The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: A young orphan, Mary, is sent to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who are the landlords of the Jamaica Inn. Mary soon realizes that her uncle’s inn is the base of a gang of ship wreckers who lure ships to their doom on the rocky coast. The girl starts fearing for her life.
James: So, what did you think of Jamaica Inn?
Jason: Okay, the first thing I thought? “This is a goddamn pirate movie!” I mean, what a strange film for Hitchcock to make. Set in 1819 on the Cornish coast? What? I gather this was just an assignment before he left for America and that Hitch’s only real motivation for making it was to work with Charles Laughton, but the end result is that it doesn’t feel like a Hitchcock movie so much as a Charles Laughton vehicle.
James: Yeah, I thought this film was a bit flat for a Hitch flick. And to be honest, while watching it, I realized I didn’t feel that I’d have much to say about it. This was the second time I’ve seen the film, and I believe I was a bit more into it the first time. I think there are some really nice scenes, but the film doesn’t work as a whole. I enjoyed it, make no mistake about that, but it lacks the focus of most Hitchcock films.
Jason: Since I knew this was going to be a departure from Hitch’s storytelling, I tried to keep an eye out for any of his signatures or devices. I watched for common themes that he might have snuck in there, and I found a few. First, that opening is very atmospheric and feels “big budget” for its time. The model work must have been impressive to audiences, although a little slow motion would have improved the movement and scale of the water and the ship.
James: That opening scene is great. I can imagine that audiences were thrilled by it. That would rank right up there with modern-day blockbusters, I would imagine.
Jason: But the first real Hitch moment is when the carriage is approaching Jamaica Inn, and we meet Mary Yelland (Maureen O’Hara)—she’s gorgeous, by the way—and she asks whether Jamaica Inn is on the carriage’s route. And everyone goes quiet, and the coachmen talk about the Inn as being “queer.” There’s a “haunted mansion” quality to their talk: “That place gives me the creeps.” And maybe you noticed that there’s a bird (a goose) inside the carriage.
James: She is downright gorgeous, and I liked the fact that, in this film, she acts a lot of times instead of being acted upon. Eventually, she saves a character and she saves a ship at the end.
Jason: When Mary goes to the local mansion for help, I liked the series of closing-in shots toward the dining room, finally focusing on this weird dinner, presided over by the county magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton). There’s some good humor in this scene that’s pure Hitch. You get the idea that Pengallan is nuts, mostly from his calling for his horse to be brought in to the dining room. I like when he says the little figurine is “more alive than half the people here.” And surely you noticed Basil Radford as one of the guests. He has some priceless reactions and lines.
James: Did you like that scene in which Pengallan practically undresses Mary at the door when they meet for the first time? I think it’s great. It’s creepy and funny at the same time. It says a lot about the characters, particularly Pengallan. He’s a slimy character, but it’s hard not to like his screen presence.
Jason: I agree that the scene where Pengallan inspects Mary like a horse is funny. I also enjoyed Laughton’s performance, and I saw a lot of Hitch in him—a really lecherous fat man lusting after a beautiful young lady.
James: By the way, I never really saw Pengallan as nuts. I saw him as an eccentric ass. But I was hoping for more from him. Sure, his scenes are interesting from the aspect of waiting to see what weird thing he does next, but he doesn’t really grow or change or do much of anything. I was hoping to find that maybe he had a heart and would struggle in his desire for money and the fact he was killing innocents or kidnapping Mary. But no.
Jason: The scene in which Mary and Pengallan arrive at Jamaica Inn is strange. She meets her nasty uncle, Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks, whom we’ve seen as the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much), and her aunt Patience Merlyn (Marie Ney). Joss is a complete ass, which makes it hard to believe his complete about-face later, but I’ll get to that.
James: I agree that Joss is tough in that scene with Mary. I found it hard to swallow that she would let him talk to her that way. When he asks for the kiss . . . something’s wrong there.
Jason: So then it turns out Pengallan is corrupt, and we meet Jim Trehearne (Robert Newton), who’s accused of stealing from the crew, and the men want to string him up. This seems like it’s going to turn into a “wrong man” plot at first, and he does turn out to be not what he seems (just as Pengallan isn’t what he seems). I enjoyed the scene where Mary watches helplessly as the crew finds a beam and prepares to hang Jim. And they do hang him, which I didn’t expect, and I liked just seeing that rope go taut, from Mary’s point of view through the crack in the wall. The whole Mary-setting-Jim-free scene is well done, and when Mary and Jim end up together, on the run, I thought we were in for a typical Hitchcock romance-on-the-run plot. There’s the specter of seagulls on the beach, and we even get the lingerie scene. At that point, I thought Jim was going to develop into a leading-man type, but I knew it would be an uphill battle, because he just didn’t exude any charm or personality.
James: Yeah, my biggest issue is the fact that I never really got into Jim as the good guy. He’s introduced late, and the surprise that he’s actually an officer of the law didn’t do anything to sway my thoughts about the character. When the crew of baddies is hunting for him and Mary in the cave, I didn’t really care. Sure, I wanted her to live, but him? Eh, he’s just a two-bit hood, so who cares? At that point in the film, there’s no reason to root for him aside from the suspicion that he’s a good guy, or at least, he’s the leading man and you’re supposed to root for the leading man. And as far as leading men go, he’s a bit fruity. His relationship with Mary never works.
Jason: Jim isn’t interesting at all, especially when his true nature is revealed. We already know that Hitch has little respect for authority figures, so Jim is out as a protagonist. He performs heroic deeds, but he’s not involving. While watching, it was hard for me to peg who the main character was. In retrospect, I know it’s Mary, but the focus of the film didn’t really nail that. You’re right, she’s a woman of action, but she seems inconsequential for a lot of the plot. She does foil the second piracy attempt—but why did they even bring her there? It feels convenient. You might think the main character is Pengallan, but he’s a villain.
James: One thing I was hoping Hitch would emphasize was the fact that we as the audience know who the main bad guy is but the heroes don’t. There’s some of that here, but it isn’t tense enough. It isn’t developed in such a way for me to be on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what’s going to go wrong.
Jason: At a certain point—I guess when it turns out that Jim is a law officer—Jamaica Inn just turns into a straightforward melodrama. I felt that it could have been an interesting “pirate take” on Hitch’s usual obsessions, but it ended up being pretty standard.
James: Did your presentation have a huge leap in continuity at about the start of the third act? When the couple heads to Pengallan’s place and Jim tells him he’s a police officer while Mary is upstairs changing with the maid, the film jumps to Pengallan and Jim going to the Inn with pistols, and suddenly Mary is upstairs with her aunt. That was a weird cut if it wasn’t a mistake in the transfer.
Jason: I wrote the same thing in my notes about that continuity jump. But I’m not so sure it wasn’t intended. At first, I thought, how did Mary go from getting new clothes at Pengallan’s back to her aunt’s care at Jamaica Inn? And I watched for answers and finally got one. At one point, Joss says, “She came here to warn us.” And so it fills it in, but it doesn’t forgive the sloppiness of the cut. This was just one example showing that Hitch was phoning in this project, probably champing at the bit to get to Hollywood and start making real movies (and making real money).
James: I also caught that line in the dialog about her going there to warn them, but as you said, it doesn’t work. Hell, a lot of this film doesn’t work.
Jason: Hitch does use some nice whip-pans as Jim, tied up in that chair, tries to convince Patience to let him go. But why does she end up cutting his ropes? He says something like, “Mrs. Merlyn, supposing I allow your husband . . .” but I couldn’t understand the rest, even after replaying it a couple times.
James: That’s exactly what he says. I’m assuming we’re not supposed to know exactly what he says. Or we’re to assume he negotiates with her. I don’t know. I noted it as a bad cut but one that was supposed to be there. It doesn’t help that the fade to black wasn’t a smooth process back then. But I’m surprised Hitch let that one slide. As you said, he was phoning this one in.
Jason: And it’s not clear to me why Joss saves Mary from the men. Why would he save her, when she’s been a thorn in his side since the beginning? He gets shot, and Mary is suddenly on his side. It’s not fair to ask us to suddenly feel compassion for Joss, who’s a complete ass through the whole film. The whole melodramatic ending, with Joss and Patience dying and Pengallan showing his true colors, just feels rushed and easy.
James: I agree.
Jason: Did you notice when Pengallan says, “Get me a bottle of brandy”?
James: I noticed the brandy request, yes.
Jason: The ending reminded me of the end of Murder!, when the circus performer commits suicide by jumping and hanging himself in front of the crowd. Both “climaxes” are melodramatic and over-the-top.
James: I didn’t quite buy the fact that he’s “crazy” and jumps to his death, but I enjoyed the character’s mannerisms, all the way to his end. You know, I’m sure there’s more to say about this film, but there’s nothing that really jumped out to me. It was just flat. I can’t put my finger on it really, but it just didn’t work as well as it could’ve had we known about Jim from the start.
Jason: I agree, there’s not much to say about Jamaica Inn. It’s kind of disappointing, knowing it was his final British film.
James: It seems that we agree on this one.
Jason: I just found this in an interview with Hitch, about Jamaica Inn: “The root problem was that there was no mystery. This is the story of the parson who preaches in the pulpit; and the mystery of who is the wrecker, the man who puts a light on the rocks, causing ships to approach the rocks and be wrecked so they could be looted. Of course, the parson turns out to be the wrecker. And in Jamaica Inn, you have Charles Laughton playing the parson. Who’s the wrecker? Who’s the wrecker? What are you going to do—have a little bit-player turn out to be the central figure? Doesn’t make sense. It’s very difficult to make a who-done-it. You see, this was like doing a who-done-it and making Charles Laughton the butler.” That’s kind of puzzling, because I never thought of the film as a who-done-it, and it never mattered to me who the actual person was at the light.
James: It never mattered, because we knew way up front that Pengallan was behind it all. I don’t get it. Maybe I’m missing something.
Jason: Anyway, here’s a random factoid: This was one of Maureen O’Hara’s first movies. She was only 18 years old when she made Jamaica Inn. Later, she was in a lot of stuff, including Miracle on 34th Street. And she’s still alive today.
James: I absolutely loved her in this film.
Jason: Interestingly, Jamaica Inn was a box-office hit in the UK, although critics slammed it. I gather that by this point in Hitch’s career, his movies were doing very well, just based on his reputation. An interesting bit in the biography I’m reading says that the decision to come to Hollywood was very difficult for him. If he’d stayed in England, many people (including himself) were sure he’d have become the greatest director in the history of British cinema. By going to America, he would become the small fish in a big pond, and the chances for success there were pretty slim. It was quite a gamble at the time.
James: A smash hit, huh? Hmmmm, that’s interesting.