Jamaica Inn (1939)


In Cornwall, England, during the first half of the 19th century, a young Irish woman, Mary (Maureen O’Hara, The Black Swan), slowly realizes that her aunt’s husband (Leslie Banks, The Man Who Knew Too Much) is behind a series of mysterious shipwrecks. Mary requests the help of the local Squire, Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton, Mutiny of the Bounty), unaware that the urbane and well-respected Pengallan is involved in her uncle’s criminal activities.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“We got away from Jamaica inn last night… I think it’s nothing better than a den of smugglers!”

Jamaica Inn is considered lesser Alfred Hitchcock. The film’s biggest critic was The Master of Suspense himself. He didn’t enjoy making the film and didn’t think the movie was entirely successful. Audiences, however, disagreed with the filmmaker — Jamaica Inn was one of Hitchcock’s biggest moneymakers.

Jamaica Inn is an adaptation of British author Daphne du Maurier’s well-regarded 1936 novel of the same name. Hitchcock had already signed the contract that brought him to Hollywood and was already packing when he suddenly realized that he had enough time to make one more film before leaving for America. A screenplay was quickly prepared and the director agreed to make the film only to regret his decision years later.

Actor Charles Laughton was Hitchcock’s main source of irritation. Because Laughton was one of the producers, Hitchcock felt a bit powerless. According to Patrick McGilligan’s book Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Laughton pulled rank and enlarged his role against Hitchcock’s wishes. Laughton also changed his character from a clergyman to a foppish Squire, an idea first proposed by co-producer Erich Pommer. Although Hitchcock was friends with Laughton, all these changes irritated him.

Notwithstanding Laughton’s behavior, the actor manages to deliver a delightfully eccentric performance. While he is indeed shamelessly hammy, I thought it worked within the context of the movie. The colorful cast includes Robert Newton (Oliver Twist) as a shady character. Maureen O’Hara is excellent as Mary. O’Hara is only a teenager, but she holds her own against Laughton, Newton, and the rest of the cast.

Aside from the excellent performances, Jamaica Inn offers many scintillating trinkets. Although Hitchcock dismissed the film as “an absurd thing to undertake,” I found Jamaica Inn fascinatingly Hitchcockian. As expected, the director enhances the narrative by placing contrasting ideas next to each other. Jamaica Inn is a great example of Hitchcock’s belief that “opposites create interesting sparks.”

Novelist du Maurier was responsible for the story, but Hitchcock took the author’s premise and accentuated the things that interested him the most. For example, Hitchcock does a great job suggesting that the film’s two main locations — Squire’s opulent mansion and the rundown tavern — are two sides of the same coin.

Jamaica Inn also deals with more than a few Hitchcock phobias. The distrust of government officials, the idea that things aren’t always what they seem, people pretending to be what they are not, different types of unhealthy obsessions, etc., all recurring motifs and symbols that pop up in Hitchcock’s films.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Jamaica Inn is extremely well-done, entertaining, and even interesting. The film has this ebullient pace that makes time fly by. Jamaica Inn moves swiftly from scene to scene — the action never stops. Hitchcock always said that he never quite understood period pieces, but this film is evidence that he did know a thing or two about how to generate excitement in a costume movie. I think Jamaica Inn is one of the master’s most underrated movies. B&W, 108 minutes, Not Rated.

11 responses to “Jamaica Inn (1939)

  1. I loved reading your thoughts about ‘Jamaica Inn’ which is definitely one of Hitch’s most underrated films. It’s actually surprising to hear that it fared so well at the time because it’s not very talked about today. I remember thinking that it was Laughton’s film and to be honest, Maureen O’Hara talked more about him in her autobiography than Hitch. I love that book on Hitch as it’s very informative. Now you’ve sparked my interest to see how Laughton and Hitchcock got along on the set of ‘The Paradine Case’. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon Arrives – Maddy Loves Her Classic Films·

  3. Oops, it looks like you liked this one more than I did. I’ve only seen it once, though, so maybe it needs a second chance. It just didn’t seem very Hitchcock-like to me (and I know, you feel just the opposite). And I agree with Erica: that Hitchcock book you mentioned is a good one!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a huge fan of the novel, I’m afraid that I am not a fan of this film. No screen adaptation of this has managed to capture the mood, the characters etc as they are on the page in my view. I think if I hadn’t read the book before seeing this one, then I might have enjoyed this film a bit more though.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I have seen that and felt the same way, although it comes closer to the book than anything else. I guess that is the problem with loving a book so much, you have your own views on what characters,scenes etc should be like.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I sympathize. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of my favorite books, and I feel no adaptation has done justice to the book. The 1933 version, Island of Lost Souls, is very good, but still falls short of its potential.


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