Classic Movie Review: Jamaica Inn (1939)


Title: Jamaica Inn 
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Mayflower Productions

This Alfred Hitchcock period drama wasn’t originally on my (growing) list of classic films I need to watch, but I decided to watch it on a whim.  This was Hitchcock’s last film produced in England before he went to work in Hollywood.  It’s also the first of three Hitchcock movies based on the writings of Daphne du Maurier (the others are Rebecca and The Birds).  But most importantly this is the major film debut of Maureen O’Hara, whom I’ve crushed since I was a callow youth.

Set in Cornwall in 1819, the titular Jamaica Inn is the headquarters of a crew of wreckers, who lure ships to wreck on the rocky shores, kill the crew, and plunder all the valuables.  The gang is lead by Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is also the innkeeper and husband of Patience (Marie Ney).  Mary Yellen arrives from Ireland after the death of her mother to live with her Aunt Patience, but her stagecoach driver fears the seedy atmosphere of Jamaica Inn and drops of her off at the estate of local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton).

Mary gets caught up in events when she rescues a member of the gang, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), who the other members attempt to hang on suspicion of embezzling.  Jem ends up being an undercover law officer trying to find the mastermind behind the wreckers and teams up with Humphrey to investigate.  But all is not as it seems.

O’Hara is great in her role and shows a lot of agency for a female character in that era.  And yet, the film also depicts a society that’s absolutely terrifying for a woman as Mary’s life is in the hands of cutthroats and gentry alike, with implications of even worse things that the Hays Code wouldn’t allow to be shown.  There’s a moody atmosphere to the setting and some interesting camera angles looking through holes in a ceiling and a cave that add to sense of things closing in around the characters.

Laughton is suitably smug as the aristocratic gambler. Behind the camera, he was a pain in Hitchcock’s butt, taking control of directing the film.  He was also responsible for bringing O’Hara into the movie and they’d appear together again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year. On the whole, the rest of the acting in the film is not too strong.  Marie Ney in particular appears to be reading her lines for the first time from a cue card.  The last third of the film veers toward melodramatic.  Still it was a suitably entertaining jaunt into the Cornish past.

Rating: ***