Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
“Oh Lord, we pray thee–
not that wrecks should happen
–but that if they do happen
Thou wilt guide them–
to the coast of Cornwall
— for the benefit of the
This grim bit of text opens Jamaica Inn (1939), Hitchcock’s last British film before moving to Hollywood. The movie claims this is an old Cornish prayer and it sets in motion a gripping, incredible opening that quickly descends into costume buffoonery and overacting before rallying to a strong ending. It’s a brilliant setup, as a bankrupt magistrate with a taste for the expensive life (Charles Laughton) partners with a gang of ruffians at Jamaica Inn to hide warning lamps and steer ships to their doom, resulting in a plunder of riches when the ships crash. Yet the execution never matches the greatness of the idea.
Hitchcock was directing this film with one foot out the door. After completing the spectacular The Lady Vanishes (1938), Hitch set sail for Hollywood to be courted by studio moguls and wined & dined. But the trip proved to be a frustrating experience, with Hitchcock perpetually on the hook from the indecisive David O. Selznick. Selznick’s dithering meant that Hitchcock found time to fit in another film in Britain before his move to America. The movie would be made as Hitch was preparing to leave his beloved Britain and worrying about what he was getting himself into in Hollywood.
By all accounts, he should have worried more about Jamaica Inn. The film was based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier (strangely her name doesn’t appear in the credits) and the script was presented to Hitch by his friend Charles Laughton. The mercurial & brilliant star had already conquered Hollywood, winning an Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII, and was now returning to Britain with producing partner Erich Pommer whom Hitchcock knew from his apprentice time in Germany. On the surface this must have seemed perfect: a chance to work with old friends and have one last hurrah before leaving Britain.
But from the start the production was antithetical to how Hitch liked to work. There was no chance for him to revise the screenplay to his liking; with Laughton as producer, the actor brought in his own writer to embellish his dialogue. Hitchcock was used to having power over his actors but here, up against both a producer and one of the most stubborn actors of his generation, Hitch simply gave up (It’s one of the few films where he conspicuously doesn’t make a cameo appearance). Either out of deference to their friendship or because he didn’t have the energy for a daily fight, Hitchcock let Laughton do whatever he wanted.
Consequently Laughton’s performance is a mess; too big and bizarre to be truly menacing, yet too varied to ever approach an enjoyable level of high camp. It’s mesmerizing but never brilliant, as Laughton could be. Laughton’s Magistrate Sir Humphrey Pengallan should be one of Hitchcock’s charming villains; instead he oscillates between a buffonish cartoon and a cold blooded killer. He’s a wild caricature of wealth and power and while he’s always fascinating, he’s so far over the top that he never achieves real menace. Laughton gets the last word, literally; after he commits suicide by jumping from the rigging on a tall ship (the film hints that he may have lost his mind but there’s no evidence of this in Laughton’s performance), the film ends on a shot of his loyal butler Chadwick with Laughton’s cry of “Chadwick!” echoing in his ears. It’s a bizarre ending for a film about a man who organized the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of people to satisfy his extravagant lifestyle.
When Hitchcock & Laughton worked together again in 1947, Hitchcock’s star was on the rise, and he directed Laughton to a brilliantly creepy performance in The Paradine Case. Clearly Laughton was an actor who had to be reigned in.
Fortunately the rest of the actors are excellent, with a crack supporting cast of Hitchcock favorites (including Basil Radford from The Lady Vanishes and Leslie Banks from the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). The real star of the film is an eighteen year old actress discovered by Laughton, Maureen O’Hara. This was her first major role, yet she commands the screen like the star she was meant to be, full of wit and fire. It’s a star-making performance, and it’s sad that despite long careers for both of them, Hitchcock and O’Hara’s paths never crossed again. She’s a strong, talented actress who brings a sense of independence and steel to all of her roles; perfect for a Hitchcock heroine.
Yet even in a movie where he felt overwhelmed and had no guiding force, Hitchcock still found ways to occupy his interest, working with O’Hara and making some of the best action scenes of his career (I’ll come back to this). Time and time again I’ve mentioned his indefatigability, and how it’s something I envy.
This has been on my mind a lot lately, both because of my reappraisal of Hitchcock and because of a recent interview I heard with Michael Showalter on Michael Ian Black’s “How to Be Amazing” podcast. You might know Showalter; he was inThe State, Stella, and co-wrote & starred in Wet Hot American Summer. He was talking about the development of several projects and about feeling depressed and creatively stifled. Yet he always persevered. He mentioned that at one point he and collaborator David Wain were so desperate to make Wet Hot American Summer that they’d have shot it in his backyard if they had to, wearing wigs and playing all the parts themselves. It was an idea that he simply HAD to see realized.
It makes me admire Showalter and that do-or-die vision. I think that drive is common for a lot of filmmakers, even someone who might appear as dispassionate as Hitchcock. But this is the hard part for me. I went to film school at NYU. I dreamed of becoming the next Hitchcock, the next Spielberg, the next Scorsese. I wanted to write and direct my own movies. I made short films in college, tried to get a documentary funded, wrote multiple screenplays, submitted short films to festivals, etc.
But honestly? I never felt that drive. That feeling that I absolutely, 100% HAD to make this film, regardless of the cost, expense, or difficulty. I was passionate about many of my screenplay ideas, but when it became clear that no one was going to drive by and toss a sack of money out the window, I didn’t pursue it. I never had that all-consuming fire to max out my credit cards or beg money from everyone I knew just to make my movie. I’d pass it off as “well, I don’t want to shoot on digital video” or “I’m too busy.” But the truth is that I could have made something happen. And I didn’t.
And this was when I was young and full of fire! Now I’m turning 40 and I just don’t know anymore. I suppose I like to think that if I had the exact right idea, it would activate me. Make me throw everything else away in pursuit of making a film or some kind of art. That’s what we’re trained to love, to respect. What I do now, Alternate Histories, is art and commerce. I make prints and greeting cards and calendars for a living and I love it. But would I trade it all for that one mythic screening at Sundance? Maybe.
Still, I haven’t had that idea. Oh sure, I kick things around. I write notes in journals, turn off the music and think while I’m driving my car, or email ideas to myself while I’m walking the dog. But I don’t have that big idea. Some days that feels okay to me. And some days it doesn’t.
Despite Hitchcock’s disinterest, Jamaica Inn is one of his best-looking British films. I’d go so far as to say it’s the equal of anything produced in Hollywood, which can’t be said for enjoyable but low-budget efforts like The Man Who Knew Too Much or Young and Innocent. Clearly Laughton & Pommer were willing to spend serious money on the film (it was a huge hit in Britain and abroad) and it shows. The gothic Jamaica Inn setting, full ships full of people, elaborate period costumes, glamour shots of Maureen O’Hara, and a show-stopping opening that rivals the beginning of any Hitchcock film.
In fact, Hitchcock films rarely jump right into the action. There’s often a long setup establishing the protagonist and building a world before turning it upside down. This wasn’t uncommon at the time; many films took their time getting going (although some of Hitch’s silents jump right into the action). But Jamaica Inn explodes with action after the written prologue about the old Cornish prayer. A man jumps on a horse and rides out of Jamaica Inn, toward the coast where he obscures a lantern. On board a ship in the violent seas the sailors see the warning light go out and don’t know where the rocks are. The ship crashes and drifts ashore where, in a chilling shot, a terrifying group of scavengers rush down the beach toward the wreck. They viciously kill all the sailors, making a point to leave no survivors before they start stealing the cargo.
It’s legitimately terrifying, harsh, and efficient. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s finest standalone scenes, a mini masterpiece of shooting, editing, and direction. It’s also a scene that doesn’t involve Laughton at all. Clearly Hitchcock was enjoying himself where he could, and it shows in the action and suspense scenes, including another great sequence where O’Hara spies on the pirates’ attempt to hang a man in the room beneath hers.
Yet despite these moments of greatness, there simply isn’t much Hitchcock to this movie. The scenes that drive the plot slow to a crawl and even when the film appears poised to break out into an exciting wrong-man chase, it quickly retreats to an overly talkative showcase for Laughton.
Hitchcock often said that he didn’t have a feel for costume dramas because he couldn’t imagine how anyone in period garb could go to the bathroom. It’s a good joke, but there’s some truth to it to. Hitchcock’s only true period films (A film like Juno and the Paycock takes place 5 to 6 years in the past, which I don’t count as a “period”) are some of his worst films: Waltzes from Vienna (1934), Jamaica Inn (1939), and Under Capricorn (1949). To be fair I’ve already talked about Waltzes from Vienna and how I wouldn’t say it’s his worst film, and that’s true of Jamaica Inn as well. Neither of them are as tedious as, say, The Paradine Case.
Yet of fifty-two, count ‘em, fifty-two films, only three are period films and they’d rank at the bottom of any critic’s list of ranked Hitchcock movies. Barely 6% of his output. Clearly there’s something to this. Critics have called Hitchcock a cinematic poet of the modern age, and while that’s a bit flowery for my purpose, it makes sense. Hitch dealt in paranoia, suspense, anxiety, & sexuality, all ideas that are decidedly fixed in the 20th century. Rather than relying on the theatrical plots and story of the 18th & 19th century (in a way that many silent films did), Hitchcock blazed a trail to where plot and plausibility didn’t matter anymore. His films are about character, identification, and obsession, and they’re unique fixed in a modern cinematic world.
Maybe he could have taken these ideas and applied them to costume dramas, but would it have worked as well? Hitchcock made a career out of trains, cars, buses, apartments, telephones, handguns, police stations, and the million other things that fix his work in a still-recognizable in the modern world. Perhaps in the 22nd century we won’t be able to relate to Rear Window anymore. But I imagine Hitchcock will still have fans. The building blocks of cinema will still be the same, even if the trappings are dated. Whether it’s the shower scene in Psycho or the shipwreck in Jamaica Inn, I bet Hitchcock’s thrills will still deliver.
Jamaica Inn is streaming on Youtube. It’s available to buy or rent on iTunes or Amazon in a wonderfully remastered print that’s worth the money.