Alfred Hitchcock, opus 23.
Wikipedia: "The film is a period piece set in Cornwall in 1819. The real Jamaica Inn still exists, and is a pub on the edge of Bodmin Moor." The story of the shipwrecking gang is reportedly based on historical evidence.
Revisited Jamaica Inn, Alfred Hitchcock's most spectacular British film, and commercially one of the most successful of them. It has also always been considered one of Sir Alfred's worst films, and there is no need to rehabilitate it, although Jamaica Inn now looks better than before in a newly restored (digitally remastered?) version.
Jamaica Inn was a Charles Laughton vehicle. Hitchcock wanted to withdraw from the project, but Laughton persuaded him to stay as a favour to the great producer Erich Pommer, whose magnificent Ufa productions Hitchcock had observed at Babelsberg in the 1920s and for whom Hitchcock had already worked in Die Prinzessin und der Geiger / The Blackguard, directed by Graham Cutts.
Jamaica Inn is a Gothic pirate film. There is hardly any Hitchcock touch in the movie, relevant for him mostly as a first exercise in adapting a work by the best-selling novelist Daphne du Maurier. Like in Rebecca, the protagonist is an orphaned young woman who enters a house of doom. The same fairy-tale structure is repeated in Rebecca and The Birds.
Jamaica Inn, a story of peril at sea and horrible shipwrecks, can also be seen as a Hitchcock rehearsal for the Titanic project which he was planning for Selznick.
The horror association becomes evident from the start when the coach driver refuses to stop at Jamaica Inn. The driver's reaction to the very name of the inn resembles the attitude of the tavern guests when Jonathan Harker asks for directions to the castle of count Dracula. Mary and her trunk are dumped unceremoniously at a safe distance from the dread inn.
The macabre performance of Charles Laughton dominates the film and throws it off balance. Laughton plays the Justice of the Peace, Sir Humphrey Pengallan, who inhabits the house of magistrate and entertains prominent guests there. He also lives a double life as the leader of ship wreckers, coast pirates and smugglers who lure ships to their doom on the stormy Cornwall coast by manipulating coast beacons. There are aspects of a mad Roman emperor in Laughton's performance: he orders his horse to his banquet hall during a distinguished society dinner. There are also aspects of a monster in his character, particularly in the conclusion when Laughton kidnaps Mary to be his consort and when he climbs to the top of the mast and falls to his death like King Kong. "The monster at the top of the world" image is also central to the Quasimodo character.
Jamaica Inn provided the first starring role for Maureen O'Hara whose talent had been discovered by Laughton for her previous film, My Irish Molly. Laughton also advised her to change her name from Maureen FitzSimons to Maureen O'Hara. O'Hara also co-starred with Laughton in her next film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, her first Hollywood film: she was Esmeralda, and Laughton was Quasimodo. Jamaica Inn can also be seen as a rehearsal for Laughton and O'Hara in a "beauty and the beast" tale.
Maureen O'Hara is an attractive and active protagonist ("I've been riding since I was a child"), a fighter and a survivor rather than a victim (she saves Jem from hanging, and she lifts the burning cloth to save the ship, thwarting the final act of piracy), to be compared with Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent, or Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound. Jamaica Inn offers a fine leading role for O'Hara, who according to her memoirs got along with Hitchcock well.
Joss Merlyn, the active leader of the pirates, is played by Leslie Banks, best-known as Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game.
The male hero, the law officer Jem Trehearne, a double agent masquerading as a pirate, is played by Robert Newton, whose signature roles include Long John Silver in Treasure Island.
Heikki Nyman (in Hitchcockin kosketus. Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat, osa 1: Englannin kausi [The Hitchcock Touch. The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Part 1: The English Period], 1994, p. 327-339) comments that Hitchcock's approach to the work of an actor always had a peculiar sordino effect; his attitude might be called "expressionistic minimalism". For Hitchcock, the actor belonged to an ensemble, and there was little room for solos. Such an idea of "negative acting" was alien to Laughton. Nyman argues that Laughton was so flamboyant that Hitchcock retreated to the background and let Laughton steal the show. There is not even a Hitchcock cameo appearance in Jamaica Inn. Yet Neil Sinyard sees Hitchcockian aspects in the Sir Humphrey character, itself, incorporated by Laughton. Laughton hired J. B. Priestley (familiar to him from The Old Dark House, among other projects) to add juicy dialogue for his character. There is a perverse pleasure of transgression in his performance. Although Sir Humphrey is both a pillar of society and the mastermind of the gang of pirates, he is living beyond his means and has such bad credit everywhere that he is planning to elope. There is a scene where Sir Humphrey throws away a fat stack of bills which fall down to the hall like snowflakes.
Jamaica Inn, Waltzes from Vienna, and Under Capricorn are the three period films, costume films, made by Hitchcock, none of them highly regarded, except by Frenchmen who rate Under Capricorn highly and see Jamaica Inn as a preparation for it. Heikki Nyman comments that a characteristic limitation of Hitchcock is a lack of an ability to move in history. For Nyman Hitchcock is a modern artist, a contemporary of Freud, Kafka, Joyce, Picasso, and Stravinsky. A historical touch is missing in Hitchcock, he is insecure outside his own period, and his sense of humour seems paralyzed, states Nyman.
Although there is a composer in Jamaica Inn, his music was used only during the opening credits and the end of the film. Yet Heikki Nyman remarks that the soundscape of Jamaica Inn is powerful. When Mary approaches the inn, the house sounds like crying. Elisabeth Weis in The Silent Scream has commented that Hitchcock uses the sound of the wind like music. Especially powerful, according to Nyman, is the sound of the stormy sea, recorded by Jack Rogerson. "In no other Hitchcock film has the crushing elementary force of the ocean been realized as impressively by purely auditive means" (Nyman).
The production values, the production team, and the cast are impressive, with many talents familiar from previous Hitchcock films, and many interesting new, young names of the future. There are some interesting moments of viewpoints in the vertical dimension, such as Mary's spying on the pirates from a hole in the ceiling. Typically Hitchcockian is the structure (not in the novel) of the couple on the run (as in 39 Steps and Young and Innocent), but there is no chemistry between Jem and Mary. Also typically Hitchcockian (like in The Lodger, Blackmail, and Shadow of a Doubt) is a romance between the woman and a policeman. But there is no compelling force of conviction in the film. Hitchcock lets Laughton run rampant and goes through the motions of directing.
Charles Barr remarks that in butler Chadwick's final presence we can see an ironic farewell to Hitchcock's English period.
"What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it and tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallan!" (Sir Humphrey Pangallan's final words).
The print was clean, with a duped look like the film has been patiently mastered from often difficult source materials (apparently via a Raymond Rohauer print), with special difficulties in scenes of dark imagery. At 99 minutes much shorter than the official duration of 108 minutes.
Heikki Nyman's magnum opus Hitchcockin kosketus / [The Hitchcock Touch], 1841 pages, available only in an extremely limited edition in key libraries, should be generally published at least online. It would deserve to be translated into English.