While it appears the German and French cinema--with exotic crime chapter-plays such as Spinnen, Les Vampires and Judex--have been preoccupied with globe-spanning epics, the American delirium turns inward, to a Gothic solitude where secrets wait--and I suppose the same could be said of the European serials--but again, it is the whole wide world these vampires stalk, while over here, as the day darkens and the streets narrow, John Barrymore hunches into a corner and self-contains the epic within the divided Jekyll and Hyde, multifaceted--and multifarious.
I am one of those silly people who are unnerved by insects, especially the ones that creep, or dart, or simply lie in wait. And watching Barrymore as Hyde, I understand my aversion: With an insect, as someone has noted, we do not see a face. The many legs, the shiny carapaces, the bizarre, wandering trajectories of their movements--yes, these add to the effect. But I cannot “read” them, I cannot--or will not--see myself in them. To an extent, this also may be true with reptiles and fish, but the insect adds a kind of amoral disregard. When you try to strike one, it will as often as not lurch toward you, not so much out of fearlessness as simple blind purpose. In a sense, we do not exist for them. Their lives appear untouched by our presence; even their bite and sting seem mere responses to their hidden desires. There is so little malice that--if I may indulge in an unhelpful paradox--it becomes nothing but malice.
And thus the genius of Barrymore’s Hyde: He is an insect with a face attached. While his grin has the feel of a shark (a fish, I will assert, whose features are insectival in their detachment), and his skin the pall of a drowning body, he is more arthropod than anthropoid. Even as Jekyll, we first see him avidly peering into a microscope with kinship-joy at tiny wriggling things. (Another doctor looks into the eyepiece, and exclaims, “Damn it, you’re tampering with the supernatural!”)
Jekyll becomes Hyde, not merely to play at doppelgänger, to separate himself from himself--but, in doing so, to “fear nothing,” to have “full liberty.” And as soon as I saw him as Hyde, I recoiled: Here is the human insect, giving in to every impulse, bent forward in constant predation, hands like twin spiders (eventually carrying poison in the “Italian ring” he appropriates), and as willing to step on a child as to beat to death his beloved’s father. And the streets Hyde “squeaks and gibbers” through are as dark as any I’ve seen filmed, opium-laced and lascivious--but even such moral reprobation seems out of place: his lust is as cold as his stare--that human face pinned to the insect like a mocking mask--and his rage is without satisfaction. This is not sadism but sheer assertion.
As I sat in the theater, I was troubled by my impression of Hyde: Had I once again revealed my own sorry self, rather than what was actually on the screen? It was with some relief that I watched the scene in which Jekyll lies in bed and becomes Hyde via a dream-image: A giant spider enters his bed-chamber, and clambers onto him in smothering transformation. Add to that the poor opium-den inmate who claws at “red ants,” and my entomophobic response seems not entirely of my own doing.
I was glad to see Hyde/Jekyll die--at least so that I could be soothed (more or less) by the final shot: “the Great Profile’s” profile, distinctly human in its Narcissism. I can easily imagine Barrymore insisting on that final self-image, photographed in clean, bright light, and I welcome the display of ego--something easily recognizable in the features of our own species.
(I have read of a German film, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, that seems to be traveling the same nightmare-path as the Barrymore movie. I look forward to its release here. I haven't seen Europe in a year, and no opportunity for travel presents itself, so I will, with Miltonic patience, "stand and wait.")