Hello, greetings, howdy, and welcome back – yet again – to Weekly Hitch! This is a personal study-type blog in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, in order, and then try to work out if they’re great and how they were made and what we can learn from them. It’s like going to school, only I won’t send anyone to the principal’s office for passing notes.
This week, our last week of the 1930’s and the last of Hitchcock’s British period, brings us to the troubled, odd, and curious tale of Hitch’s 1939 period melodrama Jamaica Inn – starring the very famous Charles Laughton. Are you ready for adventure?
An odd tale of crime and mystery, Jamaica Inn tells the story of a young woman who comes to live with her aunt in Cornwall, only to stumble upon a gang of thieves who lure ships onto the rocks and then kill the crew so as to take the cargo. It’s based upon a novel by Daphne du Maurier.
The film begins on the Cornish coast with a dramatic and harrowing shipwreck involving huge swells of water and special effects and stunts – all possibly the biggest of Hitchcock’s career so far. And as the wreck continues we see that it’s all been orchestrated and carried out by a band of thieves, who then proceed to kill any survivors. It’s a pretty grim affair.
After this horrible and pretty neat beginning, we then move into a carriage and meet Maureen O’Hara in her first screen role as Mary. Mary is on her way to Jamaica Inn to stay with her aunt – but the passengers all think it’s a terrible cursed place and the driver won’t stop there – so Mary has to bail out far from the inn at the home of local magistrate Sir Humphrey Pengallan (played by the fun and odd Charles Laughton). Sir Humphrey comes from a long line of madmen, and he takes the girl in and welcomes her before setting her up with a horse and rides with her to the inn.
It’s at Jamaica Inn where things start to get odd. Mary’s sister, Patience and her husband Joss (played wonderfully by Leslie Banks, The Man Who Knew Too Much), are rather tense and Joss’s friends – all ruffians and weirdos (in addition to being criminals) are pretty unhappy about Mary staying there while they do all their shipwrecking and so forth.
Now the prime mystery at Jamaica Inn surrounds who the mastermind of the crimes is. The thinking being that the local toughs and Joss are too plain to come up with the plan, and so who is pulling their strings… and almost immediately we find out. It’s Sir Humphrey! Laughton chews up all the scenery in Cornwall as he turn Jekyll into Hyde and bosses Joss around about how he needs more money and the men need to wreck more ships.
Meanwhile, the gang of thieves start to suspect that their newest member, Jem (Robert Newton) is embezzling money from them so they decide to hang him – forcing Mary to cut him down and save him. The two make a run for it and hide among the waters off the coast while the game hunts for them ready to kill!
It’s pretty exciting and tense stuff – and for a moment it seems that Jem and Mary will become heroes… but the film keeps cutting back to Laughton acting like a madman, so we don’t get to know the couple too well. Anyhow, in the morning the two go to Sir Humphrey’s estate to seek shelter – because Mary still thinks he’s just a nice guy who leant her a horse. Jem tells Humphrey that he’s actually an undercover law man, who had infiltrated the gang in search of the ringleader – so Humphrey says he’ll get word to the local cops and then he and Jem will go to the inn and stop the gang.
Really though Humphrey’s doing it all so his boys can stage another wreck and Humphrey has to give the signal. Up at Jamaica Inn a game of cat and mouse and dog and whatever unfolds as Jem and Humphrey and Mary lurk about and Joss has to pretend he doesn’t know Humphrey’s the real villain. Soon it all comes to a head as Humphrey reveals that the police aren’t coming and that he’s a mad criminal! In among all the chaos Patience and Joss are killed – and then the soldiers from the constabulary turn up just in time for Jem and Mary to save a cargo ship from being wrecked.
But it’s nearly too late for Mary – as Sir Humphrey reveals himself and kidnaps the girl. He tries to take her to the docks and onto a ship so he can escape – but his madness drives him to wreck it and rather be caught, he climbs up the rigging and eventually falls to his death. Mary is saved, and Sir Humphrey’s butler is left to wonder about his poor crazy master.
Jamaica Inn is an interesting entry into the works of Alfred Hitchcock, but unfortunately – it’s also not a very good one. Although, I think under different circumstances this could have been a great and pretty iconic film.
Beginning with a large and very impressive shipwrecking scene – which water effects and action and drama all over the place, the movie has a lot of promise – but that promise falls apart once the story gets going. It’s just too all over the map, there’s no mystery – no suspense, just tension. In scene after scene the audience is either so far ahead of the supposed heroes that they look foolish, or so confused and divided that we don’t care. It’s a dramatic mess that also seems to be lacking in Hitchcock’s own attention.
Oddly enough for me, the biggest problem in the film is also one its greatest strengths – that being the gargantuan talent of Charles Laughton. The man runs roughshod over this film with all the subtlety and tact of a drunk elephant at a wedding. Laughton is too over the top for a Hitchcock film, he relishes the part of the villain too completely – enjoys being the centre of attention too much – is far too Hitchcock for Hitchcock. And while Laughton’s marginally mad turn as the films villain and crazed architect is amusing and sometimes fun to watch, it’s also the most out of place thing in the whole film.
On the bright side, Maureen O’Hara is pretty great and captivatingly gorgeous. This was her first major screen role (she would go on to find fame in classics like How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, and Rio Grande) after being discovered by Laughton, who forced her casting on Hitchcock – who, for once, didn’t take the imposition out on the actress. Leslie Banks is also really great in this film, playing Joss – the wicked husband of Mary’s aunt. A very different role from his part as the hero father in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
As for the rest of Jamaica Inn, it’s a potentially good story made tedious by knowing from nearly the get-go that Laughton’s character is the ring-leader. A seemingly big-budget melodrama that plays as if it had been conquered by Laughton and written by his go at that. However, while it doesn’t feel like a very Hitchcock-ish film – it has strong moments, and an ending which, while still whole under the sway of the films star, at least feels like something Hitch would have enjoyed.
By the time Hitchcock had agreed to make Jamaica Inn, he already had one foot out of the country and on its way to America – and a big exclusive contract with producer David O. Selznick.
Selznick had expressed interest in Hitchcock while Alfred and Alma were in New York after finishing The Lady Vanishes, and by the time Hitchcock had made it back to Britain, the deal was nearly done. But Hitchcock still wanted to do a picture to fill the time between his new life and his old. That picture became Jamaica Inn.
Curiously enough, it was another Daphne du Maurier novel that led to the hurried production of Jamaica Inn. Word had gotten around that Selznick had bought the rights to du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca for Hitchcock to possibly direct as his first picture in America – and Charles Laughton and his partner Eric Pommer (who worked on famous silent German films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Metropolis) pounced at the chance to option du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. And they knew just who they wanted to direct it… Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitch and Charles Laughton had been friends for a number of years in London, frequently dining together, and Hitch thought it would enjoyable to work with the famed actor – seemingly not realizing just how much Laughton would be running the show – and, in truth, Hitchcock also din’t seem to have that much interest in anything other than his relocation to the states.
Hitchcock left the writing of the script for Jamaica Inn in the hands of Sidney Gilliat (writer on The Lady Vanishes) and Hitchcock’s long time associate and assistant, Joan Harrison – while the Hitchcocks returned to America to finalize the details of the move, and Hitch and Selznick made some decisions on whether to film Rebecca or a screen version of Titanic. Hitch returned a few months later to a completed script, and to find that Eric Pommer had become a tyrannical producer – obsessed with every detail, and that Laughton was only interested in his own performance.
As for the filming of Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock seemed completely uninterested. The director had always found that storyboarding and writing were the most creative part of the filmmaking process, but in the shooting of his picture with Charles Laughton, Hitch seemed especially distant. And Laughton didn’t seem to care. Laughton spent the first two weeks refusing to stand up during scenes because he hadn’t yet ‘found the character’s walk’ – and he insisted on having more and longer scenes, which is why it’s revealed so early on that his character is a villain.
But in spite of Hitchcock’s lack of interest and Laughton’s complete refusal to listen to any director aside from himself, the picture was a huge success both in England and America. It grossed more than 3 million dollars and the reviews were very good. The public loved the story and the thrills of the movie. It was a hit.
But Hitchcock, that success all happened in the rearview mirror. He hadn’t even stuck around to oversee the editing and post-production on the film,
And with that, Alfred Hitchcock left the English film industry for good.
Oh me oh my… what do we do with Jamaica Inn? I mean just what do we do? It’s not a great movie, but it’s interesting enough to not be terrible – but it’s just not Hitchcock – and I think that’s actually interesting in itself because Jamaica Inn is basically the movie that solidifies what is not Hitchcock.
Hitchcock isn’t a ‘whodunit’. Hitchcock isn’t a period film. Hitchcock isn’t a movie with an obvious and flagrant villain. Hitchcock movies don’t have three protagonists, they don’t have a boring objective film style, they don’t sacrifice suspense for performance, and above all – a Hitchcock film doesn’t star anyone more important than Hitchcock.
In the end that’s the legacy of Jamaica Inn, it will serve – along with Waltzes From Vienna, Number 17, and Champagne – to give us the anti-Hitchcock, the films he would strive his whole career to get away from.
And while there are touches of Hitch and his obsessions in Jamaica Inn, the blatant religious imagery, drowning, strangling, the knife, birds, brandy, false identity, bondage, and the dramatic suicide of the villain (which very much reminded me of Hitch’s earlier film Murder) – the film just proves that having all these Hitchcockian bits, even having Hitch himself, doesn’t make a movie a Hitchcock film.
One fascinating bit to ponder before we sign off here is Charles Laughton’s performance – which, with its obsession over ladies clothing, his sexual interest in tying people up, his gluttonous appetite, his seeming dual personalities – publicly boisterous, and privately obsessive… is very curiously like a caricature of Alfred Hitchcock himself. It’s almost as if Laughton decided to use Hitch as an inspiration for his performance. So, while Hitchcock doesn’t make a cameo appearance in the film, his essence may very well be see through out.
That’s it for this week – and for Britain as we head for Hollywood, and the 1940 Best Picture Academy Award-winner, Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Until then!