and watch him psychologically torment her. I can think of no other film, with the exception of Fire Walk With Me, in which a large part of the action consists of the physical, psychological, and sexual torture and murder of a sympathetic female character. Even Lynch is ultimately drawing on the Clarissa Harlowe archetype of the innocent, bourgeois blonde for whom sexual violence is an ordeal leading to glorious martyrdom. The progressiveness of the Mamoulian film is especially remarkable in its willingness to accord equal gravity to Ivy’s abuse. This includes her sexual assault: After learning of Muriel’s return Hyde announces to Ivy that he’s going away, knowing how relieved she’ll be and that he’ll be able to punish her for it by forcing her to pretend the opposite out of terror. When she can’t help but ask him—trying desperately not to betray her hope—if he’ll be going away that night, he gleefully insists that on the contrary, he won’t leave her for a moment all night long, and then, as she faces that prospect, commands her to show her joy by singing, which she only manages to do for a few moments before breaking down in tears.

The Mamoulian film emphasizes that Hyde’s behaviour is not “natural,” unfettered sensuality, but is what becomes of sexuality when it is pent up by contrived, hypocritical social conventions. The film is about the splitting that occurs when “man,” or a man (in this case Henry Jekyll) is forced to suppress his instincts in the service of an “angelic” class ideal. Trying to be an angel, Jekyll turns himself into a devil. The film does the incredible: by employing the supernatural, it manages to make us view a sex murderer as a tragic figure, in the classic sense of a man of great gifts who falls from a lofty height. Even Lynch has never quite managed that: Lost Highway‘s wife-killer protagonist duo are more absurdist/noirish than tragic figures. Mulholland Drive‘s Betty is the closest he’s come, but only by eliminating the element of male violence. Looked at from one perspective, Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde is a study of male sexual violence: Warped by a hypocritical society, the respectable Jekyll acts out his dark fantasies with a victim designated as “dispensable” both by that society and, to a large degree, by his own conscience, which can apparently be relieved by sending her a few bucks. The film cannily doesn’t show us what must be happening during Muriel’s absence, which is that Jekyll must be deciding to take the potion again each time it wears off. If it did, we might very well lose sympathy for the “angelic” Jekyll. Yet when Jekyll throws himself at Muriel’s feet—unable to confess what he’s done because of his shame despite her insistence that she can bear it, determined to redeem himself by renouncing her but almost unable to do it because of their mutual passion—his torment is undeniable and affecting. His action echoes Ivy’s earlier prostration before a being she imagines as noble and pure, in a strange chain of idealization with a woman at both top and bottom.

The 1941 film was made not only under conditions of stricter censorship but also for a more conservative studio (Mayer’s MGM instead of Schulberg’s Paramount), and the difference is immediately apparent: The first shot is of a church spire and the first scene takes place in a church, with the priest praising the good influence of Queen Victoria’s purity and virtue on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. In contrast, Mamoulian’s film starts with Dr. Jekyll, giving us his point of view (we don’t see his face until he looks in the mirror), and then takes us to a lecture theatre, where (in the scene that the church scene replaces) he gives a speech about his radical scientific theories to his peers. Spencer Tracy’s Dr. Jekyll is placed within a social context that is presided over by church and queen; Fredric March’s is the man of science as hero, set over his society, which Mamoulian emphasizes by shooting his face from below as he passionately addresses his scientific evangelism to the camera.

The remake’s historicization of the story, with the mention of a specific date (1887), of Victoria, and of the character of her era, raises the possibility that the remake is pointing to Dr. Jekyll’s psychosexual problems as the creation of a particular time and culture. This interpretation is supported when a man in the pews has a manic outburst, shouting at the minister that he wants “to take all the fun out of life,” which suggests that the remake has accepted the original’s thesis that a society with puritanical sexual mores pathologizes male sexuality. Jekyll’s calm, rational reaction to the man’s behaviour, which he later explains as being caused by a shock, shifts Jekyll’s progressiveness from sex (as in the original) to a progressiveness about mental life and its disorders.

Part of the remake’s historicization of the material is its introduction of psychoanalytic ideas (although Studies in Hysteria, the inaugural text of psychoanalysis, was not published until 1895, and Freud is not mentioned by name in the film). In this the Fleming film is part of a more general inward-turning trend in 1940s Hollywood movies, which often used Expressionist techniques to depict anxious subjective states, especially in film noir, and brought psychoanalytic and psychiatric concepts onto the screen, especially in the woman’s picture. The Fleming film uses psychoanalysis and psychiatry both as part of the story—putting a new emphasis on the way that Hyde’s abuse affects Ivy psychologically and sending her to Dr. Jekyll for “her nerves”—and as part of the way the story is told using Freudian concepts in the fantasy sequences.

© MGM

Both the Mamoulian film and the remake are about a man whose sexual instincts, warped by the puritanical society he lives in, take monstrous form. Given this basic similarity, it’s astonishing how different the two films’ views of Jekyll’s sexual psychology are, and what a difference it makes to the characters of both Jekyll and Hyde. The progressiveness of the Mamoulian film comes down to three things: the views on sex espoused by Dr. Jekyll; its frank eroticism and frankness about prostitution, domestic abuse, and rape; and its sociological understanding of Ivy’s victimization. The remake obliterates the original’s progressiveness in every area. Tracy’s Jekyll does not have progressive views on sex but rather insults Bergman’s sexually forward barmaid, making her cry already at their first encounter, and reassures his fiancée that their desire for each other isn’t “evil” only because they love each other. The remake removes Ivy’s strip-tease for Dr. Jekyll/the camera/the audience as well as the good-natured warmth and amusement that passes between her and Jekyll in that first meeting scene. By being forced to both imply that Bergman’s character turns tricks while also denying it, the film also obfuscates her social position, which no longer plays a role in her fate.

Most centrally, rather than taking up the rationalistic viewpoint associated with its main character’s profession, the remake adopts the religious tone more familiar in horror movies, making Tracy’s Jekyll use the language of “good” and “evil” and “the soul”when explaining his ideas. March’s Jekyll, while willing to speak of “good,” will only go so far as to speak of “so-called ‘evil,’” and even Ivy’s language of “angels” and “devils” is based not on any religious notions but on her ideas about class. The Mamoulian film, to judge by Jekyll’s use of “soul” as a synonym for “psyche,” evidently considers science as the successor to religion in its investigations of the psyche, and there is nothing in the film that proves him wrong: It’s nature, the food chain represented by the cat and bird, that trips March’s Jekyll up, not the divine. The remake, despite introducing the science of the psyche into the narration, posits science more humbly as the handmaiden of religion, helping God to solve the problem of the duality of human nature that He has created, and even then, Tracy’s Jekyll is smacked down for hubris by the priest during their dinner party exchange. The mistake March’s Jekyll makes isn’t Satanic pride, but Enlightenment optimism: His belief in reason has made him underestimate the difficulty of extracting what is admirable in human nature from what is irrational.

Even when the remake appears to share the original’s analysis of the psychological dangers of puritanism, as in its pointed characterization of Victorianism, it manages to obfuscate the original’s clear and consistent social critique. In the original, the single representative of society’s sexual hypocrisy is Muriel’s father, which is to say, patriarchy, since controlling sexual access to women is also to control women’s sexuality. Muriel even takes herself to task for supporting her father’s stance instead of siding with the man she loves, and thereby contributing to Jekyll’s tragedy (and Ivy’s too, if she knew it) by participating in hypocrisy. The film gives agency to Muriel by showing through her pretense that “good” women, unlike men and prostitutes, do not have sexual feelings, contributing to the patriarchal system that is ultimately responsible for Ivy’s murder.

There are corresponding notes in the fiancée character, Lana Turner’s Bea, in the remake. But even when the remake seems to have picked up a sexually progressive idea from the original, such as the radical notion that “good” women can have sexual feelings too, it manages to do something conservative with it, as when Lana Turner’s Bea asks Jekyll if she can spend the night with him. One is left to wonder why Bea can suggest sex out of wedlock, but not Ivy, but the answers are not in short supply: Jekyll gave the “love” answer earlier, but Bea’s virginity is probably a greater factor. In any case, whereas March’s Jekyll would have eloped with her on the spot to make this thing happen, Tracy’s Jekyll paternalistically (he is twice her age, after all) sides with her father and refuses to let her do any such thing. Although the remake keeps the notion that Jekyll and his fiancée are physically passionate about each other, Tracy’s Jekyll doesn’t seem to feel nearly as urgent about getting married. But then, the monstrousness of his Hyde is of quite a different nature than the monstrousness of March’s Hyde.

Hyde’s makeup illustrates the differences in the two films’ conceptions of the central duo. The remake diminishes the differences between Jekyll and Hyde: March’s half-simian, half-lupine Hyde is a wild animal (albeit with pretensions and airs; the bourgeois gentleman as chimp), with unrestrained passions and negligible impulse control, whereas Tracy’s, while sinister-looking, is clearly a man, and shows no such animalistic or impulsive tendencies. In their scenes with the waiter in the bar, for example, the first time we see them interact with anyone, March’s Hyde simply brutishly refuses to tip him, and then trips him and beats him with his cane when he reacts with displeasure. Tracy’s Hyde, on the other hand, plays a little mind game with the waiter, pretending to give him a generous tip and then tripping him. March’s Hyde wouldn’t consider devoting the time it would take to wondering about the waiter’s life, but the speech about his hard work and family that Tracy’s Hyde gives the waiter shows that he is acutely aware of others’ motivations, and uses them against them, like a sadistic therapist.

The Mamoulian film posits a simple, allegorical rather than realistic mechanism whereby Jekyll has been pushed so far in one direction by his society that his instincts, when they’re released, go too far in the other. There are, however, complicating hints that this Hyde is not just savage but sadistic and even masochistic (the latter ignored by the remake). We aren’t told where these perversions come from, so we have to assume they’re effects of Jekyll’s unconscious sexual guilt. The remake is arguably more psychologically sophisticated: Tracy’s Jekyll, far from being an advocate for sexual rationalism, has internalized his society’s puritanism; his own feelings, not convention, are why he doesn’t act on his desires. The Fleming film gives us a much clearer and more familiar explanation for Hyde’s treatment of Ivy than the original: repressed desire that manifests as misogynist disgust. March’s Jekyll feels desire for Ivy, turns himself into Hyde to act on it, ironically discovers that his brutishness inspires horror in her, and proceeds anyway, in a demonic parody of the romantic love that he wants with Muriel. Tracy’s Hyde, more straightforwardly, feels the need to punish Ivy for making him feel desire, turns himself into Hyde to act on it, and does so.

The function served by psychoanalytic concepts as narrative tools in Fleming’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is to give the creators a way to censor the sexual and violent content of the original without either excising it or modifying it, just as Freud’s dream-censor allows disturbing material to get past the ego and superego. Tracy’s Hyde can’t let himself think about certain things, and neither can the film, and yet in both cases, the ideas manifest anyway, and in ways that are worse. The original’s eroticism manifests as the violence of the fantasy sequences, which, because it’s neither part of the diegetic action nor realistically depicted, is far more extreme than anything seen or suggested in the original film, from the whipping of the “horse-women” to an image of Ivy’s laughing head as a champagne cork that’s pulled off by a corkscrew. The terrorization of Ivy through constant threats of violence in the original becomes psychological cruelty, which is not only more malicious and calculating than anything March’s Hyde does, but also allows the creators to dwell more on Ivy’s abuse, since the nature of the horror is subtler.

If the remake downplays the sociological aspects of Ivy’s predicament, it makes up for it by its insight into the psychological effects of intimate partner abuse. Instead of an elderly landlady to whom she complains about her lack of anyone to turn to for help, Bergman’s Ivy has a friend her age from her time at the bar who tries to get her to come out and have a good time like she used to. In response, Bergman vacillates between terror and proud, pathetic denial of her fear, which, together with her shame when her friend discovers the marks from her whippings, seems exactly right, and is dreadful to watch.

The remake’s treatment of Ivy’s rape epitomizes the way that censorship works in the film. The scene between Hyde and Ivy in their apartment substitutes sadistic psychological games and demeaning remarks for the original’s blunt threats and intimidation, and in place of Hopkins’s single—but effective—note of rigid terror, there is Bergman’s veritable symphony of fear, intimidation, learned wariness, dread, resignation, hysteria, and psychological torment.

In an extended version of his game with the waiter, Hyde pretends to be responsive to Ivy’s suggestion that they go out that evening. We learn that he’s been keeping her a prisoner in the apartment, destroying her health and spirits, and we can guess that there’s another reason that she doesn’t want to spend the evening in with him. The scene builds towards its climax with his series of soft, sarcastic suggestions, as he insouciantly plays a tune on the piano, munches grapes, and spits out the seeds, as to what they could do that night, such as “play cards.” The switch that the scene pulls at the end, presumably to avoid the original’s too direct allusion to literal rape, is to make Hyde’s demand that Ivy sing stand in for her rape. This means that the audience of the more heavily censored film gets to watch what the audience of the original film was denied. The scene swiftly achieves maximum sadism as Ivy backs away, screaming and begging him and insisting that she “can’t.” Perversely forcing a person to sing—a spiritual activity that should involve joy on the part of both singer and listener—and, in a further refinement of torture, shouting at her to act like she’s happy while she does it, turns out to be an excruciatingly effective metaphor for rape.

The irony of the two Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydes, Mamoulian’s and Fleming’s remake, is that the original is about how puritanism makes sex into horror, and the remake, censoring the original in response to puritanism, increases the overall level of horror by taking sex out of the equation. Tracy’s Dr. Jekyll has only two psychosexual settings, “repression” and “sadism,” neither of which have anything to do achieving release: his Hyde (inevitably bringing to mind Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth) seems entirely incapable of taking pleasure in anything but cruelty. The original’s moments of beauty, playfulness, and peace, however few and far between, are gone along with the sensuality that it concentrated in the figure of Ivy: no original warmth between Ivy and Jekyll, no birdsong to make Jekyll momentarily hopeful. The involuntary transformation that means Ivy’s death comes on Tracy’s Hyde in the night, in the fog, when he keeps catching himself whistling Ivy’s tune, their “rape theme.” His murder of Ivy is not a crime of passion by his lower self, motivated by jealousy of his higher self, and his revelation of Jekyll’s secret has no such motive either. Rather, he needs to show her, before she dies, that she was an idiot to have ever believed in goodness anywhere, so that she can be brought to share his own vision of human depravity. The horrors of the original film are the tragic result of having too much hope for humanity; the horrors of the later, more censorious film, the result of having no hope for humanity at all.