One of the very few weak and disappointing films Hitchcock had directed in his long and fruitful career, “Jamaica Inn” was his final film in Britain, before leaving for Hollywood.
His first American film, for producer David O. Selznick, was “Rebecca,” which won the Best Picture Oscar.
The incongruous script was based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier (who later provided the source material for “The Birds”), adapted to the screen by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, and Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, with additional dialogue by the poet and playwright J.B. Ptiestley.
A semi-involving period drama, “Jamaica Inn” is set in 1819 in the coastal town of Cornwall, before the British Coast Guard was estbalished.
The tale centers on a bunch of ruthless smugglers, led by Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton). They prey on ships by blacking out warning signals, and then, when the ships crash on the rocks, they loot the remains and kill the sailors.
The female protagonist is the beautiful orphan Mary Yellen, played by the young Maureen O'Hara, who in the same year also appeared in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” After her mother’s death in Ireland, Mary goes to visit her Uncle Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks) and Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) at a shabby hotel called the Jamaica Inn, which serves as the home of a gang of smugglers an shipwreckers.
At first, Mary fails to realize that Uncle Joss is one of them. Meanwhile, Lloyd's of London sends one of their best inspectors, Jem Traherne (Robert Newton), to investigate the shipwrecks.
Jem checks into the Jamaica Inn, and when the coven of smugglers finds out who he is, they capture him and attempt to kill him, but Mary comes to his rescue and saves him.
The smugglers try to recapture Jem and Mary. Thrown together by fate and circumstances, the couple falls in love.
Meanwhile, the shenanigans at the Jamaica Inn are driving Pengallan insane. He agrees to help until it is revealed that he himself is the villain. At the end, just before leaving the place, he is caught. He dies after throwing himself from the masthead to the deck.
Hitchcock was not pleased with the film, telling Truffaut: “’Jamaica Inn’ was an absurd thing to undertake. I was truly discouraged, I am still unhappy over it.”
During his long and prolific career, Hitchcock had made few historical melodramas and costume pieces, such as “Under Capricorn.” It may not be a coincidence that all three or four of these pictures are among his weakest, a result of lack of interest in the genre.
Running time: 98 Minutes.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison, J.B. Priestley
Released: October 13, 1939.
DVD: July 20, 1999.
Charles Laughton as Sir Humphrey Pengallan
Maureen O'Hara as Mary Yellen
Emlyn Williams as Harry the Peddler
Hay Petrie as Groom
Robert Newton as Jem Traherne
Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn