JAMAICA INN (1939): “What are you all waiting for, a spectacle? You shall have it!”

JAMAICA INN (1939) – Mayflower Pictures – Rating: ★★

Black and White – 99 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn), Horace Hodges (Chadwick), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Produced by Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, Sr.

Film Editing by Robert Hamer

Written by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, additional dialogue J.B. Priestly, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Original Music by Eric Fenby

Dialogue Coach:  J. Lee Thompson

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In the summer of 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States,courting Hollywood in the hope of signing a contract.  Hitchcock had been thinking about a move to the States for a few years;  now, riding the success of The Lady Vanishes, he was a hot commodity.  He finally signed with David O. Selznick in July.  His contract would not take effect until spring of 1939, which meant he had time to make one final film in England before making the move to America.  That final British film would be Jamaica Inn.  

Hitchcock had very little interest in the movie;  his mind was already on Hollywood and Selznick.  He directed it essentially as a favor to star Charles Laughton.  Over the course of his life Hitchcock was very dismissive of the movie, and it has a bad reputation in the Hitchcock canon.   Many contemporary reviews refer to it as one of the worst movies Hitchcock ever made.   Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of this movie, particularly in light of the newly restored version released by Cohen Films in conjunction with the BFI.

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Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellan (center) greets her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) as Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) looks on.

As a first-time viewer of Jamaica Inn, I was surprised to discover that it is not nearly as bad as its reputation.  It does not have the feel of a Hitchcock movie at all;  anyone who subscribes to the auteur theory of film making may have a hard time seeing Hitchcock’s direct influence on this movie.  But he certainly did leave small touches here and there.  It is also not a traditional Hitchcock suspense movie;  it is at times over-the-top and downright bizarre.  But it mixes tone nicely, and never ceases to entertain.

The plot centers around Mary Yellan (played by a young Maureen O’Hara), a girl from Ireland who has travelled to England to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks).  Her uncle is the proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, which is a front for a smuggling operation.  Her uncle runs a crew of ship wreckers; men who intentionally ground ships, kill the sailors and steal the cargo.  Early in the film Mary befriends Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local magistrate, played by Charles Laughton in his usual scene-chewing fashion.  What Mary does not realize (but the audience does) is that Laughton’s character is the real mastermind behind the shipwrecking crew.   Mary also does not realize that Jem (played by Robert Newton), a member of the gang who she rescues from a hanging, is an undercover police officer, sent to infiltrate the gang to gather evidence.  So in typical Hitchcock fashion, the audience has significant information that the protagonist lacks.

Mary and Jem escape from Jamaica Inn, only to be trapped in a cave by the rather odd members of the wrecking crew.  Eventually they will escape, only to unwittingly place themselves in more danger, as they go to Sir Humphrey’s estate, asking for assistance.

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One of the few true “Hitchcockian” shots in the movie, as the ragtag members of the gang gaze down on the protagonists.

Sir Humphrey, as played by Laughton, is an oddball character from the beginning, but it appears that he is overtaken by madness as the story progresses.   By the time that Mary Yellan knows the true nature of all the characters in the story, she is caught in the clutches of Sir Humphrey, who attempts to flee with her aboard a parting ship.  In the end Sir Humphrey will meet his downfall, quite literally, in a closing sequence that is trademark Hitchcock.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier.  Hitchcock adapted three of his movies from Du Maurier stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds).  Of the three, only Rebecca remained true to the source material.  The novel Jamaica Inn is a gothic novel with a suspenseful build to a surprise ending.  The action takes place over several months, unlike the movie, which is condensed into a couple of days.  In the novel, the mastermind of the gang is actually a local vicar, named Francis Davy.  The movie could not employ a vicar as the antagonist, because film censors would not permit a priest to be a bad guy.  In the novel, the character of Jem is actually not an undercover policeman, but is the brother of Uncle Joss Merlyn.  The screenplay does a very good job of condensing action and characters, and keeping the pace moving along at a nice clip.  In the novel, the reader does not learn the true nature of the vicar until the last few pages.  In the movie, we learn very early on that Charles Laughton is the mastermind of the wreckers.  Alfred Hitchcock explains why this change was necessary:

The problem there was…one would have to have a very important actor to play this character…The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure?  Naturally, then, the story had to be changed…We had to let the audience in on the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulates the wreckers.  We had to invent new situations.”

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An image from a fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara sneaking behind the wreckers.

Hitchcock touches:  As previously mentioned, there are few genuine “Hitchcock” moments in this film.   Because Charles Laughton was both producer and lead actor, Hitchcock was often at his whim.  Alfred Hitchcock may have been content to shoot two or three takes of a scene for instance, but if Laughton wanted ten takes, or fifteen, Hitchcock had to acquiesce.  Even if Hitchcock was making a by-the-numbers movie to please his producer/actor, he still managed to leave his imprint on a few scenes.  The opening sequence, showing the wreckers leading a ship onto the rocks, then plundering it, is a fantastic sequence;  a couple of the ship shots are clearly models, but regardless the sequence holds up well today.   A sequence that takes place in a cave by the sea has some nice Hitchcock touches.  There is one fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara as Mary, sneaking among the rocks behind the wreckers, which cuts to a close-up of several of the wreckers peering over the rocks.  This shot is pure Hitchcock, leaving no doubt as to who directed it.  And finally, the last sequence of the film, which also takes place on a ship, finds Charles Laughton leaping to his death from the top of the main mast.  This sequence is very well put together.  Hitchcock would later end several of his movies in this way, with a major character falling to their death  (Saboteur, Vertigo, North by Northwest).  Another Hitchcock touch is the absence of a musical score.  There is original music for the opening and closing credits, but no music during the actual movie.  This is the first of three films which would have no music (Lifeboat, The Birds).

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Basil Radford provides the film’s biggest laugh.

A Hitchcock comedy?  I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a comedy, but for a movie that involves ship wreckers, smugglers and murderers, there are a lot of genuine laughs;  some intentional, some not.   Laughton’s character is bizarre from the opening sequence, in which he leads a horse into the dining room.  The way Laughton is always yelling for his butler “Chadwick!” also supplies some humor.  The last shot of the movie, after Laughton has fallen to his death, is a shot of Horace Hodges as Chadwick, who still hears Laughton’s cries of “Chadwick” echoing in his mind.  This final shot is both genuinely wistful and slightly comic, a pure Hitchcock moment, and indicative of the way the entire movie mixes tone.  The members of the wrecking crew also add some humor to the movie.  And Basil Radford, appearing in his third movie for Alfred Hitchcock, makes the most of his limited screen time by providing some genuine laughs.

Performance:  The title sequence of this movie proclaims “Introducing Maureen O’Hara”.   This was not her first movie, but was her first leading role, and her first under the exclusive five-year contract she signed with Charles Laughton.  Maureen is charming and convincing in her role.   Some feel that Laughton’s performance is way over the top, but his character is supposed to be going mad, so while he might walk the line, I think he pulls it off.   Leslie Banks is wonderful as Joss Merlyn;  he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Many of the actors in the smaller supporting roles are great.  Hitchcock used many of his favorite character actors in this movie, perhaps because he was leaving for America and didn’t know if he would have the chance to work with them again.

Recurring players:  Charles Laughton would later appear in The Paradine Case.  Frederick Piper had small parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent.  Hitchcock favorite Clare Greet had appeared in The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage.  George Curzon had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent.  The great Basil Radford was also in Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.   Leslie Banks had starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Wylie Watson had played Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps.  Robert Adair would later have a bit part in Stage Fright.  Marie Ault had appeared in The Lodger.  William Fazan also had bit parts in Murder! and Young and Innocent.   Hitchcock regular John Longden had appeared in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, and Young and Innocent.  Aubrey Mather was also in Sabotage and Suspicion.

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Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses. She would die shortly after filming was complete.

Hitchcock legacy:  Robert Hamer, the editor of this movie, would become a popular British director in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He made his most memorable films at Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guiness.  J. Lee Thompson, the dialogue coach on this film, would become a very successful director, making many well-known movies, including The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear.  

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  Alfred Hitchcock had made cameos in several movies by this point, and he would make one in every subsequent movie, but he chose not to in Jamaica Inn.  Perhaps this is an indication of how little regard Hitchcock had for this movie, that he chose not to appear in it.

What Hitch said:  Despite the fact that this film was a huge hit, grossing over $3 million in 1939, Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about it.  He said “It was completely absurd…it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace.  Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed.  Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.”   Hitchcock also said of his leading man “You can’t direct a Laughton picture.  The best you can hope for is to referee”, and “He wasn’t really a professional film man.”  Harsh words, indeed.

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Definitive edition:  This movie has languished in the public domain for a long time, the result being several DVD releases of varying poor quality, some with almost unintelligible dialogue, and some even missing ten minutes of footage, which is integral to the plot!  There is only one version of this movie that you should see, and that is the brand new blu-ray from Cohen films.  Their print, which is a full restoration released in conjunction with the BFI, is breathtaking.  The picture quality is startlingly good, the audio track is solid, and most importantly, the footage missing from many earlier prints has been restored.   Perhaps the excellent quality of this blu-ray will help to give this movie a new life.  While it is not a great film, and not quintessential Hitchcock, it is certainly a well-constructed and entertaining film.  The blu-ray includes a very informative (without being dry) commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold,  a 13-minute video essay featuring Donald Spoto, and a 2014 re-release trailer.

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wemisse

Avid movie lover, reader, and writer.

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