Alfred Hitchcock Visits “Jamaica Inn”

13 07 2010

“Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake . . . I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“Jamaica Inn,” released in 1939, was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British production, and this portion of his career could hardly have ended on an odder note. In years, it roughly marks off the first third of his career as a director; in number of pictures directed, it’s almost at the halfway point on the way to 52 extant films.

The film is set in 1815, and begins with a sailing ship that’s been lured to the rocky coast, where a band of cutthroats murder the entire crew and plunder the ship. That’s more or less a prologue, though – the story really begins with a young woman, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), who is on her way to see her aunt following the deaths of her parents. On telling her coach driver that the aunt is a resident at Jamaica Inn, the frightened driver insists on proceeding well past her destination; she ends up instead at the home of Sir Humphrey Pengallan, played by Charles Laughton.

Pengallan is the squire of the township, a smirking dandy of a lady’s man, and he delivers Mary to Jamaica Inn, where we meet her aunt and also her uncle, Joss, who happens to be the leader of the band of murderers. It is Pengallan who plans Joss’s crimes, but we also soon learn that one of the band is a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, undercover with the criminals and gathering evidence to hang them all. When he’s discovered, Mary rescues him from hanging, and together they uncover Pengallan’s true role.

The action rarely slows down in this film; there are wild horse chases, fights
with guns, knives and fists; people are cornered in flooding caves, tied up and held at gunpoint, kidnapped and blackmailed. It’s a rousing story in the style of “Treasure Island,” and while it bears few of Hitchcock’s typical tricks of the trade, it is engaging and fun.

Separated at birth: Charles Laughton in "Jamaica Inn" and the coachman from "Pinocchio"

The one thing that drags the movie down – or sideways, perhaps – is the performance by Charles Laughton, who seems to be in a different movie than anyone else. He minces across the screen, his lips pursed, head cocked, holding his pistol like a parasol, tossing off one-liners or bellowing for his servants and utterly dominating the screen until he melodramatically leaps to his death to avoid capture. Everyone else underplays their roles; he hams it up, overacting ridiculously. And let’s not get started on his fake nose and eyebrows!

Laughton was co-producer on the film, which explains why Hitchcock could not get him to tone down his performance; Laughton even insisted that Hitch shoot only closeups of him until he could figure out how his character would walk. (In waltz time, of all things!)

Yet Laughton did some good as well on the picture, insisting that Maureen O’Hara be cast as Mary; she would soon star with Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and go on to stardom. The film also features Robert Newton, later known for his role in “Treasure Island,” as the young Naval lieutenant.

The critics did not like the movie, although it was a success. The Times of London wrote, “the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action,” while The New York Times called it “merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize [Hitchcock’s] best pictures.”

This film marked the debut of Joan Harrison as one of the screenwriters. She would go on to become one of Hitchcock’s most trusted associates, co-writing several screenplays and producing both of Hitch’s TV series.

There is a real Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, by the way, which was where Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel upon which the film is based. Hitchcock’s 1940 release, “Rebecca,” was also based on a Du Maurier novel, and we’ll look at it next.

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