Jamaica Inn (1939)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young Irish woman travels to Cornwall to meet her aunt, but soon encounters a local gang of smugglers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before he moved to Hollywood is the first of his three adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels. Readers of her 1936 book, however, will spot many differences. It’s still the wild, windy Cornish coastline of the early 19th century, and the plot is still ignited when a young woman arrives to live with her aunt. But Hitch and his team of writers added a new master villain and tweaked the romance subplot. The result never quite comes together, sadly.

It begins impressively. The opening dramatises a ship drawn off course by a nefarious light in the night and purposely wrecked on the ragged rocks. It’s amazing well staged with models, full-size sets and gallons of water sloshing around. The sequence then takes a even darker turn as the survivors of the wreck are murdered by the gang of smugglers who caused it.

We then cut to the beautiful, feisty heroine of the story: Mary Yellan (Maureen O’Hara). Her mother has died back home in Ireland, so she’s travelling to Jamaica Inn, a Cornish coaching house, to live with her aunt. However, she ends up being stranded on the moor, so knocks on the first front door she can find. It turns out to be the house of the local squire: the bloated, erudite hedonist Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, theatrical), who’s hosting a dinner party but agrees to take her to Jamaica Inn.

At the eponymous inn, the plot twists come thick and fast: Mary’s uncle, the slovenly Joss (Leslie Banks), is the leader of the wreckers; and although no one but the two men know it, his boss is Sir Humphrey. The gang, by the way, is full of distinctive, memorable character actors having fun with little screentime. When they suspect their newest member of stealing from them, they hang him and leave him hung – but shocked Mary cuts him down and they flee. We then get another plot twist: the man, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), is actually an undercover lawman. However, he chooses to reveal this information to the local justice of the peace, Sir Humphrey…

But for all its snakes-and-ladders plotting, the film lacks something. Hitchcock directs with a good pace, but you never feel for the characters’ plights. It’s all atmosphere and shock reveals. The poor treatment of the female characters is also a problem. Mary is the lead character, yet is absent for long stretches, while both her and her aunt make lame excuses for the brutish behaviour of the male characters.

Five rum-rotten sailors out of 10

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