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Jamaica Inn

by Kilian Melloy
Monday May 18, 2015
Jamaica Inn

Daphne Du Maurier is said to have disliked Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of her novel "Jamaica Inn" -- named after a real den of smugglers and cutthroats -- to the point of not wanting Hitchcock to direct the adaptation of her novel "Rebecca." (Hitchcock did, of course, as well as directing the film version of Du Maurier's novel "The Birds.")

One can understand Du Maurier's reservations, and one certainly might hope that her novel was better than "Jamaica Inn," the 1939 film that marked Hitchcock's final project before leaving his native England for Hollywood (and already his 23rd feature). But, as we learn on the video essay (hosted by Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto) and the commentary track by film scholar Jeremy Arnold, Hitch was not necessarily to blame for the film's many flaws. Star Charles Laughton -- who plucked co-star Maureen O'Hara out of relative obscurity and made her a film star with this project -- not only turned in a lunatic, over-the-top performance (complete with a makeup job that seems better suited to commedia dell'arte than to a pot-boiling thriller), but exerted far too much control over the picture. Plus, the constraints of the film censorship powers-that-were necessitated major story changes on top of the usual overhaul that too often mars a book in order to (hopefully) service a film.

"Jamaica Inn" has a clever premise ("wreckers" lure ships to their doom by tampering with light beacons during storms, then murder the crews and plunder the cargo) and offers some classic Hitchcockian tropes (one of the cutthroats is a British Naval officer operating undercover), all topped off by a gloss of "women's picture" elements such as fierce family loyalty and storybook romance. Innocent, spirited Mary (O'Hara), recently orphaned, arrives at Jamaica Inn, a public house in disrepair, that's run by her aunt Patience (Marie Nye) and her husband, Joss (Leslie Banks), who heads up the ship-wrecking brigands. Local squire Sir Humphrey Pengalian (Laughton) -- a corrupt parson in the novel (you see why the censorship boards of the 30s had to be appeased) -- at first treats Mary with a blend of gallantry and creepiness, but he turns out to be the brains behind Joss' ship-wrecking operation.

When the brigands begin to realize they aren't getting paid what the plundered cargoes are worth, Joss lets them believe that the proceeds are being skimmed by a newcomer to the band, a young fellow named Trehearne (Robert Newton); Mary rescues Trehearne from the band's vengeance, only for herself and Trehearne to become their quarry. When they seek help from Pengallan, the squire makes a game of it, amusing himself by keeping the brigands in the dark as to his true identity while maneuvering Trehearne back into danger and scheming all the while to claim the beautiful Mary for himself.

Say what you will from a modern point of view, but in 1939 the kinds of narrative lapses (and excesses of plot) seen here were not unusual for films, and the technical accomplishments of "Jamaica Inn" were noteworthy.

So is this 4K scanned, 75th anniversary restoration of the film, which enjoys such clarity and pristine image quality that, aside from a couple of jumps due to missing frames, it looks like perfection itself. You an see the film's grain (always a plus), and the gray-toned black-and-white cinematography is a delight, from the murky deep backs of the storm-tossed sea to O'Hara's luminous beauty, which Hitch celebrates in several iconic close-ups. Moreover, the film looks every bit a Hitchcock production, from the camerawork to the sets and the lighting. The script is a mess, but the film qua film is cinema magic.

The Special features here include the 2014 Rerelease trailer, the above-referenced, Spoto-hosted "video essay," titled "Shipwrecked in a Studio," and the also-previously referenced audio commentary by Arnold, who gets so caught up in backstories and related trivia that he occasionally talks right through a dramatic moment, when we might prefer him to offer some gem of insight or lore, or at least admire the moment along with us. Especially aggravating: The way the moment goes by when Mary's Aunt Patience is suddenly, shockingly murdered; also, the moment Laughton, having taken Mary captive, slips her the gag off, implying impending rape. A few moments later, a despairing O'Hara slumps, her face sinking out of frame into Laughton's lap. Surely Hitch was having some naughty fun here, but these moments -- poignant, terrifying, and even a bit filthy -- are not delved into.

But these are minor quibbles. Hitchcock fans will thrill to this new edition of an admittedly second-rate entry in his canon. Loosen the laces and enjoy it; this film is what it is, and it's a lot of fun. The Cohen Media release shows it off at its best.


"Jamaica Inn"
Blu-ray
$39.98
http://cohenmedia.net/films/jamaica-inn

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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