Given that he directed some of the finest American films of all time, it’s easy to overlook Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a British filmmaker. Famously characterized as the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock’s work defined much of the 1940’s and 50s, back home though most of his work came in the form of silent cinema. Regrettably, the importance of silent cinema will never be able to compete with the popularity of Vertigo, Psycho or Rear Window. In an attempt to shine a light one of his lesser known films, Arrow Academy have released his last hurrah at home with 1938’s Jamaica Inn, adapting Daphne du Maurier (Don’t Look Now, The Birds and Rebecca) for the first time in his celebrated career.
Jamaica Inn takes place in the 1820’s Cornwall, described as a place where crime rules, with pirates dominating the seas. Mary (Maureen O’Hara) jumps straight into this mess with her arriving from Ireland to live with her aunt and uncle (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks), oblivious to the world around her. The carriage she takes ignores her pleas to drop her off at the titular inn, a reluctance that forces her to go it alone with the harsh sea air battering the countryside. Her only respite comes from a palatial manner house owned by the local lord, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who provides her with a horse to get to the nearby Jamaica Inn. Once there she is greeted by her hostile uncle and a gang of criminals who profit from wrecking passing ships. And true to form, this early Hitchcock becomes a labyrinthine twister of death and betrayal.
Throughout his career, Hitchcock was hit with accusations that he didn’t treat his female characters well, while this can be circumvented with sound reasoning it doesn’t change the fact that O’Hara’s character is received as little more than a piece of meat, one which can’t be trusted at that. As awkward as it can be, with Laughton’s character effectively using her character as a prize possession to be earned, this was the world in the 1900s. Furthermore, an author with such a history for strong female characters as Du Maurier cements this aspect as a knowing albeit awkward one.
There is an embryonic characteristic to Jamaica Inn. Hitchcock’s 1943 film, (and personal favourite) Shadow of a Doubt, centered around a slow drip as Teresa Wright learned who her uncle Joseph Cotten really is. It builds to one of the most intense finales in a filmography known for suspense, it’s no surprise that Hitchcock himself said it was his favourite film that he directed. Having one character in a position of power knowing something that the films hero does not is a method of suspense that Hitchcock mastered, especially with an actor of Charles Laughton’s calibre being that power player. While it doesn’t compare to the brilliance of his peak, it is a plot beat that he has always had a great affinity for. Jamaica Inn’s roster of characters is rife with liars, thieves, and murderers, thus having a character as upstanding as O’ Hara creates a massive amount of tension, increasing the stakes to a supremely sharpened point. This is not Wright Vs Cotten, this is O’Hara Vs. her Family, Pirates and the ruler of all this land – Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton), the threat could barely be starker.
On the point of Charles Laughton, he acts as the conductor for all the chaos occurring on England’s southernmost coast. Before even looking at his performance, there is an elephant in the room in the shape of his make-up. He wears a skullcap with a period appropriate wig, part of which covers his eyebrows meaning that they had to be replaced as part of the wig. Through this, Pengallan preempts the ridiculous and unfathomable trend of shaving eyebrows off only to draw them back on by a few hundred years – it’s gloriously silly and distracting to boot. Not too distracting though as once the shock of his ridiculous appearance passes you are greeted by his performance. Initially, he appears to be genial even if he is home to some prurient thoughts, as the veneer of his position in society wears down his psychotic tendencies start sticking out. Pengallan is more nonchalant than that word suggests, his disinterest of those other than him has a big impact.
Hitchcock is one of those names whereby he is always worthy of time, attention and acclaim. The term lesser may always be used to refer to the weaker parts of a prolific directors work, Jamaica Inn certainly doesn’t stack up next to his legendary best, which is a pity. If it didn’t have the unenviable baggage of being compared to one of the most absorbing filmographies of the 20th century, it would be looked at for the film it is – Jamaica Inn is one of the best staged and potent British crime thrillers of the 30s and that is exactly how it should be viewed. Calling it lesser Hitchcock is far more patronizing than it deserves.