Grade: C-Jamaica Inn (1939)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara

Release Company: Kino Video

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: Jamaica Inn


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Opening to generally negative reviews in 1939, Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, is more maligned than necessary. Although it never approaches his great films, it still employs Hitchcockian plot twists effectively and doles out lightweight entertainment. In a sense, Jamaica Inn could serve well as an introduction to Hitchcock's works due to its relative lack of subtlety--his trademark visual style remains and typical thematic motifs blur the lines between good and evil once again, but Hitch's characters are less developed and soulless this time. Sandwiched between masterful films like The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca, Hitch's final British project runs on pure technique. This simplicity makes Jamaica Inn well suited for film study classes.

Based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, the story is set in west England off the Cornish coast during the early 1800's, where a group of thieves and pirates lure ships into the rocks and murder the crew for profit. Dead men tell no tales, but the locals hear enough rumors to know that the treacherous gang hangs out at the
Jamaica Inn. And that's exactly where heroine Mary (Maureen O'Hara, in her first major film role) is headed. Recently orphaned, the young woman seeks refuge with her remaining relatives, the landlords of the treacherous inn, Uncle Josh (Leslie Banks) and Aunt Patience (Marie Ney).

Although her aunt and uncle attempt to keep Jamaica Inn's dirty secrets from her, Mary inevitably discovers the den of thieves and robbers holing up there, and she saves one of their midst, James Trehearne (Robert Newton), from hanging. Both endangered, they vacate the evil premises, but Mary remains obviously conflicted about her new companion. Neither Trehearne, nor Justice of the Peace Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton) turn out to be exactly what they initially appear, but that is often the case with Hitchcock's characters--all part of the fun.

Prima donna Laughton dominates virtually scene he's ever played, and such is the case in Jamaica Inn, where his hambone Jekyll/Hyde performance plays like a caricature of himself, with shades of Hitchcock. Not only does Laughton vaguely resemble the Master, but his character darkly displays disdain for the human race with a touch of humor. Witness his early scene where he picks up a porcelain statuette and declares that it has far more life in it than most humans he knows (with an immediate camera shot of two gluttonous guests). Desiring fine food and other Dionysian pleasures, Pengallan is obsessed with money, making him a semi-comical but one dimensional character--at least that's how he comes out with Laughton's performance.

By producing the film himself, Laughton made certain that it was a vanity piece. He brought in J. B. Priestly for additional dialogue to build his character up, and of course had to play the lead, especially frustrating for Hitchcock because the plotline with Laughton playing the key role lessens the dramatic impact and takes away a key element of suspense. Despite its commercial success, Hitchcock never liked the film, and a major reason was due to Laughton's "unprofessionalism" as he describes it in his interview with Truffaut:

"As for Charles Laughton--well! When we started the picture, he asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn't yet figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said, "I've found it.' It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz, and he whistled it for us as he waddled about the room."
Considering the nature of the production, it's no wonder that Hitchcock never gets inside any of the characters, cementing Jamaica Inn's legacy as one of his weakest films. Shooting Laughton's film on a short schedule with his upcoming partnership with Selznick and move into American films about to begin, Hitchcock's lack of interest in this film is understandable. Redemption is at hand, however, since his greatest film achievements blossom over the next two decades. Still, a sub-par Hitchcock vehicle gives a far more enjoyable ride than the majority of pedestrian films on the shelves. Hitchcock aficionados and film students will definitely want to explore this lesser film. Others may just want to laugh at Laughton's campy walk and scene stealing.

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