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It feels odd to be reviewing a feature by Alfred Hitchcock as a 'new' item that few people have seen, but that's exactly the case with Entertainment One Film / Cohen Media's amazing new Blu-ray of 1939's Jamaica Inn. Outside of special screenings, it has long been unavailable on any other than terrible Public Domain copies. I tried to watch it a wretched print on a public access channel once, and gave up after just a few minutes. Produced on a lavish budget by Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer and cast with top English talent eager to work with their country's most celebrated film director, Jamaica Inn is an impressive adventure-suspense thriller from a popular novel by Daphne Du Maurier, whose work Hitchcock would adapt twice more. Assistant Joan Harrison graduated to credited co-screenwriter on the show, while Hitchcock's wife Alma reportedly touched up the final script.
The story is very much like Russell Thorndyke's popular Dr. Syn books; Du Maurier's leading villain originally disguised himself as a man of the cloth as well, a ruse deemed unacceptable by the church-dominated Hollywood Production Code. Irish lass Mary (Maureen O'Hara) arrives on the stormy Cornwall coast to live with her aunt Patience (Marie Ney) at Jamaica Inn, only to discover that the house is a well-known den of thieves and cutthroats led by Patience's brutal husband Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks of The Most Dangerous Game and Went the Day Well?). Joss's gang are wreckers: they use a false lighthouse beacon to lure ships onto the rocks, where they murder the crews and steal the cargoes. Upset that Joss orders death for one of his own men, Mary saves Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) from hanging. They run away together to the local Lord and justice of the peace Sir Humphrey Pengalian (Charles Laughton), a bombastic eccentric who entertains his guests with extravagant jests. Sir Humphrey is clearly attracted to Mary, who arrives in an under-dress after escaping with Jem along the rocky coastline. That's when Jem reveals a hidden identity, forcing Sir Humphrey, the local representative of law and order, to be very cautious in his actions.
Jamaica Inn is in every respect a carefully crafted, impressive production. It's packed with sophisticated special effects for its year, including many near-undetectable matte paintings. Save for a few daylight scenes at the seashore it is entirely studio-bound, filmed on large and atmospheric sets, including exteriors. Sir Humphrey's lavish mansion makes a good contrast with the rustic, labyrinthine title Inn. The clever screenplay keeps the pot at a steady boil, with strong emotional relationships, exciting reversals and colorful characters hiding behind secret identities. Charles Laughton gives the expected marvelous, outlandish yet nuanced performance, forever smirking and signaling his mischievous deceptions. Leslie Banks is a suitably black-hearted brute, bullying Maureen O'Hara's spirited, virtuous heroine. We've never seen Robert Newton this young and hearty before; he hasn't an ounce of extra fat on his face, and looks like he's never had a drink. In fact, he almost looks like young Harvey Keitel!
The multi-talented Emlyn Williams had written extra dialogue for Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (also starring Banks); here he's Harry the Pedlar, a rather creepy pirate with a dark complexion and earrings. Among the wreckers is the ubiquitous Mervyn Johns, having a good time being a rascal; another of the pirates is a myopic fellow with unkempt hair. It's a long shot, but he looks as if he may have been the model for the pirate 'Smee' in Walt Disney's animated Peter Pan.
Jamaica Inn was a big hit in 1939, hitting theaters in the summer just before war broke out. Why isn't it a revered Alfred Hitchcock classic? He practically hated it. As an uncredited co-producer, Charles Laughton controlled the production, including the casting; it was Laughton who brought along the young and little-known Maureen O'Hara as his co-star. In the Hitchcock/Truffaut book the director called the whole project absurd, and complained that the fussy Laughton asked that he only be given close-ups until he perfected a peculiar (actually quite amusing) walk. Sir Humphrey looks like a wicked character from Charles Dickens, delighted with his crooked schemes and content to make the whole world revolve around his desires. The fussiness extends to the makeup, which gives him fake eyebrows slightly higher than normal on his forehead. 1Hichcock certainly keeps things hopping, with interesting camera angles and shots that allow Joss Merlyn's bandits plenty of opportunities to establish distinct character qualities. Sir Humphrey's relationship with his servants is interesting as well -- they sometimes aren't sure if he's behaving badly, or actually going mad. The Lord brings a horse into his dining room to show it off to his guests, which in itself isn't outrageous. But he then invites the lost Mary into the room and submits her to the same covetous appraisal. Maureen O'Hara is certainly beautiful, and she does well with the rough action on the rocks, but her 'sentimental' end of the story gets in the way of the thriller intrigues. Although Mary's the story catalyst, she mostly reacts to events, and she's absent from a lot of the action. Laughton clearly presold her to RKO at the same time, for the magnificent The Hunchback of Notre Dame released the following Christmas. Should we assume that they both went to America before hostilities broke out?
Hitchcock doesn't even make a cameo appearance in Jamaica Inn, which taps it as a 'time filler' assignment to be done while waiting to go to America under contract to David O. Selznick. I only saw one moment in the film that broke standard costume-adventure mode. Patience is holding Jem Trehearne prisoner, tied to a chair. Jem's plea to be set free is interrupted with a cut to some parallel action at another location, and when we cut back to the scene a few seconds later, Patience is standing alone holding a knife, with the rope and chair that held Trehearne lying on the floor. The little narrative ellipsis isn't even deftly done -- we have the feeling that Hitchcock may not even have been involved in the editing. A couple of redundant cutbacks to a coach racing over a hill in front of the same painted backdrop, also lack Hitchcock's sense of visual economy. Yet the movie is an exciting semi-classic with fun performances and topped by the expected delicious turn from Laughton.
It's an easy bet that fans of the Master of Suspense will want to see this right away: as they say, they just aren't making any more Hitchcock pictures, and the opportunity to see a 'new' one is a big temptation.
Entertainment One / The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Jamaica Inn is a near-flawless 4K restoration of this well made English classic. The B&W image is of excellent quality, allowing us to appreciate every aspect of the production, including those excellent special effects. Most interior scenes have levels of atmospheric depth. The den of thieves isn't just a room glimpsed behind the Inn's the entrance hall, it has a different, smoky feeling.
The only 'flaws' I noticed are a missing frame here or there, and some of these look like up-cuts made by the editor to speed up the action. The audio is so clear that accessing the English subtitles is completely unnecessary.
Author Donald Spoto hosts a fast-paced video essay that covers the usual facts about Jamaica Inn and adds other observations, some of which are strained. He establishes that Hitch wasn't in charge of casting, scripting and even most directorial choices, but then plays the usual critical game of finding parallels with other Hitchcock pictures, as would an old-fashioned auteurist. Face it, even as an 'anonymous journeyman' Hitchcock's direction is superb.
Author and film writer Jeremy Arnold contributes a well-researched and informative audio commentary that starts from the proposition that the restored Jamaica Inn needs a serious reappraisal. Jeremy stresses that Hitchcock had little control over the film, and the similarities he finds with other Hitchcock productions are generic, less pointed observations. Arnold points out right up front that Erich Pommer's name comes last in the credits. Hitchcock had an active ego, but apparently not the problematical kind that would prevent him from helming 'someone else's movie' when necessary -- the picture is directed as well or better than any 'studio standard' MGM picture. Approached as an opportunity to see actors like Laughton, Newton and Banks have a jolly good time for 99 minutes, it has plenty of fan appeal beyond the Hitchcock connection.
A Cohen reissue promo is present, and also a score of trailers up front, as many as for a Disney disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jamaica Inn Blu-ray
1. In close-ups I see (or think I see) light webbing on one eyebrow, so I assume the eyebrows are a makeup man's theatrical trick. They give Sir Humphrey a perpetual bemused, expression fitting his madness. It's a great Laughton character.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.