Becoming Hyde

Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) isn't the first movie version of Stevenson's classic novel. Nor is it the last, obviously, not by a long chalk. It is however pretty phenomenal in its way, better by far than most of its successors: the special effects are in fact quite stunning - not only for its time but any which way one cares to look at them. They convince even today, even the jaded viewer who's seen everything done digitally cannot help but emit a slight gasp at the sheer audacity of the effects. How ever did they do it?

The angelic Dr. Jekyll transforms into the beastlike Mr. Hyde in front of the camera with nary a cut and with almost an unpleasant realism; the clean and sober, suave and debonair charmer Frederick March becomes, before our very eyes, a rough and gruff protosimian creature with hair sprouting in unruly tufts in the most unlikely places and a forehead lower than that of a Neanderthal. (I would in fact be slightly surprised if the grotesquely gorillaesque comic book version of Hyde by messieurs Moor & O'Neill didn't owe more than a nodding thanks to March's precursor.)

An achievement indeed.

Every single Jekyll & Hyde movie has to show how Jekyll painfully morphs into Hyde, and show it as graphically and in as much detail as possible. Makes or breaks the movie. Most of them do it abominably badly. Which of course kills off any credibility.

Jekyll turning into Hyde is the crowning moment of the story, has been since the earliest theatre days, probably. It's a wonderful piece of show biz at its best.

I happen to think it pretty redundant.

Even cataclysmically wrong.

It's a brilliant metaphor of man's Manichean duality, ever duelling within us. When examined closer it becomes, well, a bit dodgy at best. Its clearly a concept of and for the mind, to be visualised by the mind's eye but not seen. When put on stage or on film it immediately becomes crude and unconvincing - nothing more than crass showmanship. It is not Hyde's physical appearance that is essential but his soul. His outer visage is but an aspect of his soul and its reflection, of course, but focusing so doggedly on his brutish and apelike physique - and the almost magic transformation - makes it all seem so very shallow. Not at all like Stevenson's immortal poetic vision.

The quintessence of the tale is far subtler.

Hyde's atavistic looks are a metaphor for his black and crooked soul, not the focus of the entire tale. Splitting Jekyll into two is a magnificent tool whereby Stevenson tells his poignant tale of good and evil. What works so magnificently well on the page becomes self-indulgent when we see it. What is subtle becomes banal. What is real becomes improbable.

Which, in my view, is why all movie versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are failures. And are bound to be so.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a gripping tale of the soul. Almost a parable. It cannot be taken too literally. It belongs in the shadows of the subcoscious. Make a realistic version of it and its meaning fades away. And what is left is merely an empty shell, a fairly entertaining story about a doctor who meddles with things "man is not meant to know."

And that's one of the biggest bores there is.

I'm not saying it would be entirely impossible to make a good and true movie (or theatre) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've just never come across any.

What I am saying is: you can't beat the book. Don't even try.

"Ich will Jesum selbst begraben"

Otto Klemperer's St. Matthew Passion. Not, I fear, everybody's cup of tea. It's so so slow that it never seems to end - the man just stretches it to the point of it being slightly ludicrous and far beyond. A lot of people seem to loathe it intensely, partly because it just isn't kosher meaning authentic. The tempi are all wrong, wrong, horribly wrong. A piece of phony romantic crap, is what many might call it. A grave sin that in the age of the blessed St. Leonhardt and the beatific St. Harnoncourt.

Of this I had absolutely no idea when I purchased it. The price seemed reasonable, even fair, the cast pretty dashed nice: Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Walter Berry. Pretty dashed nice? I mean superb, I mean fairly stellar actually.

Had a quick listen in the record shop, seemed okay, not that I really paid much attention - I mean St. Matt is St. Matt innit? - no time for anything more than a few self-evident bars: had to be somewhere else for something ultimately unimportant and meaningless - no time to loose, as Monty Python so wisely teaches us.

Then, at home, a nasty shock.

What is this rubbish?

Is it even St. Matthew?

Doesn't sound like it.

Not even remotely.

It was. Some snatches of it I seemed to recognize vaguely, through a glass darkly as it were, others were just plain bizarre and deliberately perverse. And the whole fabric of the piece was all wrong. Stretch it too far, timewise, and it becomes shapeless, formless, a hideous grotesque heap of jumbled jarring notes with no connection whatsoever to the notes around them. It falls apart. Becomes a travesty, in fact.

However, I had purchased it, paid good money for it, and there was nothing physically wrong with the CD, so taking it back didn't seem a gentlemanly option. A clear case of lumping it, then. Alas and alack, poor little me.

Before I condemned it to eternal damnation I had another listen. Didn't seem quite as bad the second time around. Still pretty bad, though. Probably just imagining the slight decrease in absolute abysmality (if there is such a word, which I seriously doubt). The third time I played it I was no longer certain of its glorious ghastliness. So I had to listen some more. Ended up not playing much anything else between Christmas and New Year. Which is pretty much when I found myself hooked on it, once and for all.

And other, more authentic, renderings of the piece started to sound - well odd. What's the hurry? Where's the fire?

Now Klemperer seems to be quite the norm for me. It's majestic tempi seem just right to elicit every ounce of feeling from the score. And the slowness is slow no longer. It becomes something else, it very much reaches beyond. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit, wrote Wagner in his Parsifal: Here time becomes space. The slower it flows the more solid it becomes, the more lucid, the more powerful.

The piece is, in fact, in its soul-baring simplicity, a prolonged psalm, an incantation, capturing the essence of not only religion but humanity as well. Somewhere between the lines I seem to hear Klemperer's personal anguish: the anguish of having lived a Jew through the Nazi era, the horror of the Concentration Camps and the Holocaust, the decline and fall of the entire Western Civilization - with The Bomb as the delicious cherry on the cake - the loss of any kind of faith in any kind of future.

And yet . . .

Yet it's one of the warmest, kindest, most humane performances one can imagine. The human spirit will prevail, must prevail. Does prevail. There can be no other belief for mankind. Klemeperer's St. Matthew is one of the few, very few, pieces of music that make me wonder if indeed there could be anything in religion after all.

It almost, to misquote Agent Mulder slightly, makes me want to believe.



Black Will & Shakebag

"The Lamentable and Trve Tragedie of M. Arden of Feuersham in Kent. Who was most wickedlye murdered, by the meanes of his disloyall and wanton wyfe, who for the loue she bare to one Mosbie, hyred two desparat ruffins Blackwill and Shakbag, to kill him. Wherin is shewed the great mallice discimulation of a wicked woman, the vnsatiable desire of filthie lust and the shameful end of all murderers."

This compelling argument is from the title page of the play Arden of Feversham, published anonymously in 1592. A fascinating play - on several levels.

What strikes me most is how remarkably fresh the play is even today. The best way to describe it is as a solid mix of true crime, hard boiled crime story and pulp. There's no poetry for the sake of poetry in this play. It's all muscular prose and meaty realism. The wife plays around. She and her fancy man hatch a plan. Who needs hubby? Get shot of him and collect the dough. So they hire two pros to do the honours. They snuff him, then it all goes Pete Tong and the accusations fly. Unhappy ends all round. Crime don't pay.

Classic noir. Could have been written in 1952 instead of 1592. And it's based on a true murder case, one that occurred in 1551 and even got a mention in Holinshed's Chronicles.

Another thing that makes a great impression is how the plot and the murder are described. First she tries poison. The victim gets away. Then they hire two murderers. The murderers get a bit iffy but the money's good, too good not to do it. They try a hit. It's a miss. Another attempt. No go. More tension. Third try. Still he lives. Everybody getting seriously jittery. Fourth attempt. Still no joy.

And all the time Arden knows his wife is two timing him. But he has no idea she's trying to off him.

Everybody has complex and conflicting motives. Maybe this isn't such a good idea after all. Arden's wife, however, has paid or bribed Arden's whole household and others with gold and silvery tongued promises. It really is in no one's interest to let the man live. So they don't and at last the victim is almost ripped to shreds - as by Eumenides in a Greek tragedy. It's all a dirty, messy, brutal and vicious business. Like slaughtering a pig. Then there's all the blood, so much blood to get rid of. And it never goes away. That's how they get caught - bloody footsteps leading away from the house, traces of blood inside the house.

The messiness and the viciousness make the play all the stronger and more convincing. Plans are laid. They go awry. Things happen. There are unforeseen consequences. Nothing quite goes how it's supposed to go. Nobody quite acts like they're supposed to act. People have second thoughts. It's all good and well to wish murder, talk murder, plot murder. But a very different thing to actually commit it. In cold blood.

That's one of the things that stand out in the play - the sound psychological characterization of even minor characters.

So, who wrote it?

Kyd? He's a popular candidate. In my opinion no, wasn't Kyd. Too streamlined for him, too straightforward, too - well - lucid. Who? Shakespeare? Would have been pretty early for Shakespeare but not entirely impossible. Though, to be honest, nobody really knows when it was written or first performed. We only know when it was published. The Oxfordians credit it, no surprises there, to the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who apparently wrote virtually every play in the Elizabethan era. Marlowe? Perhaps the best candidate. He's vicious enough, doesn't go in for useless poetic nonsense and knows how to tell a story to the best effect.

SHAKEBAG: Black night hath hid the pleasures of the day,
And sheeting darkness overhangs the earth,
And with the black fold of her cloudy robe
Obscures us from the eyesight of the world,
In which sweet silence such as we triumph.
The lazy minutes linger on their time,
Loth to give due audit to the hour,
Till in the watch our purpose be complete
And Arden sent to everlasting night.
Greene, get you gone, and linger here about,
And at some hour hence come to us again,
Where we will give you instance of his death.

There definitely does, whoever wrote it, seem to be a strong and somewhat cryptic Shakespearean connection.

Arden. The name of the victim. Arden is one of England's oldest noble families, one of only three (I think) that can trace their noble lineage on the male side to the Saxon days before the Norman conquest. Shakespeare's mother was an Arden. Possibly related to the high and mighty one's, though nobody's ever been able to prove that. On the other hand nobody's ever proved that she definitely wasn't. We just can't say. Still, Arden was her name and her family.

What really gets me, every time, are the names of the murderers. Black Will and Shakebag. Will and Shake? Can this be mere coincidence? Will and Shake murdering an Arden? This, surely, can be no mere accident or happenstance? It beggars disbelief.

Surely the author is having a go at Shakespeare? And if the author is none else than Kit Marlowe that would seem the most natural thing in the world. The experienced veteran Marlowe slipping the loudmouth upstart Shakespeare a juicy one in the seat, as it were.

Maybe Shakespeare even, when he was a young actor, performed the role of Shakebag, as has been speculated. Now there's a happy thought. Maybe that is precisely why Shakebag is called Shakebag (originally he was called Loosebag) - because Will played him. Of course there is not even the slightest evidence for this.

Of course, if it's true that the names of the actual killers, given by Holinshed in his book, were in fact Black Will and Shakebag (as is also claimed; not having read Holinshed I really wouldn't know one way or the other), then that would pretty much ruin my lovely theory.

Still, bit of a coincidence that. A bit thick.

Anyway, Arden of Feversham is one of the best crime stories ever. Is my humble opinion. Whoever wrote it. (And my belated thanks to the very erudite Mr. Dyer, in whose library first I came across and read the play all those years ago.)


I am not what I am

Orson Welles's movie Othello was completed with virtually no budget whatsoever. Welles paid for the movie himself. His funds dried up time and again, which is why it took almost four years to complete it. A little bit at a time. Filming was suspended and then picked up again. He'd star in someone else's movie, take the money and work on Othello, then go away and star in another movie. Like Carol Reed and Graham Greene's The Third Man. Then back to Othello it was. Othello wasn't quite produced shot by shot, but it's a close thing.

The whole project started badly (just after the disaster with his previous movie Macbeth which ended up being cut up and butchered quite severely as the studio didn't much care one way or the other - which is why Welles now felt that he had to have complete control over his film, however long it took to finish): the Italian backer went bankrupt. Iago, Everett Sloane, walked away during the early days of filming. Which meant that a great deal of film had to be re-shot. Sloane had played key roles in his previous movies: Bernstein in Citizen Kane and Bannister in Lady from Shanghai. He'd been with Welles ever since the Mercury theatre and radio days. Apparently there was real tension between the Sloane and Welles. Sloane was fed up with Welles's ego and quite possibly resented him. Maybe he was envious of Welles and his success. Which of course would have worked perfectly on film - Iago resenting and envying Othello (and who else would play the warlike Moor of Venice than Welles himself?). But Sloane decided to call it a day.

When Welles asked Carol Reed to approach James Mason for him for the role of Iago, Reed said Mason was all wrong and suggested the great Irish actor Micheál Mac Liammóir instead. Welles was sceptical but went along. So off the crew was to Morocco where the movie was to be filmed. Where, almost immediately, his Desdemona received a better offer and was out of there like a shot. Welles didn't let that minor setback impede the filming, he just started shooting around Desdemona, until he could get someone else.

Next the project was hampered and even seriously jeopardized by Mac Liammóir's sexual peccadilloes. The homosexual Mac Liammóir had a whale of a time picking up strange men all over the place. He especially enjoyed the company of policemen (and curiously enough quite a lot of them seemed to enjoy his company) and was constantly trying to seduce them. The governor had the film crew under surveillance and insisted that Welles read the reports daily. This embarrassed Welles a great deal. When Mac Liammóir found out that Welles knew exactly what he was up to and with whom he was delighted. It egged him on no end to have an audience for his rompy pompy. When the filming shifted to Venice Mac Liammóir was miserable as the move put an end to his happy carefree love life. He did however manage to have it off with a gondolier in so tempestuous a fashion that the gondolier was knocked right into the Canal Grande and almost drowned. Took a lot of money to hush it up.

Othello was Mac Liammóir's first movie even though he was in his fifties. (His only other notable film was the 1970 spy thriller The Kremlin Letter by John Huston in which Helsinki was tarted up as jolly old Moscow, as usual.) In Ireland he was a big name, a playwright, writer, manager, actor, designer, poet, painter, raconteur. He'd founded the famed Gate Theatre with his partner Hilton Edwards in 1928, played all the big roles, established himself as a stalwart champion of native Celtic culture. He wore an ill fitting black toupee, ever slightly askew, and painted his face a rather startling shade of orange. As if this wasn't quite enough he always wore a lot of mascara. According to Welles he looked like an "unemployed gypsy fiddler who ought to try and pull himself together." It was in fact Mac Liammóir who gave Welles his first professional acting job. That was in Dublin. Welles was sixteen at the time and loafing around the Irish countryside trying to become a painter. Which he soon chucked as he decided he wanted to be an actor instead. So he went to the Gate Theatre, bold as brass, and announced that he was an American actor and wanted a job. He also lied about his age. A complete fraud. Mac Liammóir took him on, maybe because he recognized something in young Welles, him being a complete and utter fraud himself. Mac Liammóir was in fact the ultimate fraud as everything about him was phony. He wasn't really Irish at all. He just made it up. He was a native Londoner called Alfred Willmore who just moved to Ireland, took a fancy to the place, learnt Irish, started using an Irish name, and told everybody that he was Irish. And everybody bought it. Which just goes to show that a successful actor really needs to be a huge fraud. (But fraudulence only succeeds when you're an interesting fraud, otherwise it's just a waste of everybody's time.)

Later the relationship between Mac Liammóir and Welles went sour. When Welles left the Gate he felt he'd been treated shabbily. Mac Liammóir, like Sloane, resented Welles's success and meteoric rise to fame. Who did this upstart boy think he was? Again, a good starting point for Iago and Othello, this mutual and heartfelt hostility and common grudge. You can't buy that stuff.

In 1952, at long last, the movie was finished - just in time for Cannes where it won the Palme d'Or. That didn't cut much ice with American distributors. Othello was released over there in 1955, after Welles had re-cut it and re-dubbed it. His recording equipment had been absolutely terrible and a lot of scenes had been shot with no sound at all. Interestingly enough he removed all of Desdemona's lines and did some of them himself.

Obviously, after all the work, all the effort, all the years he'd invested in the movie, all the money he'd spent on it, the movie was a complete commercial disaster. The critics quite liked it, the audience stayed away in droves.

How does the movie look today? Parts of it are superb, majestic, striking and visually exquisite. A lot of it, especially the bits in Venice, are cramped and poky, the pace is nervous, the images are never allowed to linger and have any sort of effect. There are too many words. The voice overs are horrible. The words eat up the power of the pictures and very much so vice versa. Shakespeare and film is never a happy match. In order really to do justice to Shakespeare on the silver screen one would have to cut most of the lines and tell the story in pictures instead of words, use the visceral poetry of images. Shakespeare's verse is too thick, too complex, too allencompassing, its texture too tightly knit to let anything else breathe in its vicinity. Unfortunately Shakespeare's words conjure up far more potent pictures than any film maker could. So most efforts are usually doomed before they start. Welles might have given it a very decent try, if only he'd have had money and time. It's painfully obvious that there was no money, even less time. He has the scenery, he has the settings, but such is his penury that he cannot stop to make use of them. There is no time. When you cannot show it you have to use a voice over. The dubbing is at times embarrassingly out of synch. Many of the shots are poorly lit, even alarmingly dark, which not only makes them look drab but also makes the action hard to follow even for one familiar with the play. A fight scene that was started in Morocco is finished in Rome. Because Welles ran out of money and had to go get some more.

But Iago is simply splendid. He's cold, scornful, superior. His unnaturally pale face is the face of debauchery and evil, his frigid little eyes as dead as his soul, his voice with it's almost charming (and inauthentic) Irish lilt seductive and seditious. He oozes menace and mendacity from every pore of his being. Many of his best lines are cut, his monologues are all gone, but still his presence is the very heart of the movie. Iago is the movie. He quite steals it away from Welles and his strangely subdued Othello. Even when Welles really gets going there's Iago behind him, lurking in the shadows, whispering, stirring it up, causing affray, undulating evil. That is what he does, what he is: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." Or: "Though in the trade of war I have slain men, yet do I hold it very stuff o'the conscience to do no contrived murder: I lack iniquity sometimes to do me service: nine or ten times I had thought t'have yerkt him here under the ribs." Splendid fellow, Iago.

Somewhere around the middle of the film or a bit thereafter things start improving markedly. The shots live and breathe, one gets a definite feel of the tragedy and its participants. This, I imagine, must be because we get scenes that were shot when doom wasn't imminent. When there were still prospects of a kind. And funds. The worst scenes, those shot in Venice, are the one's that open the movie. In them it is clear that all hope is lost.

But the end is good, solid, gripping. Desdemona's death grabs one by the throat, starts choking and won't let go.

Othello could have been Welles's independent masterpiece. Should have been. It isn't.