Jamaica Inn –
Jamaica Inn is the 1939 film adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier 1936 novel of the same name. It is known primarily for being both the last film Hitchcock directed before going stateside, and a bit of a dud. It is listed as one of the “50 Worst Films of All Time” and a film Hitchcock himself dismissed, or dissed, to use today’s parlance. It stars Charles Laughton as Sir Humphrey Pengallan, Robert Newton as James Traherne and introduced a young Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellen. O’Hara owes Laughton a huge debt as apparently he insisted on her casting, despite her rather unremarkable screen test – something about her large green expressive eyes made him think she was worth taking a chance on. Directly after her performance in this film he insisted upon bringing her to Hollywood and cast her as Esmeralda to his Quasimodo in the 1939 film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After this, she went from unknown from a small suburb of Dublin, Ireland, to well known international star.
Jamaica Inn is set in the 1800s on a windy, rainy Cornish coast where ships are being lured to the rocks so a group of local pirates can rob the cargo and dispose of the sailors and any other poor unfortunates who might happen to be on board . All is going well until a young Irish orphan, O’Hara, arrives to stay at the inn run by her aunt and uncle. Her beauty attracts a lot of unwelcome attention including that of both her uncle, and the local Justice of the Peace, Sir Humphrey Pangallan. At the same time the pirate gang, a particularly unpleasant bunch especially one Harry the Pedlar, are unhappy with things. They are murdering and looting goodo but frankly it doesn’t appear to be very lucrative. They turn on their newest recruit, from here things take a surprising turn and Mz O ‘Hara proves herself to be quite a plucky girl who is not in the least it intimated by this gang of menacing, marauding vagabonds.
According to those in the know, part of the problem with Jamaica Inn is that although Hitch’s name is on it, it is not a Hitchcock film, it is a Charles Laughton film. He co-produced it and co-owned the production company that financed it; so naturally when there were artistic disagreements between them, and by all accounts there were many, Laughton always came out on top. Now a word to those not familiar with Laughton – he was no bit player. He was, according to Daniel Day-Lewis ,one of his inspirations and “probably the greatest actor who came from that period of time.” Nonetheless, not only did Hitch not want him to play the role of Pengallan, he most certainly did not want him to play it the way he did. And granted he is a bit over the top, almost a caricature rather than a meaningful portrayal , he sets a tone that is comical when it should have been sinister. And I think to some degree responsible for the film’s shortcomings.
Hitch makes no cameo, again illustrating how unHitch-like Jamaica Inn is, however if you take the director and his reputation out of the equation, it really isn’t a bad film. The pirates are quite scary and violent and O’Hara quite a strong female character. They don’t give her an annoying, fake Irish accent and she demonstrates both bravery and strength while looking gorgeous and eerily calm, in her encounters with the bloodthirsty pirates. The constant rain and wind means you are unlikely to book a holiday at the Jamaica Inn any time soon, but from the comfort of your own home, wrapped in a warm blanket, you can relax and enjoy this watchable non-Hitchcockian, Hitchcock .
For those of you interested in movie-pirate folklore, Robert Newton who here plays the newest recruit, is thanks to his many portrayals of pirates, credited with popularizing the stereotypical “pirate voice” and is recognized as the patron saint of the annual International Talk like a Pirate Day.