Hitchcock’s last film before decamping to the US to make Rebecca for Selznick,Jamaica Inn has long been held as one of Hitchcock’s lesser efforts. A retrospective such as this provides the best opportunity for reassessment of such maligned titles, the hope being that within the context of a complete career overview, one might find a few moments with which to make a case for, if not rehabilitation, then at least thematic or stylistic consistency with what precedes and follows.
Sadly, the distinctly unmemorable Jamaica Inn doesn’t prove to be one of those films. Some atmospheric nighttime ‘exteriors’ aside, there’s very little with which to recommend Hitchcock’s first of three adaptations of Daphne Du Maurier novels, least of all Charles Laughton’s grotesquely hammy central turn as Sir Humphrey Pengallon.
Even though they’d go on to work together again on The Paradine Case, the working relationship between the notoriously temperamental star and his director was fraught with tension. Hitch was unimpressed with the actor’s methods, an example of which he gave Truffaut, ‘When we started the picture, he asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn’t yet figure out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said “I’ve found it.” It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz, and he whistled it for us as he waddled about the room… It wasn’t serious, and I don’t like to work that way. He wasn’t really a professional film man.”
Laughton had brought in J. B. Priestley to beef up his part through additional dialogue, intent on making his role as large as that of the narrative’s heroine, niece of Jamaica Inn’s landlady played by Maureen O’Hara. It does the film few favours, not least because his performance is so horribly judged, but also as it prevents the story from finding a focal point for audience engagement.
The ending may share superficial similarities with the earlier Murder! and Mary, but Hitchcock is clearly working on autopilot throughout, the opening shipwreck seemingly edited with a chainsaw. When held up against the wit and invention of the previous year’s The Lady Vanishes and the haunting atmospherics of Rebecca which would follow, Hitchcock’s disinterest is palpable in what essentially amounts to a director-for-hire project, the kind he’d not embark on again until the equally problematic Topazthirty years later.
In his excellent book English Hitchcock however, critic Charles Barr makes a neat link between the final shot of Jamaica Inn, in which Sir Humphrey’s butler Chadwick (Horace Hodges) shakes his head in exasperation at all that’s preceded, to the knowing wink that closes the director’s final film, Family Plot :
“…Critics have been quick to take up the hint, seeing [Family Plot]’s ending as a telling image of a great illusionist consciously signing off. We can read the final image ofJamaica Inn in a similar self-reflexive way. Through Chadwick, on-screen servant of Laughton’s whims, Hitchcock can express his own exasperation, and relief that the experience is over. In a wider perspective, the final image of the English period becomes, as the final image of the whole career will be, an ironic farewell.”
Jamaica Inn - 1939 - United Kingdom - 108 mins - Alfred Hitchcock