Jamaica Inn – 1939 | 108 mins | Drama | B&W
For his last pre-war picture in England, Hitchcock directed a pirate adventure based on a soapy gothic tale by Daphne du Maurier. Jamaica Inn will be remembered not so much as a Hitchcock picture as it will a Charles Laughton vehicle. Erich Pommer, a German producer who was a refugee in London, learned of Laughton’s wish to be associated with Irving Thalberg. He offered to take the actor into a partnership with John Maxwell of Associated British Producers in a new company, Mayflower Pictures Corporation, which Pommer set up early in 1937. It released three films. The first. Vessel of Wrath, had Laughton portraying a derelict in the tropics, pursued by a woman missionary. Following that was St. Martins Lane, with Laughton opposite Vivien Leigh. The third release was Jamaica Inn.
Hitchcock’s first association with Pommer was in 1924 on a picture Pommer co-produced called The Blackguard, on which Hitchcock served as writer and art director. In Jamaica Inn, Laughton played Sir Humphrey Pengaitan, an obsequious, unctuous squire of a seacoast village. He is the leader of a band of pirates luring ships on the rocks with false signals and then murdering the passengers and crew and plundering the cargo’s. (Laughton was originally cast as a licentious parson but, because of a possible run-in with the Hays office, the 1930s Federal Censorship Organisation, was switched to the squire role.) Maureen O’Hara, then an unknown eighteen year-old actress, was cast as the leading lady, Mary, who has come to Jamaica Inn to stay with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) and her suspicious husband, Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks). Mary discovers the Inn to be the headquarters of the pirates and saves the life of one of the men when the band unsuccessfully tries to lynch him. It turns out that he is an undercover man. The role was played by Robert Newton, who was to portray the most famous of all pirates, Long John Silver, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1950. It all ends melodramatically for Sir Humphrey, Merlyn, and Patience after Merlyn is shot by the pirates and Patience is shot by Sir Humphrey, who in turn jumps from a ship’s mast.
The film made a sizeable profit at the box-office because Hitchcock had developed a loyal following and reputation for entertaining pictures, and because the film had a winning cast and was based on a popular book. Nevertheless, the critics were unkind to Jamaica Inn; one called it “a singularly dull and uninspired picture-highly lackadaisical melodrama.” For people expecting a Hitchcock picture, it was a letdown, and it was obvious that the director had lost his interest in the property before he completed work on it. If Hitchcock’s enthusiasm isn’t so apparent on the screen, the phlegmatic acting of Charles Laughton is. Always the perfectionist, Laughton wore a putty nose because he thought that would make him look more like an indulgent squire-fat, bloated, wicked, mad, and shrewd. Laughton does give a powerful performance but, like the squire he portrays, it is self-indulgent and interferes with the story. With Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock’s English period was concluded. He left England for his new country and the beginning of a lucrative and distinguished career in Hollywood.
ExtractŠ Richard A. Harris, Michael S. Lasky: The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Alfred Hitchcock: Director
Tom Morahan: Art Director
Harry Stradling: Cinematography
Bernard Knowles: Cinematography
Molly McArthur: Costume Design
Robert Hamer: Editing
Eric Fenby: Music
Frederick Lewis: Music Direction
Charles Laughton: Producer
Erich Pommer: Producer
Joan Harrison: Script
Sidney Gilliat: Script
Alma Reville: Script
JB Priestley: Script