Jamaica Inn (1939)

Alfred Hitchcock’s British productions are strange ebb and flow of unsuitable projects, promising pictures, and magnificent works. By the time he makes The Lady Vanishes, his voice is clear. The building tension and the dry, dark humor produced many lovely films. But Hitchcock continued to struggle in the British film system and Jamaica Inn would be his final British production: a frustrating picture maligned by studio politics.

Jamaica Inn is an adaptation from a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, an author Hitchcock would adapt to the screen again with his next film (Rebecca) as well as decades later with The Birds. Both films prove Maurier’s work is ripe for Hitchcock’s sensibilities, but Jamaica Inn is a film rewritten and reshaped to the point that both Hitchcock and Maurier denounced the film.

The changes came from Charles Laughton and his producer friends shifting the film to be more about Laughton’s character. In an era where people went to the movies to see the stars, Laughton held enough sway to shape the adaptation to be more about his performance. In a world where auteur theory is the de facto form of authorship for film, one forgets that in the ‘30s going to see a film for the director was not nearly as common as it is today.

It’s Mary Yellan (Maureen O’Hara) who should be the star of the film, a young woman who decides to move in with her aunt who runs Jamaica Inn with her husband. Mary quickly discovers that the inn is a front for a band of criminals who lure ships into the dangerous coast, murder the ship’s crew, and loot the wreckage. As she discovers this, the criminals are deciding what to do with Jem (Robert Newton), one of their own who has been taking an extra share on the side. Jem and Mary stumble into each other while evading the criminals and keep helping each other out of predicaments while trying to reach the local justice of the peace: Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton)

The film sizzles in the moments where this band of thieves is hunting Mary and Jem. The dialogue pops, the film’s visuals are compelling and dark, there’s a damp atmosphere, this layer of sleaze that pervades many of these scenes. Mary is thrown into the mix and sets the whole place aflame with her fiery sense of justice and keeps everyone on their toes with her ability to weasel her way out of the grip of these thieves.

For every scene or two of this thrilling, dark adventure, there’s a scene of Charles Laughton smugly exuding his dark charm. It’s compelling to watch Laughton work, but the film is continually pulled back to watching his character do almost nothing to affect the plot, making the film disjointed and unfocused. Laughton’s character could have disappeared for a good chunk of the film and reappeared in the final act.

There are still enough of moments where the film works. The quippy dialogue keeps most scenes flowing and Mary and Jem eluding the grimy grips of this fascinatingly repulsive criminals is solid suspense. It’s the grandstanding of Laughton that maligns much of the film and ruins what should be a thrilling picture into this overblown acting piece. Instead of giving to the picture, Laughton tries to become the focal point of the picture in a story where he was never meant to garner that much attention. It’s no shock that both Hitchcock and Maurier disowned the film. It’s a shame seeing the seeds of a gripping tale ruined by one actor’s ego backed by his producer friends.

As much as Hitchcock would go on to become a major Hollywood persona, he only featured himself in his films as the butt of jokes or some insignificant bystander. He also might appear before the film started to introduce his picture. But these were all in service to the film, not a desire to steal the spotlight from the holistic work of the film.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s experience with this film solidified his notion that actors should be treated like cattle. Maybe by treating them as dumb beasts he felt he could better mold them into something to contribute to the picture instead of the main attraction. Maybe by degrading the actor he meant to humble him/her into servitude instead of expecting everyone and everything to support his/her performance.

Jamaica Inn is a reminder of the politics and power plays that make up the movie business. This would be Hitchcock’s last British production before he launched his career in Hollywood. With World War II looming, it would be a fortuitous move as American cinema in the ‘40s was in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age while the rest of the world’s cinema went into decline. And Hitchcock would return to Maurier again. This time it would be different. This time he was in America.

© James Blake Ewing 2017