It would be generous to say that Jamaica Inn is generally regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser films. In 1978, Michael Medved and Randy Dreyfuss gave the movie a prominent place in their book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, and some claim that the creative disagreements between Hitchcock and star Charles Laughton (The Mutiny on the Bounty) ultimately led to Hitchcock simply giving up and phoning it it. While this isn't a masterwork of Hitch's early years, it certainly isn't one of the worst movies ever made. For that matter, it isn't even the worst movie Hitchcock ever made.
The film is based on a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, the Cornish writer best known as the author of Rebecca. Hitchcock was particularly eager to adapt the latter, but the rights to the former were far easier to access. As such, he decided to make Jamaica Inn as a sort of elaborate audition: if all went well, he would likely get a stab at the project he actually wanted to make. Unfortunately, the production was an incredibly bumpy ride.
The story begins with a gruff innkeeper named Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks, The Most Dangerous Game), who has established a sinister operation on the Cornish coast. Joss and his men deliberately lure ships to the rocky coastline, then proceed steal everything. It's been a successful operation for a while, but some of the men are starting to smell something fishy: their profits aren't as large as they used to be. Someone is stealing more than their share of the stolen goods, and the men suspect that relatively new recruit Jem Traherne (Robert Newton, Treasure Island) may be responsible. They're wrong, but what they don't know is that Jem is actually an undercover police officer conducting a secret investigation of the wrecks.
Meanwhile, Joss' niece Mary Yellen (Maureen O'Hara, Miracle on 34th Street) has just arrived on the island in the hopes of taking up residence at the inn. Her parents have passed away, and she has nowhere else to go. Local justice of the peace Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton) advises her against traveling to the inn, warning her that it's full of unsavory characters. Turns out that Humphrey is a fairly unsavory character himself, as he's the one secretly running the wrecking operation behind the scenes.
The most immediately obvious problem with Jamaica Inn is that there's a fairly sharp tonal disconnect between Laughton's scenes and everything else in the movie. Hitchcock seems intent on delivering a grim, tense thriller, but Laughton seems to feel that he's in a broad crime comedy. The esteemed actor plows through his scenes with hammy relish, and there was little Hitchcock could do to stop him: Laughton was a producer on the film, and could more or less do whatever he wanted. Laughton had initially been cast as Joss, but then decided to give himself the juicier role of Pengallan. Alas, Pengallan didn't have a lot of screen time in the original script, so Laughton demanded that Hitchcock give him more to do, leading to a handful of scenes that serve no purpose other than letting Laughton hog the screen.
While Laughton would seem to be chiefly responsible for the film's downfall, it must be admitted that his scenes are far and away the film's most entertaining moments. Yes, it's partially because he selfishly disrupts the slow-burning tension Hitchcock is working on elsewhere (it's a bit like having a flashy rock star show up to perform chart-topping anthems between a respected chamber orchestra's restrained performances of classical pieces), but he certainly isn't a dull screen presence.
The rest of the film plays out as a technically sound but dramatically bland tale of suspense, as the band of criminals search for the traitor within their midst and O'Hara strikes up an unexpected romance with Newton. This is a good-looking movie – the film's black-and-white cinematography makes fine use of shadows and striking camera angles – but the story isn't quite as compelling as the atmospheric setting. The central characters are too thin: Banks amounts to little more than a scowling villain, O'Hara is quickly reduced to playing “the girl” and Newton turns in a fairly bland portrait of heroism. Again, all the fun is had in Laughton's scenes, as the handful of actors playing his associates get the opportunity to play entertainingly distinctive characters.
Hitchcock wasn't particularly proud of Jamaica Inn (the final British film he would make before moving to Hollywood), and continued to speak rather dismissively about the movie in the decades that followed. Du Maurier reportedly disliked the film so much that she considered withholding the rights to Rebecca (she eventually relented, of course, and Hitchcock turned the book into one of his finest early films). Jamaica Inn certainly doesn't offer the level of entertainment one typically expects from The Master of Suspense, but it's nonetheless a compelling look at what happens when a director and his star disagree on the sort of movie they're making. Now there's a story that might be worth adapting...
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 1939