The last of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films (sort of) is 1939’s Jamaica Inn. The director wasn’t a big fan of this picture and it is often cited among his worst by critics, even though it did pretty brisk business in the box office. By this point, it was widely known that Hitch was headed to Hollywood to make movies in America. This picture was made both as a favour to its star and because the filmmaker had the time.
While the previous film, The Lady Vanishes, featured a breakneck pace and plenty of style, Jamaica Inn is a lacklustre project with few notable characteristics. It is based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier (who would also write The Birds and Rebecca) and features the dynamite Maureen O’Hara in an early role, so that’s something.
The titular Jamaica Inn is a haven for pirates and scallywags. The innkeeper is Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), a brutish thug. His wife is Patience (Marie Ney) and his niece Mary (O’Hara) is coming to live with them after the death of her parents. Mary’s presence throws a proverbial monkey-wrench in all the criminal activity at the inn.
When Mary saves the life of law-officer Jem (Robert Newton), she thinks she’s doing the right thing. The couple flees and takes refuge at the house of the magistrate Pengallan (Charles Laughton). Unfortunately for the pair, the high-on-the-hog Pengallan isn’t all he’s cracked up to be and Mary has an important lesson to learn about who she can trust.
Jamaica Inn does benefit from some wild and woolly scenes on the high seas, turning the proceedings into somewhat of a pirate adventure tale with Mary talking tough to a group of scallywags. But the stormy scenes are undermined by Laughton’s scenery-munching performance and the relatively off-kilter pacing.
The basic flaw is wrapped up in Laughton’s character. “It was completely absurd, because logically the judge should have entered the scene only at the end of the adventure,” Hitchcock says. “He should have carefully avoided the place and made sure he was never seen in the tavern. Therefore it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role…”
That mistake really does tear down the foundations of any character-driven suspense in the tale, even if some of the performances pan out well. O’Hara is charming and attractive in the role and she plays well against a pair of intimidating men in Pengallan and her uncle. She spends a lot of time hunkered against walls.
The movie’s most suspenseful and disturbing moment comes when Laughton finally stops screwing around long enough to tie Mary up. He slithers like a pudgy serpent while tears gather in her frantic eyes. Pengallan’s ludicrous top hat and preposterous eyebrows form the image of a side-splitting Satan as he slips the hood over Mary’s head.
But scenes like the aforementioned are far and few between in Jamaica Inn and we’re left with what is one of Hitchcock’s most uninteresting efforts to date. Few remember this picture for any other reason than its historical value, serving as it does as the bridge between Britain and Hollywood.
And Hitchcock seemed conscious of this, fully aware of how “absurd” it was to undertake the picture. The author of the book wasn’t a fan and few cite this among his best works for good reason. While it’s not quite as bad as Number Seventeen, it’s advisable to keep any stays at this Jamaica Inn on the short side.