Jamaica Inn (1939): Hitchcock’s Last British Film, Period Thriller Starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, and Leslie Banks

One of the few weak films that Hitchcock had directed in his long and fruitful career, Jamaica Inn was his final feature in Britain, before leaving for Hollywood.

His first American film, for producer David O. Selznick, was Rebecca, which went on to win the 1940 Best Picture Oscar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The incongruous script, based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier (who later would provide the source material for “Rebecca” and inspiration for “The Birds”), was adapted to the screen by Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, with additional dialogue penned by the poet and playwright J.B. Priestley.  As a result, the narrative is creaky and the dialogue  sharply uneven.

A period drama, Jamaica Inn is set in 1819 in the coastal town of Cornwall, before the British Coast Guard was established.  The tale centers on a bunch of ruthless smugglers, led by Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton). The gangs 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 the inexperienced Irish actress Maureen O’Hara, who is not very convincing here.  Laughton is largely responsible for her future screen career: He is the one who brought O’Hara her to Hollywood to play Esmeralda opposite his Quasimodo in 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which made her a bona fide star.

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.  The place serves as the home of a gang of smugglers and ship-wreckers. At first, Mary fails to realize that Uncle Joss is one of the gang members.

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.  (This thematic element resembles the romantic couple of The 39 Steps, which is also formed by face and evolves under peculiar circumstances).

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, the shenanigans at the Jamaica Inn are driving Pengallan insane, and he agrees to help–until it is revealed that he himself is the villain.

In the last act, Trehearne rides to the harbor to rescue Mary and capture Pengallan, who attempts to escape.  During the chase, he climbs up to the top of a ship’s mast, and then jumps to his death.

Hitchcock was not pleased with the film, telling Francois Truffaut in their lengthy interview book: “’Jamaica Inn’ was an absurd thing to undertake.  I was truly discouraged, I am still unhappy over it.”

The movie lacks the requisites for an absorbingly suspenseful thriller and costume drama, and there is no real tension in the narrative and no credible ambience.

Charles Laughton, who had clout as an actor, served as the movie’s co-producer, and interfered with Hitchcock’s direction. The 1933 Oscar winner was originally cast as Joss, but he demanded to play the villainous Pengallan.  The part of the hypocritical preacher had to be rewritten as a squire due to the fact that negative portrayals of the clergy were forbidden by the Production Code.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitchcock complained that he was forced by Laughton to allow him greater screen time, which, among other things, meant revealing that Pengallan was a villain earlier in the film than he had initially planned.

The two men would never work again in Hollywood.  Hitchcock later hoped that the British audiences would remember him for “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or “The 39 Steps.”

Hitchcock later said that he much preferred working with Leslie Banks, a lead dramatic actor, who was the opposite of Laughton in his restrained yet powerful performances.  When Hitchcock first cast him in The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1934, Banks was best known for his first Hollywood movie, the 1932 “The Most Dangerous Game,” playing opposite Joel McCrea and Fay Wray, as a diabolical Russian hunter of human prey.

Author du Maurier was also not pleased with the final film, complaining that it was heavy-handed, missing both the darker atmosphere and the wit of her original book.  Reportedly, she even considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca, Hitchcock’s next film.

However, though Jamaica Inn was a critical flop, contrary to myth, it was commercially successful, generating nice profit in the U.K. and the U.S.

During his long and prolific career, Hitchcock had made only several historical melodramas and costume pieces, such as “Under Capricorn,” starring Ingrid Bergman.  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 conventions of genre.

 

Cast

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

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Credits

Running time: 98 Minutes.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison, J.B. Priestley

Score by Eric Fenby
Cinematography: Bernard Knowles, Harry Stradling
Edited by Robert Hamer

Released: October 13, 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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