“OH LORD, WE PRAY THEE – NOT THAT WRECKS SHOULD HAPPEN – BUT THAT IF THEY DO HAPPEN, THOU WILT GUIDE THEM TO THE COAST OF CORNWALL FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE POOR INHABITANTS”
– SO RAN AN OLD CORNISH PRAYER OF THE EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY, BUT IN THAT LAWLESS CORNER OF ENGLAND, BEFORE THE BRITISH COASTGUARD SERVICE CAME INTO BEING…
This is a pretty odd one – it’s slick, professional and well performed but feels ultimately a bit clunky and fumbled. The root of the problem, to me, seems to be Charles Laughton – who appears to be acting in another movie throughout and is sort of at odds with the story and the rest of the cast. Laughton, and his company Mayflower Films, was one of the producers – which is often a recipe for disaster (or at least alarm bells) when cocktailed with a strong director (see Anthony Mann’s sacking from ‘Spartacus’ by Kirk Douglas as an example).
It’s 1820’s Cornwall (very radioactive Cornwall is, by the way) and the locals are scuttling ships on their coastline and sacking them for loot whilst bumping off any crew members who may survive the scuttling. Laughton plays Sir Humphrey Pengallen (even the name overcooks it a bit) who is not only the local magistrate but also the criminal mastermind and main fence of all the booty. He’s a big pompous posh oaf who klutzes his way around the place being stuck up whilst simultaneously being an accomplice to murder and piracy and general shenanigans.
Maureen O’Hara (playing the recently orphaned Mary Yellen) finds herself staying at the titular inn and uncovers the whole plot, eventually fighting to save the next ship and its planned-for doom. In the process romance blooms between her and Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) and they throw in together to do the right thing, unwittingly seeking the help of the swine Sir Humphrey.
The film hits the ground running, a nice series of dissolves to get a horse and rider to the coastline to watch a ship crashing – some model shots of the boat, but pretty convincing. Fast crosscutting crashes the ship and the pirates besiege the crew and murder them in a variety of gruesome bludgeoning manners. It’s really well done – it’s fast and aggressive, the pirates ruthless and relentless as they scale the now empty vessel for their plundering purposes. The last sailor clings to a rock and Emlyn Williams as the semi top hat wearing Harry the Pedlar goes offscreen to knife him to death – an offscreen scream followed by him wiping his blade on his sleeve. Great stuff, and sets up a film that means business and whose business is mean.
I liked the way that every time Jamaica Inn is mentioned early on every looks at each other in a ‘you’ve just walked into the Slaughtered Lamb’ kind of way. Mary the innocent travels there trustingly, unaware of the danger she is about to enter. O’Hara is good in the picture – all wide eyed innocence but inner steel. There’s a lovely (very modern) head turn from her at about twelve minutes that perfectly introduces her beauty to Sir Humph.
He’s a cheeky old sort, telling his manservant to get the warming pan in the bed whilst he’s out escorting Mary to the inn.
Laughton’s mansion is palatial – it reminds me of the Selznick Company logo that will become a fixture of some later Hitchcock movies – plus it looks like the exterior of the big house from ‘Under Capricorn’. The ever dependable Basil Radford from ‘The Lady Vanishes’ pops up in a small role as a chum of Sir Humph’s, and is always worthwhile.
The pirate gang is quickly established – the doom and gloom ‘fires of hell’ one (good to resist John Laurie in this role, he would have been perfect in his ‘we’re all doomed’ mode), the randy one who wants to ‘get to know’ Mary, the tattooed sailor with the misogynisistic streak and Joss the boss (Mary’s uncle, bullying and threatening his meek and mild wife – aptly named Patience and played by Marie Ney). The reception to Mary appearing at the Inn is amusingly cold and aggressive – Joss literally throwing her trunk upstairs, the poor girl not even being offered a cuppa after her journey (although later she is given a tray of food to have in her bedroom – bread and water, I’ll be bound, the water probably from the sea).
Shortly thereafter Trehearne is all ready to be lynched and the pirates string him up – only for Mary (her room is directly above) to cut him down with her dinner knife – she then helps him leg it whilst the others are busy having another ruck over the soon-to-be-dead Trehearne’s earthly belongings. It’s a clever and well shot scene, and immediately establishes not only a bond between Mary and Trehearne but also the first glimmerings of mutual attraction (Trehearne is clearly somewhat of a higher class than the rest of the oo-arring shipmates and stands out very clearly as an imposter – there’s no way they would think he’s some kind of sea-hardened sailor).
Mary is forced to flee also, hooking up with Trehearne to escape the marauding pirates. This is all pacey and great and exciting to watch and really kicks the pictures up a couple of gears.
Transpires, of course, that Trehearne is the law and has infiltrated the gang – Sir Humphrey’s look when he finds this out is pretty priceless as he realizes the implications. ‘Wrecking’ is the crime Trehearne is trying to get to the bottom of, and Sir Humphrey fronts it out with admirable cool. Trehearne explains that the unknown big boss has to visit Jamaica Inn that very night and they can apprehend him. Sir Humphrey is up for the chase, thinking on his feet how he can wriggle out of busting himself. As they ready themselves to set off, Mary hides behind a pillar and earwigs their plans – there’s a great fast pan left to right to focus on her. Laughton is all vim and vigour, making it all up as he goes along. Mary rushes to haul Patience out of there but Joss appears – livid at his niece’s betrayal. It’s all a bit overwrought, but exciting with it.
Laughton is very theatrical as Sir Humphrey – all false nose, bushy eyebrows and pan stick makeup. He’s fine but just seems a bit out of whack and larger than life than the rest of the performances, which are much more grounded.
Apparently Hitchcock had trouble with his leading man in regards to the performance and it does show in the final movie (the director later stating he hadn’t directed the picture so much as ‘referree-d’ it). It’s interesting that Laughton was an established star in his own right – bigger than any other the director had worked with up until that point – and the forthcoming Hollywood experiences would provide access to the Western world’s finest*.
Laughton is great in the scene where he and Trehearne have been trussed up – Sir Humph casually setting himself free and instantly identifying himself as the leader of the wreckers.
After he has left, Hitchcock has a great scene where Trehearne tries to persuade Patience to welch on her husband, the camera whip-panning from one to the other. A brief cut to her holding a knife and his chair lying down covered in cut ropes succinctly shows the outcome of her decision.
The exterior scenes throughout the film are really well handled, clearly some studio shot but convincing amounts of sprayed seawater and an enthusiastic use of wind machines. The climactic action sequence with the about-to-be-wrecked ship (unless Mary can signal to it) is thrilling even today. The ship is a screaming model but the pacing and cutting are rapid enough to forgive it.
When Sir Humphrey appears at Jamaica Inn, shooting Patience then Joss slumping down dead, he trusses up Mary in a fairly lascivious manner – clearly enjoying the experience: ‘…we’re going away together’, he states, no secret that he has had bedroom eyes for her right from the start. A closeup of his outstretched hand reminded me of the shadowy attacker in ‘The Lady Vanishes’, or the terrifying claw from ‘Nosferatu’. He scarpers and the wreckers are busted by the army, a lovely pan across them all ending with Harry gobbing in a soldier’s face in contempt.
The closing sequences in the movie are equally well done – cross cutting between Sir H. and Mary in his quarters below decks (he is fleeing the country) and the army galloping to intercept them. Trehearne and Sir Humphrey have a brief gun to gun standoff before the latter starts scaling the rigging (never a good idea to try to escape this way – there’s nowhere to run to, you old fool – but a nice high shot above him all the same). Mary is defending Sir Humphrey as being some kind of diminished responsibility case, but too late as he drops his gun which explodes and then plunges to his doom (‘What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it and tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallen!’ he roars). It’s all very well done and, if a little hammy on the part of Laughton, still exciting.
The final shot, with Sir Humphrey’s manservant slowly shaking his head, suggests the end of an era, as his boss has suggested. In quite typical Hitchcock style the ending is very rapid – no time for post match analysis – from the time of the death leap to The End is just 44 seconds. ‘Jamaica Inn’ has a good reputation and it’s largely deserved. It’s a good old yarn and enjoyable. Laughton is eminently watchable in an overwrought kind of way and O’Hara pretty and luminous throughout.
*’Jamaica Inn’ was Hitchcock’s last British film before being tempted to America by David O. Selznick.
There is a great deal of beautiful photography in the film, courtesy of Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling – the former a veteran of four previous Hitchcock’s, the latter going on to photograph ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, ‘Suspicion’, Elia Kazan’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and George Cukor’s ‘My Fair Lady’ (that’s a CV for you!)
The editor is the venerable Robert Hamer, who will go on to direct the standout Googie Withers starrer ‘It Always Rains on Sunday and ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’.
I watched the US version running at 98 minutes – there is apparently a UK version, duration 108 minutes, ten more minutes of overacting from Laughton probably.
Hitchcock will go to adapt two more Daphne Du Maurier yarns – ‘Rebecca’ (Week 23 to you) and ‘The Birds’.
Check it out at: http://www.archive.org/details/Jamaica_Inn (although there are nicer quality versions out there for not a lot of cash).