A guest post by Matthew Coniam of Movietone News (and various other amazing blogs!) on one of my favorite Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn. I was really overjoyed to see and read it's amazingness. Because, as I told him in my reply e-mail (it's a sad day when I start quoting myself) I have been defending this film ever since I first saw it, but not being very eloquent I usually just say, "Well, I love it, because....it's amazing!" (Not the most convincing argument, to say the least!) But, here he has written a wonderful post expressing many points I didn't know how to put into words, and others that I didn't even realize! (Unquote ;-D). He also included some shots from the film and one very cool shot of him at the actual Jamaica Inn in Cornwall! And on top of all that he created a super-cool Hitchcock questionnaire! I hope you enjoy it!
“Oh Lord, we pray three, not that wrecks should happen, but that if they do happen thou wilt guide them to the coast of Cornwall…”
These words begin Jamaica Inn (1939), Hitchcock’s historical melodrama of eighteenth century Cornwall, where it was not uncommon for gangs of men to give the Lord a little help… by luring ships to the rocks, killing the sailors and looting their cargo.
Usually dismissed when not completely ignored, Jamaica Inn is my favourite under-rated Hitchcock film. Despite its lowly status it is both historically important and couldn’t be more symbolic if it tried: the last film of his British period, and, like his first American film a year later, an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel. Thus Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, both untypical works, stand as book ends separating the two eras. Yet, while the latter is an acknowledged classic, the former remains little seen and unloved. (Incidentally, I do realise there are some Hitchcock fans who don’t much like Rebecca either, but as they are clearly insane we’ll pass over them in silence.)
My own feeling is that the British years represent Hitchcock at his most sustained creative peak. Many, many masterpieces were still to come, but the sheer unbroken consistency of these years of Rich and Strange, Young and Innocent, Sabotage, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps was not to be repeated in later decades, where for every Notorious there was invariably a Spellbound or two in negative compensation.
And Jamaica Inn, for me, rounds off this most golden era in high style, yet critically its standing is of the very lowest. (The Medved Brothers even include it in their childish but shamefully compulsive book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time.)
It seems to me that the simple fact that Hitchcock himself didn’t like it – due largely to his impatience, both to get to Hollywood and with his temperamental star – accounts for the greater part of its low standing. Certainly the other reasons most commonly offered are easily rebuffed:
The subject matter is not typical Hitchcock stuff, and there is no room in it for classical Hitchcockian touches. (But the former applies just as strongly to Rebecca, and the latter is not true.)
It was controlled more by the producer than by Hitchcock. (Ditto.)
It is in a genre we are not used to seeing Hitchcock tackle. (Get over it. Mr & Mrs Smith is near perfect, too.)
It’s melodramatic, over the top, artificial. (And? You say that like it’s a bad thing... And like Psycho isn’t…)
The latter objection usually condemns Charles Laughton’s extravagant lead performance to the same bonfire, but I’ve gone on record as saying that I’ve never seen this exquisite actor give a bad show, and I had not forgotten this film when I wrote that. His wicked squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (a character not in the book, where the villain is the local clergyman) is a masterly creation: a sort of anti-Scarlet Pimpernel, who hides a life of cunning villainy behind a veneer of foppish banality. It’s a broad performance but by no means a crude one, and we can never quite be sure what he is going to do or how he will respond to a given situation – note the scene in which one of his tenants comes to complain of a leaking roof and receives not the tyrannical outrage we expect but generosity and sympathy. Add to that the fact that the character, though duplicitous and wicked from the start, also goes slowly mad through the course of the narrative, a transition we see reflected in the growing unease of his devoted servant Chadwick, and it will be seen that Laughton, though clearly having fun with the character, is in no sense doing shoddy or unshaded work.
Among some truly inspired touches, Pengallan opting to illustrate his conception of beauty by bringing his horse into the dining room during a dinner party stands out as among the most bizarre, the sequence in which he lures Robert Newton’s undercover revenue man into a trap by pretending to be his ally, all the while leading him straight back into the lair of his foes, among the most chilling.
As in Vertigo and elsewhere, Hitchcock has fiddled with the structure of the original novel so that we know early on whom the villain is, wisely swapping one good surprise for acres of suspense. That’s certainly one characteristic touch. And those who like their Hitchcock films to reveal the psychological quirks of the man himself are directed towards the end scenes, when Pengallan, by this time completely insane, kidnaps Mary and attempts to flee the country with her, applying loving and plainly fetishistic attention to the task of binding her wrists and gagging her with a silk handkerchief.
The finale, too, is a stunner, with Pengallan climbing to the top of the ship’s crow’s nest to avoid capture and then shouting to the crowd below before plunging to his death:
“What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it – and tell your children how the great age ended! Make way for Pengallan!”
^Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Emlyn Williams
The wreckers themselves are an impressively gruesome bunch, headed by that fine actor Leslie Banks as Joss (formerly on the side of the angels as the anguished father in The Man Who Knew Too Much), and actor-author Emlyn Williams as Harry, the most sadistic of the gang. Odd, perhaps, to find Robert Newton, relatively restrained but with eyes already bulging, as the heroic Jem – those especially familiar with his work in Disney’s Treasure Island will feel especially short-changed by the casting – but Maureen O’Hara in her debut (she was Laughton’s protégée; at one point he attempted to adopt her) is beautiful and assured.
Of course it helps if you love Cornwall, and its folkloric store of wreckers and smugglers, and here, though here only, I will admit to personal bias: I’m a sucker for pretty much anything set in Cornwall, and have visited the ‘real’ Jamaica Inn, that first inspired Du Maurier to write the story, virtually every year since earliest childhood (watching it get less and less atmospheric and more and more tourist-obsessed every time).
^Matthew at the real Jamaica Inn!
But there’s much more to the film than a colourful subject. The photography, sets, art direction and miniatures are wonderfully atmospheric, as is the score by Eric Fenby, (better known as the young composer, celebrated in Ken Russell’s Song of Summer, who was employed by Delius to set down the unfinished scores the blind and paralysed composer was able only to dictate). It’s one of many finishing touches contributing to the overall excellence of a fine film – and a fine Hitchcock film.
While we’re here, anyone fancy a Hitchcock mini-questionnaire?
1. What are your five favourite Hitchcock films?
2. And your three least favourite?
3. The three most under-rated…
4. … and the three most over-rated?
5. The three you’d show to someone who had never seen a Hitchcock film before?
6. Your favourite villain…
7. Your favourite hero …
8. Your favourite blonde …
9 … and your favourite score?
Thank you ever so, Matthew for this wonderful post! I can see you put some time into it, and I really, really appreciate it!
Everyone else: I'm going to be gone camping until Sunday!!! While, I'm gone you can still send me Hitchcock posts and I will post them right after I get back!! And, Matthew...I am so going to do that Hitchcock questionnaire after I get back!!!