Jamaica Inn (1939) **
Usually dismissed when not completely ignored, Jamaica Inn is my favourite under-rated Hitchcock film.
Despite its lowly status it is both historically important and couldn’t be more symbolic if it tried: the last film of his British period, and, like his first American film a year later, an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel. Thus Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, both untypical works, stand as book ends separating the two eras. Yet, while the latter is an acknowledged classic, the former remains little seen and unloved.
My own feeling is that the British years represent Hitchcock at his most sustained creative peak. Many masterpieces were still to come, but the sheer unbroken consistency of these years of Rich and Strange, Young and Innocent, Sabotage, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps was never to be repeated in later decades, and Jamaica Inn, for me, rounds off this most golden era in high style.
Though critically its standing is of the very lowest (with the Medved Brothers going so far as to include it in their childish but shamefully compulsive book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time) the reasons for its lowly status seem to me almost entirely irrelevant: the fact that Hitchcock himself didn’t like it (due largely to his impatience, both to get to Hollywood and with his temperamental star), the subject matter is not typical, and it was controlled more by the producer than by Hitchcock.
It is also deemed over the top, primarily by virtue of Charles Laughton’s extravagant lead performance. His wicked squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (a character not in the book, where the villain is the local clergyman) is a masterly creation: a sort of anti-Scarlet Pimpernel, who hides a life of cunning villainy behind a veneer of foppish banality. It’s a broad performance but by no means a crude one, and we can never quite be sure what he is going to do or how he will respond to a given situation – note the scene in which one of his tenants comes to complain of a leaking roof and receives not the tyrannical outrage we expect but generosity and sympathy. Add to that the fact that the character, though duplicitous and wicked from the start, also goes slowly mad through the course of the narrative, a transition we see reflected in the growing unease of his devoted servant Chadwick, and it will be seen that Laughton, though clearly having fun with the character, is in no sense doing shoddy or unshaded work.
Among some truly inspired touches, Pengallan opting to illustrate his conception of beauty by bringing his horse into the dining room during a dinner party stands out as among the most bizarre, the sequence in which he lures Robert Newton’s undercover revenue man into a trap by pretending to be his ally, all the while leading him straight back into the lair of his foes, among the most chilling.
Odd, perhaps, to find Robert Newton, relatively restrained but with eyes already bulging, as the heroic Jem: those especially familiar with his work in Disney’s Treasure Island will feel especially short-changed by the casting. But Maureen O’Hara in her debut (she was Laughton’s protégée; at one point he attempted to adopt her) is beautiful and assured, and the wreckers themselves are an impressively gruesome bunch, headed by that fine actor Leslie Banks as Joss (formerly on the side of the angels as the anguished father in The Man Who Knew Too Much), and actor-author Emlyn Williams as Harry, the most sadistic of the gang.
As in Vertigo and elsewhere, Hitchcock has fiddled with the structure of the original novel so that we know early on whom the villain is, wisely swapping one good surprise for acres of suspense. That’s certainly one characteristic touch. And those who like their Hitchcock films to reveal the psychological quirks of the man himself are directed towards the end scenes, when Pengallan, by this time completely insane, kidnaps Mary and attempts to flee the country with her, applying loving and plainly fetishistic attention to the task of binding her wrists and gagging her with a silk handkerchief. The finale, too, is a stunner, with Pengallan climbing to the top of the ship’s crow’s nest to avoid capture and then plunging to his death with the instruction to "tell your children how the great age ended!"
The great age of Hitchcock in Britain could scarcely have ended more spectacularly too. The photography, sets, art direction and miniatures are wonderfully atmospheric, as is the score by Eric Fenby, (better known as the young composer, celebrated in Ken Russell’s Song of Summer, who was employed by Delius to set down the unfinished scores the blind and paralysed composer was able only to dictate). It’s one of many finishing touches contributing to the overall excellence of a fine film – and a fine Hitchcock film.