Set in the early 1800s, Jamaica Inn takes place in seaside Cornwall, which apparently was a bit disorderly and mutinous back in the day. The area, comprised of poor and perhaps desperate people, was very prone to shipwrecks. There weren’t any proper lighthouses, just a few pathetic beacons from homes along the coast. What happens when you combine shipwrecks and desperate people? Some pretty devious crime, that’s what. Add a ballsy young lady with a sympathetic heart, and you’ve got a fascinating stage for Hitchcock’s first adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier work (the others being Rebecca and The Birds). Unfortunately, it’s not as good as it should have been.
Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara), goes to live with her aunt after she’s been orphaned. This is a bit telling of the times, because Mary is a grown ass woman. How annoying to be her.
Mary arrives at the rustic (putting it nicely) Jamaica Inn, run by her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks). She soon discovers it’s the headquarters for a band of ruthless smugglers who mislead ships to wreck on the cliffs, then slaughter the crew and take all the spoils. She spies on the terrifying men as they beat and prepare to kill one of their own, Jem Trahearne (Robert Newton), for pocketing some of the money for himself. They’re not very intelligent men, and soon fall into a brawl over something else, taking the attention away from the strung up Jem. This gives Mary time to cut him down and lead him to safety outside of the inn, but it only takes a few minutes for the men to realize what she’s done. She flees with Jem, forming an interesting partnership that really should’ve been better developed.
They swim along the shore to evade their pursuers and end up at the estate of Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), where they make the mistake of seeking his help. We the viewer already know that Pengallan is in league with the marauders (which definitely hurts the film). What we don’t know is that Jem is actually an undercover law man, which he stupidly reveals to Pengallan. A big gripe I had with the film is that Jem consistently blows his load too soon. He’s not crafty, not cautious, and has way too much faith in the spirit of the law. It gets him tied to a chair with a gun to his head and Mary kidnapped and taken along on another raid.
In the end, the raid is prevented and things resolve decently, but there are quite a few problems that aren’t exactly Hitchcock’s fault.
Interestingly enough, Jamaica Inn was an enormous success financially, but almost everyone involved was pissed at the outcome of the project. Laughton, in addition to acting in the film, was a producer whose influence destroyed Hitchcock’s vision. He changed things so much to benefit himself and his ridiculous character that it basically became a festival of camp, while the novel is decidedly dark and thrilling. The dialogue is off, the characters are laughable, and the plot is rushed. The cast includes some very impressive talent, but the only ones who stand out (and by stand out I mean actually acted decently) were Banks and O’Hara. I’ll be honest, it felt a bit like a Mel Brooks rendition of Jamaica Inn, which is kind of the opposite of what a Hitchcock film should be, I think.
What was most obviously missing from Jamaica Inn was the suspense! Isn’t that Hitchcock’s thing? I feel like there were many opportunities to play with the audience and make them hold their breath, but instead, viewers are sped through the events of the story without any sort of organic flow. As a result of this, there’s no real development for our heroes, Jem and Mary. The audience never gets a moment to connect with them. Their attraction to each other (which could’ve made this film quite sexy, indeed) is barely detectable.
The general story of Jamaica Inn is awesome, and while the Hitchcock film is fun (despite its flaws), I have a feeling the plot is over simplified and condensed for the benefit of the viewer. If you’re following this little project of mine, you’ll know that my favorite Hitchcock to date is Rebecca, another adaptation of a du Maurier novel. I’ve read the novel as well and can tell you it’s fucking fabulous. If you want an eerie, intelligent, psychological mystery, look no further! I haven’t read Jamaica Inn, but judging by the glimpse of a plot I saw in the film, combined with how I feel about du Maurier, I’m sure I’ll love it.
Daphne du Maurier almost didn’t release the rights to Rebecca to Hitchcock because of Jamaica Inn. The film really did leave me wanting. The wasted potential is enormous. I’m not discouraged, however, because I just know in my heart that the book will satisfy everything the film did not. Daphne du Maurier is one of the people I’d like to have over for dinner. You know, that thing where people ask you who you’d invite to a dinner party and everyone says Jesus? She’s on my list (he is not). I’m drawn to du Maurier’s talent for eerie suspense, and I admire her style. It’s so unfortunate that she’s dead. I’d love to pick her brain.
Luckily, there was some good that came from Jamaica Inn. Maureen O’Hara was technically “introduced” as a leading lady. It was actually Laughton who insisted she be cast, otherwise she wouldn’t have won the role of Mary, and we wouldn’t know her today. It turns out she did a pretty good job in Jamaica Inn. She went on to become an international superstar. You might recognize her from the original Miracle on 34th Street and Parent Trap, or maybe even her breakout Hollywood role as Esmeralda in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
While it has some pretty big issues, I still enjoyed Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, but I’d love to see it handled today with perhaps a more faithful adaptation. If you’re interested in Jamaica Inn (and you should be), I’d probably advise you to just get ahold of the novel, which is what I’m doing right now. If you’re a Hitchcock fan it probably wouldn’t hurt you to watch the film, but I’m giving it a B.
PS – The Jamaica Inn is a real place. You can go there and stay. You should. But hopefully this doesn’t happen to you…if only because of his eyebrows: