Silent Screams! Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
by Steve Habrat
When we look back upon the silent horror films that were emerging from both Germany and the United States in the 1920s, the visual differences between the two countries are absolutely amazing. Germany used exaggerated gothic landscapes that were Brechtian in their appearance yet brimming with an eerie atmosphere that emitted from the heavy shadows and sharp edges. When we look at the 1920 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it’s glaringly obvious that what we are watching is taking place on an elaborate stage with a spiked and warped backdrop. Even though there isn’t an ounce of realism to the sets, somehow the film manages to lure us in and chill us with the idea that these images are merely the distortions of a disturbed mind. Even in 1920, it is highly unlikely that audiences weren’t noticing this. Around the same time in America, director John S. Robertson released the spit-shined Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a conservative bore when compared to the German Expressionist offerings. Based upon the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is never able to muster the terrifying mood that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does. It doesn’t even come close. However, despite its beige studio appearance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does benefit from a celebrated performance from John Barrymore, who hunches himself into a hideous monster born from man’s deepest, darkest desires. It’s through Barrymore’s performance alone that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is able to cover its other insipid features.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is an upstanding citizen. He is a workaholic who locks himself in his lab for hours on end, runs a free clinic in his spare time, and balks at the idea of ever having a good time, which irks his future father-in-law, Sir George Carew (played by Brandon Hurst). George believes that Henry isn’t nearly as good as he pretends to be, and he argues that Henry should indulge some of his darker impulses every now and then. After enduring an endless string of taunts from George and being forced to go to a seedy nightclub, Henry begins working on a potion that can separate man’s two natures into two separate bodies, one that is wholly good and one that embraces a darker lifestyle. Henry tests the potion on himself and he quickly transforms into Edward Hyde, a homely creature that haunts dingy nightclubs and has a fling with an Italian dancer named Gina (played by Nita Naldi). Meanwhile, Henry’s finance, Millicent (played by Martha Mansfield), begins to grow suspicious of her fiancés mysterious absence. She asks her father to help her track him down and get to the bottom of what he is up to. As Millicent and George race to find Henry, Hyde’s behavior grows more and more violent with each passing second.
The early parts of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde find the film struggling to find some form of momentum. Robertson expertly frames Barrymore and his performance as Henry Jekyll, presenting him as a bang-up guy driven by scientific progression and concerned with giving back to the community where he can. He’s likeable enough to point where he really spices up drab scenes of men sitting around a dinner table debating about man’s two natures while one-dimensional intertitles present us with their dialogue. The lack of a good set piece really doesn’t do much for the film either, making the opening twenty minutes a bit of a chore to sit through. Those with short attention spans will be contemplating hitting the stop button. However, after Henry ventures to that nightclub and lays eyes on Gina, things start to pick up. One of two highlight moments come when Henry transforms into Hyde, which was done without the use of special effects. It relies simply on Barrymore’s ability to morph into a horse-faced demon with curled lips revealing what appears to be hundreds of teeth. From here, the depraved behavior of Edward Hyde keeps the action interesting as he creeps into bars and sneaks up behind tipsy gals. Suspense is generated through Hyde’s increasingly erratic behavior, which slowly shifts from perverse to bloodthirsty.
Much of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s success rests on the shoulders of Barrymore, who outshines everyone else as he dances between good and evil. His transformation is tragic, and the poisoning of his squeaky-clean soul does make him all the more sympathetic. The most painful moment for his character comes when he is forced to watch Gina perform her dance routine, a lust slowly blossoming despite the fact that he is engaged to Millicent. With a role that demanded so much, it isn’t difficult to see why Barrymore is the stand out. He is doing more acting than anyone else in the picture. This film could have been a real disaster had the filmmakers not found someone able to glide so smoothly between a malicious parasite and an upstanding do-gooder. Naldi adds a bit of sex appeal to the film as Gina, the erotic Italian dancer who gets tangled up with the hunchbacked Hyde. Martha Mansfield may as well not even be in the picture as Millicent, the angelic love interest who strains to find something useful to do. Brandon Hurst fares a bit better as Sir George Carew, who taunts the mild-mannered Jekyll any chance he gets. He has a particularly unsettling run-in with Jekyll that seriously makes him regret dragging his future son-in-law to that nightclub.
While its cautionary deliberations and square performances weigh it down, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does manage to cough up one of the most horrific moments in horror movie history. Near the end of the film, Henry lies in bed and suffers a hallucination/nightmare that finds Hyde crawling out from under the bed and latching onto the terrified Henry. The effect is masterfully accomplished through layering, but it’s the look of Hyde that really shakes you up. He’s almost resembles a spider-like parasite, with tentacles hanging off of his bump back as he inches up onto the bed to latch to his host. It’s probably the best moment of the entire film and you’re left wishing for more inspired visuals scares like it. As far as the climax goes, there are a few scenes that get the pulse pumping, but it’s nothing compared to the hallucination/dream sequence. Overall, while it’s an artistic bore and it suffers from some sluggish stretches, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde manages to overcome some of its weaknesses through a must-see performance from the gifted Barrymore and a handful of ghoulish scenes that make it a solid watch for cinema buffs, monster aficionados, and horror fans. Just don’t expect a few sleepless nights after your viewing.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available on DVD.
The Godfather Part III (1990)
by Steve Habrat
The Godfather Part III is widely regarded as the weakest installment in The Godfather trilogy. Many aim their blame at the performance from Sofia Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, the fact that the film doesn’t operate as a stand-alone piece, or at the simple fact that the film doesn’t provide a satisfying wrap up to the gangster epic that began in 1972. Many of the major themes are still in tact (The American Dream, family loyalty, corruption, etc.) but I think the film just simply doesn’t tell a story that is as engaging as 1972’s The Godfather or 1974’s The Godfather Part II. In my humble opinion, I think things were properly wrapped up in The Godfather Part II, the film ending with Michael’s vicious hold on the family deteriorating into tragedy. While I don’t think The Godfather Part III holds up to the greatness of the first two films, I still believe that the film is good on its own terms, which I know is odd because the final installment leans so heavily on the events of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Coppola and returning screenwriter Mario Puzo make a film that thinks even bigger than the first two films, stretching the events out and getting a little bit too implausible for its own good.
The Godfather Part III picks up in 1979, where a graying Michael Corleone (Played by Al Pacino) is being named a Commander of the Order of St. Sebastian at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City. At a celebration after the event, Michael is reunited with his ex-wife Kay (Played by Diane Keaton), who informs Michael that his son Anthony (Played by Franc D’Ambrosio) wants to drop out of law school and pursue a career as an opera singer. Michael is upset by the decision and wishes that he would either remain in law school or join the family business. Michael, who is still desperately trying to make the family business legitimate, is still haunted by the death of his brother Fredo. Michael also finds himself confronted by his late brother Sonny’s illegitimate son Vincent Mancini (Played by Andy Garcia), who wants in on the family business and wants Michael to settle a spat between him and Joey Zasa (Played by Joe Mantegna), who now handles the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael has been busying himself by buying up enough stock in International Immobiliare, which is an international real estate holding company. Michael becomes the biggest single shareholder and then looks to buy the Vatican’s 25% interest in the company. As the deal continues, the spat between Joey Zasa and Vincent becomes more and more deadly, pulling Michael back into the criminal underworld. After a brutal assassination attempt, Michael thinks that there may be trouble to be found in the Immobiliare deal.
The Godfather Part III has perhaps the most convoluted plotline of all the three films, which makes some stretches of the film slightly boring. This is disappointing because there wasn’t a slow moment to be found in the previous two entries. It is interesting to see how some of the remaining characters have progressed, mostly Michael’s sister Connie (Played by Talia Shire) and Kay, who has mixed emotions about Michael’s behavior and his ruthless control on the family. The biggest change can be found in Michael, who appears to have lost some of his coldness and embraced a warmer, generous heart. There are still brief flashes of the Michael in The Godfather Part II, but he is nowhere near as menacing as he once was. Coppola also removes some of the ominous feel, this film a bit brighter than the other installments. What has remained in tact is the epic reach of the film, jetting all over from New York City to Sicily and everywhere in between. The film also establishes a creepy love story between Vincent and Michael’s daughter Mary (Played by Sofia Coppola), who are first cousins but apparently are not bothered by this at all. The love story is my least favorite aspect of The Godfather Part III, at once completely unnecessary and incredibly out of place for this series.
Like the first two films, Coppola and Puzo pile on tons of characters that we need to pay attention to. The film introduces us to the vile Joey Zasa, who has turned Little Italy into a drug filled slum. We also meet Don Altobello (Played by Eli Wallach), a seemingly reasonable old man who has a dark side, Michael’s bodyguard Al Neri (Played by Richard Bright), Corleone family friend Don Tommasino (Played by Vittorio Duse), Archbishop Gilday (Played by Donal Donnelly), and powerful Italian political figure Don Licio Lucchesi (Played by Enzo Robutti), to name a few of the new characters. It times, it is almost impossible to keep track of all of them, but you will barely manage. We are really supposed to care about hotheaded Vincent, who is quickly rising to power within the Corleone family. While Garcia plays him with confident determination, at times, I really didn’t care much for his character and would have rather just stuck with Michael, who is facing deteriorating health and wishes to overcome his inner demons, which consistently plague him.
The Godfather Part III explores even further family loyalty, corruption, and the American Dream. With this installment, we learn that Michael has all the power and wealth he could ever dream of, but he still finds himself alienated from a good majority of his family. Apparently, Connie has come around and stands firmly beside her brother, at times even more vicious than he is. His son, Anthony, wishes to keep Michael and the family business as far away from him so he can and seek out an honest living. Yet The Godfather Part III firmly states that corruption is found in big business and yes, even the Vatican. This criminal underworld is like a parasite that has infected even the places that should never have been infected. Michael still voices that he wishes to make the family business legitimate and wash his hands of the mafia but this is easier said than done. Vincent also rejects trying to make an honest man of himself, firmly rejecting the idea all together and instead gleefully descending into the criminal underworld. The downside to the subtext of The Godfather Part III is that it gets a bit ludicrous and looses its subtlety. It is disappointing because this is territory that Puzo and Coppola have covered before and much more effectively at that.
The Godfather Part III is a well-made film and no one can really say otherwise. There are still solid performances to be found, but no one really rises above good and strives for greatness. No one here really challenges what Brando did in the first film and not even Pacino can match the unbearable intensity that he conveyed in Part II. Much has been made of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing performance as Mary but I personally didn’t find her all that bad. I think she is a victim of the subplot that she is thrown into, which is just there to add another layer of tragedy to a story that is already tragic enough. The cinematography is just as beautiful and Coppola can’t resist returning to Sicily to exploit that beautiful countryside and baroque architecture. The film plants here for almost half the runtime but I certainly was not complaining about this aspect. In the end, there is the feeling that all the events that are playing out are vaguely forced and empty, almost like they didn’t need to play out at all. I really liked the scenes with Kay and Michael and their attempts to patch up their relationship but I liked the way things were left in Part II. With the second installment, we knew that Michael was doomed by the suggestions of the final frame and there was really no need for Coppola and Puzo to drag things out further and then put it in bold print and italicize it.
The Godfather Part III is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.