With 23 feature films to his credit, by 1939, Alfred Hitchcock was the most famous director in England. And with his celebrity and his reputation for quality motion pictures, he had attained a degree of creative control unmatched in the British film industry at the time. When it comes to Jamaica Inn, for more than three decades the last film he would fully shoot in his native land, this reputation and this independence would be thoroughly tested. Available now on a stunning new Blu-ray from Cohen Film Collection, which greatly improves the murky visuals and distorted sound marring all previous home video versions, Jamaica Inn had the renowned Charles Laughton as supervising star and producer. Predictably, he and Hitchcock did not always see eye to eye as they jockeyed for authority on set. The result is a contentious project that the director was never completely happy with, and the movie remains one of his lesser works.
While the credits are “Introducing” Maureen O’Hara, this was her third film, though her first in a major role and the first not under her real name, Maureen FitzSimons, which Charles Laughton had convinced her to change. To a large extent, O’Hara was Laughton’s discovery, and he was so impressed with the 19-year-old beauty that he immediately put her under contract with his Mayflower Films, the company he had formed with the legendary German producer Erich Pommer. Essentially, that Jamaica Inn exists at all is due to Laughton, who also purchased the rights to the source text and suggested Hitchcock to direct.
In a “lawless corner of England”—Cornwall—a group of “wreckers” make their living by deliberately crashing ships in order to steal their cargo. They block out the beacon light, the vessels crash into shore, those who survive are killed, and the criminals make off with whatever they can plunder. This is done under the auspices of the brutal Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who also runs the titular lodging. When Mary (O’Hara) enters the picture, she is in search of this inn, the mere mention of which causes distress and unease amongst her carriage companions. They leave her stranded on the side of the road and she makes her way to the grand residence of Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). Sir Humphrey is a wealthy, flamboyant eccentric, an odd fellow who seeks inspiration for his toast to beauty from a small figurine brought to his side and who, when introducing “Nancy” to his dinner guests (who are expecting a lady to appear), has a horse brought to the door of the dining area. Regardless, he is kind enough to welcome Mary for the night and he escorts her to the inn the next day. There she meets her aunt, Patience (Marie Ney), whom the young woman has come to stay with following the death of her parents. Patience, it turns out, is married to Joss.
This dwelling of ill repute acts as the main retreat for the crew of scavengers, and when the lovely Mary shows up, her presence gets the boys and, perversely, Joss, all riled up. One rowdy night, the men confront fellow gang member Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) with accusations of personally pilfering from the groups’ haul. They promptly string him up to hang, which Mary witnesses as she looks down from her room. As in many Hitchcock films, it’s one thing to watch—that’s partly what his cinema is all about—but to participate is something else. And that’s what gets Mary in trouble. Chances are, had she not gotten involved, she would have been fine with her aunt and uncle, though undoubtedly uncomfortable. But by cutting down Trehearne and fleeing with the supposed traitor, she has willingly, if innocently, become part of the drama. She doesn’t become so much a Hitchcockian “wrong man” (or woman), but she certainly doesn’t count on everything that transpires.
As this is happening, we learn more about Sir Humphrey. Secretly, he is actually the one in charge of the criminal enterprise, which explains how he maintains his lavish lifestyle. He rules over the crimes behind the shield of wealth and social standing, such as it is in this remote part of the country. A big fish in a small pond, he nevertheless has enough power to hold sway over Joss, and is feared, respected, and even admired by those unaware of his dastardly double life. When it’s made clear that Sir Humphrey is truly calling the shots, it’s a sudden, subtle, and reasonably persuasive shift on the part of Uncle Joss and our judgment of his character. Though undeniably abusive and callous, he is most likely overcompensating for his own sad subservience. For all of his bluster, he himself is just following orders.
The suspense then comes as we are made privy to Sir Humphrey’s behind-the-scenes role and the other characters are not. So when Mary suggests she and Trehearne seek refuge at Sir Humphrey’s manor (Humphrey being angrily aware of the botched hanging), we know the proposal is destined to be a bad one. What’s more, Trehearne’s own hidden function makes matters even worse, for there is more to him than he let on as well, and it’s the last thing Sir Humphrey needs.
When Mary and Trehearne escape, their querulous early relationship initially develops in a Hitchcock fashion similar to The 39 Steps (1935), or, later, Foreign Correspondent (1940), Marnie (1964), and Family Plot (1976); in other words, a male and female reluctantly joined together, growing mutually dependent while still being persistently at odds with one another. Also in a familiar Hitchcock tradition, many in the film have dual personalities: the potentially decent and redemptive scoundrel, the superficially upstanding villain, the crook with admirable motives. Yet for all of its common themes and its focus on criminal behavior, also routine terrain for the filmmaker, Jamaica Inn is lacking much of the visual inventiveness that had already come to mark Hitchcock’s cinema. There are no elaborately staged action sequences, save for the marginally notable shipwrecks, no extended camera movements, and no exceptionally striking camera angles or sound effects. The sets, which Hitchcock helped design, may look well crafted, but one gets the sense they were somewhat restrictive for the director, or they were at least uninspiring. (Look, by contrast, at what he would accomplish with the studio-bound singular locales of Lifeboat  and Rope .) Perhaps, instead, it is simply that this was a film he had to do rather than one he wanted to do.
The 1936 Daphne Du Maurier novel on which Jamaica Inn was based didn’t much interest Hitchcock, but her 1938 novel, Rebecca, did, and Hitch apparently hoped that by bringing one of her works successfully to the screen it would put him in favor to do another. Unfortunately, the author didn’t care for the adaptation of Jamaica Inn and wasn’t keen to see “Rebecca” go the same way. Fortunately, David O. Selznick, producer of Rebecca, offered her an irresistible sum of money and she sold the rights anyway. That film would, of course, win the Best Picture Academy Award, the only Hitchcock film to do so, and the director would again seek out a Du Maurier work 24 years later, with The Birds.
Jamaica Inn is far more a vehicle for its stars than for its director, and the favor is evident in what one takes away most from the picture. In the lead, Laughton theatrically carries his scenes with peculiar mannerisms and droll humor, but O’Hara also shines as a more active than usual damsel in distress. Both have a compelling screen presence, his one of quirks and intimidating pomposity and hers a ravishing attraction coupled with high-spirited cheek (a combination John Ford in particular would later put to great use). She is, as described maliciously but no less truthfully by her uncle, a “sweet pretty girl with a lot of character”—Maureen O’Hara in a nutshell.
In any case, Jamaica Inn was a hit in England. Not that Hitchcock was around to be a part of it—he was by the time of its release already off and running in Hollywood. The same was true for O’Hara, whose follow-up feature was the RKO production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), also with Laughton.
Though a rare misstep for Alfred Hitchcock, it’s probably best to think of Jamaica Inn as more of a stepping stone, a small hurdle that took the great director from his generally superb British work, like The Lady Vanishes the year prior, to his phenomenal Hollywood career, initiated with Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, both in the year to follow. Besides, even a Hitchcock misstep is worth some attention.