Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn was the last movie he made in Britain, before he left England for Hollywood. I won’t review it, just give you some impressions and suggest you watch it some time, especially if you like Hitchcock’s later works. Rebecca, Vertigo, North by Northwest: stylistically, all of these have ties to Jamaica Inn. The 1939 film was based on a novel of the same name, by Daphne du Marier (who also wrote Rebecca), and it’s a real public house in Cornwall, still in service, and reportedly still haunted. A caveat; this movie has been widely criticized, by critics and even by Hitchcock himself—the film critic Michael Medved gave it a place in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. It doesn’t move very fast, and some scenes are trying; but visually I still like it, it’s creepy, both the people and the settings.
The opening scene is brutal; it’s 1819 in Cornwall, where gangs of thugs lure ships to the rocky coast with a false light to wreck them, kill the crew, and loot the bounty. This is what we see, and many of the sailors drown; the worse of the reigning thugs goes back to slit the throat of a drowning man crying out for help. Shots of the full moon are very well done for the time, none of the glare you sometimes see in early black and white film at night. The ne’er do wells retreat to Jamaica Inn, a tavern just off the shore.
In the next scene comes young Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara), in a prim bonnet, tossed out of a carriage far short of Jamaica Inn; she’s headed there from Ireland, to find her sister Patience, her last living relative. Instead, she knocks on the door of a giant house, which belongs to the local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, a classical Shakespearian actor trained at the Royal Academy, who later directed one of my favorite movies of all time, The Night of the Hunter). Sir Humphrey takes her to view his den of hedonism, and later brings her to Jamaica Inn, as she asks.
The characters at Charles Laughton’s table: a bunch of curled, jeweled and silken fusspots. Two of the oldest, wartiest character actors fall asleep at table, others gulp wine by the goblet. He throws a bag of coins and they dive for it like hungry dogs. Laughton’s dinner jacket collar is a giant horseshoe around his bulbous head, and his eyebrows are impressively arranged, thick quote marks enclosing a fat sentence of forehead.
From here, the movie shifts to the Jamaica Inn, where all manner of foul play and smelliness resides. I’ll leave off the plot summary (watch this movie if you like Hitchcock and character actors; otherwise, it might be too slow and occasionally ridiculous for your taste) and describe why it’s so visually striking.
The gothic scenery (shabby stone buildings, thatched roofs) drives home how oppressive the poverty is, and also how boring it is. The ship wrecking marauders are like the evil seven dwarves (although there are at least ten of these cartoons), and their various jaunty hats and crude make-up tattoos make me smile. They have nothing to do between raids except accusing each other of cheating and picking their teeth with knives. Down along the perilous shore, and even above it, there is the constant sound of water smashing against rocks, and spray soaking dirty clothes. People crouch behind the rocks, either waiting to commit mischief or hiding from it.
And when the law arrives, brought in by the long-suffering secret police officer (Robert Newton), they’re a wall of uniforms, bland and official; an opposite pole to the distinctly individual and preening thieves. As they are placed in shackles, each thug has a different reaction; the cheekiest and baddest thug of all, with a cocky top hat, spits at the redcoat in front of him, and is slapped in return.
Again, I can’t encourage you to see this film unless you don’t mind thick character acting and Cornwallish accents; but, if you appreciate the Hitchcock films that came later, this is an informative movie. The overall darkness of scene and story are possibly the most gothic I’ve encountered since Nosferatu. Not for everyone, possibly the worst Hitchcock movie, and still, I can’t not like it.