Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Jamaica Inn (1939)

Alfred Hitchcock made three films based on the work of Daphne du Maurier. One is Rebecca (1940), Hitch’s American debut and his only Best Picture winner. Another is The Birds, which remains a signature work. It’s the least known of the bunch that concerns us today.

Jamaica Inn was the last movie Hitchcock made in England before heading for the bright lights of Hollywood. Speaking of bright lights, there aren’t any on display here. Jamaica Inn is in the public domain, and the available prints on DVD aren’t of the highest quality. The one I saw was murky and missing almost ten minutes of footage, a gap not mentioned anywhere on the disc. Which is unfortunate, because while Jamaica Inn is far from top-shelf Hitchcock it’s still entertaining. At any rate, it’s better than the movies watched the last few Sundays.

A battery of fine writers adapted du Maurier’s novel: Sidney Gilliat (Hitch’s The Lady Vanishes and the wonderful Green for Danger), regular Hitchcock collaborators Joan Harrison and Alma Reville (aka Mrs. Hitchcock), with additional dialogue by J. B. Priestly. We get off to a brisk start: a band of scalawags douses beacons along the rocky Cornish coast as a ship approaches, then loots the wreck and butchers the survivors. Into this wretched hive of scum and villainy rides the virginal Mary (Maureen O’Hara). She’s meant to live with her aunt and uncle at the hostel of the title, but the place is so disreputable that the coach abandons her by the side of the road. Local nobleman Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton) comes to her aid. Things turn a bit stagy once Mary arrives at the inn and realizes that her uncle has thrown in with the rogues. More reversals follow, none surprising and none really supposed to be.

Laughton is the entire show here, at times to the movie’s detriment. He seems to have found a way of enlarging his forehead, giving his eyebrows more room to roam. His performance verges on being a cartoon, but Laughton tethers it to reality; Sir Humphrey needs money, he explains, because he knows how to spend it. The result is perhaps the first great villain in the Hitchcock canon, one who meets a fitting end. The movie’s rousing last act makes up for the earlier lulls with frantic horse chases via moonlight and a grand harbor-set climax.

Hitchcock and Laughton sparred frequently, with Laughton practically taking over production. Du Maurier disliked the movie so much that she almost withheld the rights to Rebecca. She fortunately changed her mind, and Hitchcock and Laughton eventually worked together again on The Paradine Case. (And we all know how that turned out.) Enough of Hitch’s panache survives to make Jamaica Inn worthwhile ... if you can find a complete version.