Jamaica Inn (1939)


(director: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriters: Sidney Gilliat/Joan Harrison/J. B. Priestley/based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; cinematographers: Harry Stradling/Bernard Knowles; editor: Robert Hamer; music: Eric Fenby; cast: Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellen), Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Marie Ney (Patience Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Peddler), Wylie Watson (Salvation Watkins), Morland Graham (Sea Lawyer Sydney), Edwin Greenwood (Dandy), Mervyn Johns (Thomas), Stephen Haggard (the Boy), Horace Hodges (Butler), Hay Petrie (Groom), Frederick Piper (Pengallan’s agent); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Erich Pommer/Charles Laughton; Kino Video; 1939-UK)

“A hammy eye-rolling and eye-catching weird performance by Laughton, waddling madly around in Wellingtons and a high hat.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

For Alfred Hitchcock’s (“Psycho”/”Vertigo”/”The Lady Vanishes”) last film in England before arriving in Hollywood, he trots out a loose version of the Daphne Du Maurier costume adventure tale set on the Cornish coast during the late 18th century. Charles Laughton’s independent Mayflower Pictures made the film; he also co-produced and starred in it, and changed the 18-year-old Ireland-born actress Maureen FitzSimons’ name to O’Hara and gave the stage actress playing ingenue roles with the Abbey Players her first big film break by making her the co-star after being impressed with her eyes during a screen test. The film almost sinks due to the uneven screenplay turned in by Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison and J. B. Priestley. It’s also not helped by the cheap looking sets of the studiobound film. But a hammy eye-rolling and eye-catching weird performance by Laughton, waddling madly around in Wellingtons and a high hat, and a poised performance by O’Hara as the ditsy heroine, who shows she can portray fright and give off with some nice screams, prevents it from being a sea wreck.

Irish orphan Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) treks by coach to visit her Aunt Patience Merlyn (Marie Ney), the sister of her recently deceased mother, who runs the notorious Jamaica Inn with her husband Joss (Leslie Banks). When Mary is stranded on the road to the inn after the coachman refuses to stop by the inn, she is taken to the inn by Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), a half-mad squire and the justice of the peace, who lives in a palatial manor and is served by many servants (in the novel Humphrey Pengallan was a clergyman, but it was changed so as not to upset American censors with such a villainous religious figure).

At the inn the innocent Mary witnesses a band of pirates hanging one of their own, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), for holding out loot from them. Mary cuts him down before he’s executed and goes on the run with him to the nearby manor of Sir Humphrey.

It’s soon learned that Jem is an undercover military officer investigating the many wrecks off the coast, and that the real ringleader of the wreckers (those who prey on ships, causing them to crash and then killing any survivors), smugglers and cutthroats is the obsessively greedy and ruthless Sir Humphrey.

The band of cutthroats—Emlyn Williams, Wylie Watson, and Edwin Greenwood—add color to the film with their outlandish squirming in performing their evil tasks.

This was the first of three Daphne Du Maurier adaptations that Alfred Hitchcock directed (The other two films were Rebecca (1940) and The Birds, 1963).