Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hitchcock On the Rocks

This is part of the film preservation blogathon

My first encounter with Jamaica Inn (1939) was in Harry Medved's The 50 Worst Movies of All Time and I'll admit that it colors my memory of the film. Oh, I know that Medved and his collaborators were mostly full of crap (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia? Last Year at Marienbad? The Omen? Seriously?), but the teenage me didn't know any better, and it's hard to shake first impressions. It was years before I was able to actually see the film, though. When I finally tracked it down, it was kind of a disappointment. I mean, it's NOT particularly good, but it's not transcendentally bad, either. I was kind of hoping for transcendentally bad.

Jamaica Inn was the first of three films that Alfred Hitchcock made from Daphne Du Maurier (the other two are Rebecca and The Birds). It was also the last film Hitch made in the UK before he packed up and went to work for Selznick in Hollywood. According to the director himself, it was the most unpleasant experience he ever had behind the camera. It's significant that Jamaica Inn is one of the very few Hitchcock films in which the director does not have a cameo. This last piece of information would have been nice to have when I first saw the film, because when I was originally mainlining Hitchcock films, the director's cameos were something I searched for. You will search in vain for Alfred Hitchcock in this film. My initial impression was a kind of modest delight, given that I have fond memories of the other film that Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara made in 1939.

The story here is a costume adventure in which orphan Mary Yellan goes to live with her aunt and uncle at Jamaica Inn on a bleak coastline in Cornwall. To her horror, she discovers that her uncle is the head of a gang of wreckers, who mislead ships into the rocks and then loot the wrecks. The wreckers have an aristocratic sponsor in the local magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallan, who feeds them shipping information and takes the lion's share of the loot. Among the wreckers is a man named Jem Trehearne, who is accused of embezzling from his fellow rogues. They contrive to hang him, but Mary rescues him and they flee into the countryside, eventually taking refuge, unwittingly, with Pengallan. In Pengallan's company, Trehearne reveals himself as an undercover agent of the crown, investigating the smugglers. With Pengallan seeming to lend his authority, Trehearne and Mary return to the inn to sniff out the ringleader. Pengallan, of course, has other ideas...

Hitchcock's discontent with Jamaica Inn can be traced to a single source: Charles Laughton. In addition bullying his way through the movie, turning what should have been a supporting role into a vanity piece, Laughton was also a co-producer. His will trumped Hitchcock's. Worse, this is one of Laughton's weirdest, most affected performances. He plays Pengallan as an effete and entitled villain, whose bluster and ticks and awful prosthetic nose and ridiculous eyebrows are at odds with just about every other element of the film. At points, he doesn't seem quite real, like he's some kind of demented mannequin come to life. Even as he was conceived, Pengallan could have been made to work, but only if you keep him off screen, a la Harry Lime or Keyser Soze. No such luck. Laughton maneuvers the film to give himself a magnificent death scene, but it doesn't carry any dramatic weight because he has otherwise crafted the character as a complete monster. Mind you, there are pleasures to be had in watching Laughton rampage through the movie, but he tends to crowd out everyone else. Hitchcock included. Hitchcock quite rightly thought that revealing Pengallan as the villain of the piece so early in the film torpedoed the film's suspense quotient, but Laughton overruled him.

In most other respects, the movie is perfectly respectable, if a bit outside of Hitchcock's bailiwick. The movie is briskly paced, with several well-mounted set pieces. The wrecking scene at the beginning of the film would ordinarily set the stage for a grim historical, while the scenes with Trehearne and Mary after they flee the inn compare favorably with some of Hitchcock's other mismatched fugitives in movies like Young and Innocent or Saboteur. The production itself is gorgeous. Jamaica Inn was an "A" picture and it shows. It doesn't hurt that the audience has a nineteen year old Maureen O'Hara to look at, either. O'Hara is probably miscast, but even here she has that steel that became so much a part of her star persona. The other stars of the film are a mixed bag. The romantic lead, played by Robert Newton of all people, is out of his depth. The character actors mostly provide interesting faces in the background.

As I say, it's not a particularly good film, but one of the 50 worst, ever? Uh, no. Not even close. It's interesting that Hitchcock finished one Du Maurier adaptation in which he had unfortunate collaborators only to leave for Hollywood and replay the experience on Rebecca with his 1940s nemesis, David O. Selznick.

Anyway, if there's a lesson for me as a filmgoer it's this: trust to my own eyes and no one else's. Critics can be useful, but they can only provided signposts. It's up to the viewer herself to deliver the final verdict.

Note: the For the Love of Film blogathon is a film preservation fundraiser. Click the icon to support film preservation and to make Hitchcock's work on The White Shadow available.


Tinky said...

It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall observing the two egos, Hitchcock and Laughton, interact! It's always intriguing to revisit films one saw as a youngster and take note of one's changed perspective; you give a thoughtful analysis here....

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Tink,

I know what you mean. Talk about an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object! Yikes!

Casey said...

I have to say I disagree. I saw Jamaica Inn last year and was wowed by it. I know Hitchcock hated the film, and that making it was an awful experience. To me it seemed very daring and unusual. Laughton certainly demands your attention, but I felt the character was interesting enough to justify this. He's a madman, but also very human. To my mind, this is one of Hitchcock's most vivid portrayals of the violent and unpredictable world we live in. I thought the film was disturbing and fascinating.

Adam Zanzie said...

Yes, while I certainly don't agree with the Medveds that this was one of the 50 worst movies of all time (that particular books trashes all sorts of movies that I love -- Alfredo Garcia, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Griffith's Abraham Lincoln), I did find Jamaica Inn to be a crushing bore. I remember very little about it aside from that finale where Laughton is up on the ship, or... something.