The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(6/10) Dr. Jekyll gets a family in this Argentine rarity from 1951, which is probably the earliest preserved non-US adaptation of R.L. Stevenson’s famous novella. Actor/director Mario Soffici impresses both in the dual title role and with his moody, impressionist lighting schemes and editing. Somewhat talky and hampered by a stuffy moral conclusion, El extraño caso del hombre y la bestia is at best a whirlwind of dark visual poetry. 

El extraño caso del hombre y la bestia. 1951, Argentina. Directed by Mario Soffici. Written by Ulises Petit de Murat, Mario Soffici, Carlos Marín. Based on novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Mario Soffici, Ana Maria Campoy, Olga Zubarry, José Cibrian, Federico Mansilla. Produced by Carmelo Vecchione. IMDb: 6.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1951_strange_case_of_man_and_beast_001The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most frequently adapted — if not the most frequently adapted — book in history, with well over 100 movies based on or directly inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella. Most of the early silent versions are lost today, but I have covered the first lost 1908 version, the 1912 James Cruze version, the 1913 King Baggott version, the famous John Barrymore 1920 version, the much less famous 1920 Sheldon Lewis version, the Oscar-winning 1931 version and the much-maligned 1941 Spencer Tracy version (which I think surpasses its shoddy reputation). Several non-English versions were made prior to 1950, perhaps most notably the Danish 1910 adaptation Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse, directed by the great August Blom, something of a Nordic SF pioneer, and Der Januskopf by F.W. Murnau in 1920. Sadly, all of these have been lost. The earliest non-US version that seems to have survived comes from Argentina, and is the film we have before us here, El extraño caso del hombre y la bestia, from 1951, released in the US in 1957 with the title The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast.

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Mario Soffici as Mr. Hyde.

I have written extensively about the original novel and how its story has evolved into the form that we take for canon today because of its many adaptations, so I won’t delve too deeply into that now. If you’re interested in learning more, please visit one of the articles linked above. In short one can conclude that all of the American versions prior to 1950 were highly influenced, not only by each other, but primarily by two different stage versions written at the tail end of the 19th century. These changed the nature of Dr. Jekyll’s motives and experiments, radically altered the structure of the story and added plot elements and characters, like a fiancée and her father, and made the main conflict of the movies Jekyll’s faithfulness to his wife-to-be. Although none of this was in the source novella, they are all present in all US film adaptations, often with little variation from film to film.

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Ana Maria Campoy as Mrs. Jekyll and Mario Soffici as Dr. Jekyll.

Thus it is refreshing that the 1951 Argentinian version departs heavily from this standardised plot, not perhaps sticking any closer to the book, but at least with its own original slant. Mind you, I watched this Spanish-language film without subtitles — actually with YouTube’s auto-generated translation subtitles, which is pretty much the same thing. But at least the auto-generated subs do give you a general idea of what is being discussed in any particular scene, so it helps. Thankfully, the story is familiar and even the plot elements that deviate from either the book or the previous film versions are pretty straight-forward, so I had no problems following the proceedings. The beginning of the movie is somewhat talky, but as far as I can gather, it’s mostly just setting up the familiar premise: Dr. Jekyll (Mario Soffici), a mild-mannered and altruistic physician is conducting experiments in order to separate the good and evil in humans. This setup comes straight from the stage adaptations, and has been used in almost all films on the subject. There is something of this in the novella as well, albeit not as clumsily put forth as in most film adaptations. Unlike most adaptations it has little discussion on the soul, but in it Jekyll is trying, as it were, to create a split personality in order that he may go out debauching at night, unrecognised, and wake up without a moral hangover. There are many philosophical and social layers to the book. One that this film seems to have latched on to is Stevenson’s discussion about dualism and existentialism, if some of the reviews online are to be trusted. According to a number of articles, some of the talk early on concerns existentialism, however, this angle doesn’t seem to add anything drastically different from the previous adaptations.

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Where this version of the film does deviate from earlier adaptations is that when the setup is done and Mr. Hyde has committed a murder at a brothel, Dr. Jekyll suddenly becomes a father. Apparently fatherhood keeps the Hyde side of him at bay, as during these four years, we are told, he has had no “Hyde spells”. But one day, while playing with his son (Panchito Lombard), the transformation kicks in again, apparently unprovoked. Fleeing through the city, Hyde, who has been “missing” for four years, is recognised as the murderer by one of the girls at the nightclub where the dancer/prostitute was killed, Lola (Olga Zubarry), and now the police are on his tail. Jekyll then seeks out his friend and colleague Dr. Dayon (Federico Mansilla) and confides in him his secret, so that he can help him get more of an ingredient he needs for his antidote. Telling his wife (Ana Maria Campoy) that his experiments have brought a great evil to the world, Jekyll locks himself in his lab, where once again Hyde emerges — and this time refuses to leave. And the only question remaining is: Will this movie end in the same way as all others?

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Mario Soffici.

Beside Mexico, Argentina was the only South American country that ventured into SF territory before 1950. I have previously reviewed two Argentine SF movies: the super-low budget oddity El hombre bestia (1934, review) and the somewhat classier old dark house movie Una luz en la ventana (1942, review). Unlike these two, The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast was something of a prestige product, co-written and directed by one of the greats of Argentine cinema, Mario Soffici. Soffici was born in Italy, and his family migrated to Argentina in 1909, when he was nine years old. He graduated as an engineer, but was already an accomplished stage actor in his early twenties, and in the thirties turned to film. Soffici was a leading name in the golden age of Argentinian cinema in the thirties and forties, and most notably directed the environmentally themed Prisoners of the Land in 1939, often cited as one of the greatest Argentinian films in history. What exactly prompted Soffici to adapt Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the screen is an interesting question, as there is not much in the rest of his repertoire to suggest this project, but apparently it was an important film for him, as he opted to play the dual lead role himself.

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Mario Soffici as Dr. Jekyll.

And it is Soffici who is the driving force of the movie on screen as well. Interestingly, in this movie Dr. Jekyll is not a young charmer, but rather a 50-year-old family man appropriate to the actor’s own age, and in fact also to Stevenson’s written character. His is probably the most monstrous Hyde put on screen thus far in history, perhaps discounting Fredric March’s simian portrayal. Alberto Neron’s and Ángel Salerno’s makeup for Hyde is clearly inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a bald creature with pointed features and fangs. Also, they have gone to town with Stevenson’s description of Hyde as a “dark” man, even though he is never really described as having dark skin in the book, in fact, the the character Utterson gives an account of Hyde being “pale”. However, the novella is rife with accounts of Hyde’s inner darkness, and at one point he is said to express a “black, sneering  coolness”. Perhaps this is what prompts the filmmakers to give Hyde dark skin. There is certainly a case here for an analysis of racial stereotyping, but the film itself doesn’t make any racial comments, but rather Hyde’s darkness seems to be a manifestation of his inner self. The makeup is crude but highly effective, and it is difficult to imagine that it is really the same actor playing both roles. Apparently the facial distortion was created by putting rubber tubing inside Soffici’s cheeks. There’s a fairly well done double exposure transformation fade of the type used by Universal in their horror movies, but for the most part the transformation is achieved through jump cuts. However, these are skillfully done, and there is one terrific sequence in particular, when Jekyll involuntarily transforms in a subway tunnel, with the shadows of the passing trains acting as wipes.

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All in all, The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast is beautifully filmed with strong influences from German Expressionism. Especially effective is the sequence where Jekyll/Hyde flees from the police over rooftops, in back alleys and underground tunnels. Antonio Merayo’s cinematography and lighting deserve high praise, but so does Jorge Gárate’s occasionally masterful editing. It is a film with lots of great atmosphere, and Soffici proves he knows his German silents with numerous nods to classics like the afore-mentioned Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, M and others. But perhaps because I can’t follow the conversations, the more dialogue-heavy sequences of the movie stand out in contrast because of their flat cinematography and uninspired direction. They all have the cramped feel of a low-budget movie, which, of course, it is, compared to Hollywood standards.

Another weak point of the film is the script. While it is refreshing that the movie deviates from the standardised US plot formula, it hardly brings anything new in the sense of interpretation or thematic material. In fact, the film removes one of the themes that makes a few of the US versions delve a bit deeper than the average monster romp, namely the ponderings on sexuality and social norms. This is an aspect which is perhaps most prominent in Paramount’s 1931 pre-Code adaptation. Here Hyde is represented as libido set free, whereas Dr. Jekyll bemoans the fact that he’s not getting any, as the father of his fiancée stalls their marriage. This version also paints a harrowing picture of a sexual predator and his sex slave, in the portrait of the prostitute that Hyde keeps locked up in an apartment. In the 1941 version there is less emphasis on sex, due to the Hays Code, but instead Hyde’s harassment of Bergman’s character becomes a chilling exposé on domestic psychological torture.

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Two Argentine and an Italian poster.

However, look as i try, I can’t find any similar deeper-delving themes in The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast. The one thing that does set the movie apart is the notion of family and family values, and one can view the movie, as famed film critic Emilio Toibero does at Escritos do un Cinéfago: as “a fiery, and paradoxically monotonous, defense of the family institution and all that it implies”. Putting his family before his work seems to be giving Jekyll immunity from Hyde, and when Hyde finally does show up, it feels like a punishment for previous, youthful sins. However, the only “youthful sins” the goody-two-shows Dr. Hyde has been up to is trying to expand the limits of human knowledge. Thus, for all its bluster, The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast arrives at the worn-out conclusion that “there are some things Man should not meddle in”, combined with a conservative rallying cry for family values (note that the only victims in the movie are two promiscuous women).

The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast also lacks something of the romantic tragedy that infuses Argentinian and South American genre films in general. By removing the “controversial” elements of the story, screenwriter Ulyses Petit de Murat and Carlos Marin also remove the base on which to build Jekyll’s tragic and/or passionate side. Here Jekyll only seems like a really nice guy who has a shitty turn of events happening to him, which seldom makes for a very interesting story.

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As said, I may be losing something in translation (or lack thereof), but the script by the renowned screenwriter and poet Ulyses Petit de Murat falls somewhat short of expectations, giving the man’s pedigree. Petit de Murat wrote two of the classics of the Golden Era of Argentine cinema, Prisoners of the Earth (1939) and The Gaucho War (1942). Among other honours, he was a member of the jury at Cannes in the sixties. But here he turns out little more than a standard Hollywood monster movie story.

However, the film does rise above its standardised plot elements, thanks to very strong direction and editing and some outstanding performances. Mario Soffici, who had no other run-in with science fiction during his career, was a self-taught actor-cum-director who had risen from the stage circuit into the very top of Argentine movie business. By 1951, Soffici was already an institution. Like all Argentine film directors, his bulk trade were the so-called tango films, ushered in with the coming of sound in the early thirties. These were often romantic dramas and frontier films celebrating Argentinian culture and were infused with national pride. When Juan Peron rose to power, he began heavily funding the movie industry, which was in turn expected to make movies that adhered to the official ideology of peronism, thus movies which extolled the virtues of the hard-working peasant and demonised rich land owners and industrialists became the norm. Another factor influencing movies was the strong Catholic church, which may ro some extent explain the relative absence of SF and horror fare in Argentine cinema.

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Mario Soffici as Mr. Hyde.

Against this background, The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast was really something out of the ordinary, both considering its content matter and its style, so heavily influenced by German expressionism, the French inter-war avantgarde and American horror stories. The movie rips away the audience from the usual plains of Pampas or the coffee shops of Buenos Aires by stating in an opening title sequence that the film “could be happening anywhere at any time”, before showing us a street scene reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century Central European city. However, the demonising of sexuality and the heavy-handed moral message about core family values still show the film as a fairly safe product of its time. It was still seven years before Isabel Sarli disrobed in Thunder Among the Leaves (1958), essentially jump-starting the small but lucrative sexploitation industry in Argentina. The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast was also part of a popular tradition in the period of adapting Victorian literature for the screen.

Soffici dominates the movie in his dual role, bringing to the screen one of the most memorable Hydes in film history, giving both John Barrymore and Fredric March a run for their money. Soffici’s Eduardo Hyde is somewhat hampered by the relatively weak script, though.

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Olga Zubarry.

The rest of the cast is made up of legends of the Argentine movie scene. A small, but memorable, performance is given by the beautiful Olga Zubarry, on the verge of becoming one of Argentina’s biggest movie stars — in 1953 she played the lead in the psychological horror film The Black Vampire, a clever remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) in which the movie focuses on one of the mothers of the murdered children, a role for which she received the first of her three Silver Condor Awards for her acting. Zubarry didn’t do any other SF in her career, but popped up a few times in the horror genre, most notably perhaps alongside horror icon Narciso Ibáñez Menta in one of his horror shows on TV in the seventies. She appeared in 60 films between 1943 and 1997, and from 1970 onward had a successful TV career. In 1994 she was awarded a Podestá lifetime achievement award by the Argentina Actors Association. Zubarry passed away in 2012.

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Olga Zubarry in her eye-opening role in The Naked Angel (1946).

The female lead in the movie, Jekyll’s wife, Sara Jekyll, is played by another great, Ana Maria Campoy. Campoy doesn’t get very much to do, but has a couple of very strong performances in the course of the movie. This was was the Argentinian film debut for the globetrotter, born to Spanish parents in Colombia, who was already a seasoned stage and film actress in Spain when she moves with her husband, Argentinian actor José Cibrian to Buenos Aires in 1949. Like Zubarry, Campoy had a long and successful career in TV, film and on stage, and received (among other awards) a prestigious Konex award as the best comedic actress of the seventies.

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Federico Marsilla and Ana Maria Campoy.

Speaking of José Cibrian, he plays the pleasant Dr. Anderson in The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast, a role which seems to me to be somewhat redundant. It is as if the character of Utterson has been divided into two, Anderson and Dr. Dayon (Mansilla). It is Dayon that seems to be the colleague of Jekyll’s, and the one that Jekyll tells of his secret at the end of the movie. However, Anderson works as a sort of “go-between” between Jekyll and Hyde, on Jekyll’s insisting. But what his actual function in the story is, is lost to me, probably in translation. However, Cibrian is a warm and natural presence throughout the movie. José “Pepé” Cibrian was a renowned actor and stage director, who pioneered Argentine TV along with wife Campoy, and also managed to carve out a respectable career in film, primarily in comedies. He suffered a severe stroke in 1990, which ended his career and caused both motor difficulties and memory problems.

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Most modern Argentine reviews burst with patriotic pride over the fact that Soffici presents a well-made home-spun adaptation of Stevenson’s classic story. Not least Ramiro San Honorio at Cinefania/Terror Universal, who calls the movie “a rare bird of terrifying fantasy that must be rescued” and continues with a breathless ode to the director, whom he calls “a genius” and the film “a jewel”. Honorio writes: “I can tell you and affirm that the performance (transformation) of Mario Soffici […] is the most successful of all the existing versions in the world of cinema: […] an impeccable work that makes us doubt if it is really the same actor who interprets the transformation […]. A studio-bound film that delights for its greatness in terms of technical quality, acting and narrative. A gem of the horror/fantasy genre that deserves to be in the video library of every movie buff.”

Similar tunes are sung by Fernando Sandro at No puedo dejar de ver Cine, who calls the movie “an immortal classic”; “while it may not be the most esteemed film by its director, it is one of his best works in his double role in front and behind the camera. It is one of those films that made and makes our cinema great, a film that succeeds where all the other adaptations failed, it is dark (the use of black and white is exceptional), analytical, really deep, far beyond the simple occasional scare. A great film, in more ways than one.” And Cristian Sema at Raro VHS writes: “A somber and almost intellectual vision of the classic so often filmed”. Cinema Dame concedes: “It is true that the dialogue is somewhat philosophical and has little Argentinian flavour, but the updates are insightful (existentialism) and the authors in the latest fashion. 

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As mentioned earlier, there is some discussion about Existentialism in the talky beginning of the film. This is in and of itself not surprising, as Stevenson’s novella has been analysed from the viewpoint of existentialism and dualism countless times. Existentialism was all the rage during Victorianism, inspired by the theories of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Extremely simplified and for the sake of this discussion, one might say that the core idea of Existentialism is that “Man is the sum of his actions”, i.e., that a human’s “essence”, so to speak, is formed by their thoughts, emotions, actions and experiences, rather than by predetermined fate, heritage or mystical notion of the “soul”. In Stevenson’s novella, Dr. Jekyll reasons that if he can concentrate all his lustful and vile tendencies in a separate personality with its “own” thoughts, emotions and memories, and block all the lived experiences of Mr. Hyde away from his “good” personality, then by the rule of Existentialism, the core of Dr. Jekyll will remain untainted by Mr. Hyde’s debauchery. Through this split personality, Jekyll reasons, one can siphon off all the dark sides of one’s essence to into a wholly separate entity — one that shares the same body but not the same “soul” as it were. Just as important here is the theory of dualism, that humans inherently have a dark and a light side, or if you wish, a primordial animal instinct that is constantly at war with our civilised self. This idea, of course, goes back to the Christian idea of the Fall of Man, of the inherent sin that must be kept at bay through piety.

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Olga Zubarry and Mario

So, to some extent, it seems, the dialogue in the beginning of the movie touches upon Existentialism. However, there is little evidence that the The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast elaborates on this theme any further than other previous adaptations have done. Even if it is not spelled out, the very essence of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lies in this rumination over humanity’s existence from the point of view of Existentialism, say, versus the notion of predetermination or the will of God, for example. So while The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast actually puts the discussion about Existentialism front and centre in the dialogue, it isn’t necessarily any brainier than its predecessors.

Professional film critic Emilio Toibero doesn’t get caught up in the patriotic frenzy of some of the bloggers cited above, and argues that The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast is perhaps not quite as deep-delving and psychologically astute as some of the more enthusiastic writers extol it to be. In fact, writes Toibero, it is heavily influenced by the enforced moral dictates of the Peron era; the heavy emphasis on family values and the conservative stance toward youthful escapades, be they in the field of sexuality, religion or science. Toibero goes as far as suggesting that the inclusion of the child and the family-centric plot were dictated from above. This is, however, pure speculation.

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One interesting discrepancy between Argentine and foreign reviews is that Argentinian writers almost infallibly praise what they see as high production values and technical brilliance, whereas foreign critics consider the look of the film to be “low-budget”. This, of course, reveals the very different stages of development that European and US film industries, on one hand, and South American film industries, on the other, were in at the beginning of the fifties. At the height of the Golden Age of Argentine cinema, the country produced around 40 films a year, whereas the US in the fifties churned out somewhere along the lines of 500 films a year.

While Argentina was at the time competing with Mexico about the spot as South Americas foremost film producer, its comparably small movie industry was almost entirely based in Buenos Aires. The fifties saw a steady decline in the popularity of Argentine movies. Toibero lays the blame mainly on Peronism’s censorship. While championing the working class, Argentine films at the time avoided many of the real problems and hardships facing the Argentinian people. This coincided with a growing influx of US movies which in the fifties dealt with social problems and political issues in radically new and fresh ways, not to mention the appeal that the depictions of the swinging fifties and the sexual revolution, accompanied by the latest pop music, had on a young generation of movie-goers. But in truth, the blame can’t be placed on Peronist cencorship alone — long before Peron, Argentine film had a problematic lack of diversity. With the coming of sound, the so-called Tango Film bulldozed everything else in its path, and cinemas were filled to the brim with either nationalistic melodramas set in Pampas or urban comedies. Barring the occasional mystery drama, genre film was almost non-existent during the Golden Age of Argentine cinema, and thus filmmakers had little room to push the envelope artistically or technically. Peronism simply deepened a stagnation that was already happening. 

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So while Tobeiro has little love for The Strange Case of the Man and the Beast, viewed against this backdrop, Soffici’s movie seems like a fresh anomaly, and from a purely visual point of view has a lot going for it. The few non-Argentine reviews I can find online also paint a positive picture of the movie. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings gives it an overall approving review, especially praising Soffici’s acting. Trapard at Los Échos d’Altair notes that the films is “a B movie shot on a very small budget”, but also praises the acting and gives the movie thumbs up as a rarity. And Italian Fantafilm writes a glowing review: “Considering that we are in the early 1950s, that we are dealing with a low-budget film and that the Argentine production has never received particular attention from international distribution, Soffici’s movie is courageous and stimulating. The Victorian horror, projected onto the great industrial city, acquires a new and dramatic resonance: it explodes inside the anonymous bourgeois house and extends like an evil shadow and an infectious evil between the stations, avenues and courtyards of the nocturnal city.”

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For the casual viewer who doesn’t understand Spanish, El extraño caso del hombre y la bestia may be a bit daunting to watch, especially the talky first half, since there doesn’t seem to be a subtitled version around. However, for fans of Latin American cinema and horror/SF buffs, this is an interesting and remarkably well-made rarity at a period when South American genre films still tended to come off as terribly clunky imitations of their US counterparts.

Janne Wass

El extraño caso del hombre y la bestia. 1951, Argentina. Directed by Mario Soffici. Written by Ulises Petit de Murat, Mario Soffici, Carlos Marín. Based on the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Mario Soffici, Ana Maria Campoy, Olga Zubarry, José Cibrian, Federico Mansilla, Panchito Lombard, Rafael Frontaura, Arsenio Perdiguera, Rodolfo Crespi, Gloria Ferrandiz, Diana de Córdoba, Rafael Diserio, Jesús Pampín, Arsenio Perdiguero, Aída Villedeamigo, Julia Giusti. Music: Silvio Vernazza. Cinematography: Antonio Merayo. Editing: Jorge Gárate. Production design: Gori Muñoz. Costume design: Eduardo Lerchundi. Makeup: Alberto Neron, Angel Salerno. Produced by Carmelo Vecchione for Argentina Sono Film. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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