Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Jamaica Inn (1939)
In March 1939, Alfred Hitchcock signed a contract with David O. Selznick for a career in Hollywood. Though Hitchcock would return to England a few times (notably in Frenzy), his move to Hollywood would be a major shift in his career. Before he left for America, Hitchcock released his final British film, Jamaica Inn. The film stars Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks, Marie Ney, Robert Newton, and Maureen O’Hara in her breakthrough role. Laughton himself produced the film, the British actor co-owned Mayflower Productions with German producer Erich Pommer. Jamaica Inn is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. The film was successful at the box office, though it received bad reviews from critics.
The year is 1819; Jamaica Inn is a dangerous place run by Joss (Banks), the head of a gang of ship wreckers. They purposefully cause ships to run aground of the rocky coast of Cornwall, England. The naïve Mary (O’Hara) comes to visit her aunt Patience (Ney), Joss’s wife. When Mary discovers her uncle’s profession, she escapes the perilous inn with Trehearne (Newton), whom she saves from being executed by the gang. She seeks refuge with Sir Pengallan (Laughton), who may be more connected to the gang than Mary knows.
Jamaica Inn is a pretty dull effort from Hitchcock, though it is not entirely his fault. Laughton is notorious for being controlling on set and one can imagine the clash of egos between he and Hitchcock. Laughton insisted on giving his character more screen time. This meant that Hitchcock had to stage the reveal that Pengallan is the criminal mastermind much earlier than he wanted. It’s barely treated as a twist in the film. Of course, Hitchcock loved to play around with reveals to play with audience expectations, However, this time the movie has virtually no suspense and the reveal leaves little impact.
The direction of the actors is really bad. Most of the actors play their parts like they are the comic relief in an action movie. The ship-wreckers are not malicious or scary. Maybe it’s the period costumes or cartoonish dialogue. I think some of that was Laughton as well, as he insisted on playing his character a bit more buoyant than a villain should be. Some of his expressions are just comical. Naturally the best actor in the film is Maureen O’Hara, who is so Irish she’s practically a walking bouquet of shamrocks. But her endearing performance as Mary joins a long line of plucky, innocent Hitchcock heroines (like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt).
The film was based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, and it was the first of three adaptations of her writing that Hitchcock would do. The next year he would direct her most famous novel, Rebecca, to a Best Picture Oscar. And in 1963, Hitchcock adapted The Birds from one of her short stories. I have not read Jamaica Inn, but I hear that the novel is far more suspenseful and thrilling in tone than the film. Clearly, Hitchcock liked her writing, and the pair make a good match. Both Rebecca and The Birds are major classics, but it’s a shame that Jamaica Inn fails to live up to expectations.
Jamaica Inn has interesting camerawork, and the score is pretty exciting. I think the idea of the film is interesting, and could have made a good movie had Hitchcock had more control. Hitchcock’s career in Britain had a number of classic films like The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Lady Vanishes. And of course he innovated with cinema technique with Blackmail and The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. It’s too bad he ended this part of his career with such an unmemorable film.