‘It is a wretched affair.’
Such was Daphne du Maurier’s verdict on JAMAICA INN, which must have left her anxious about what Hitchcock would do to her Rebecca. But at the time Hitch embarked upon this project for producer Erich Pommer (whose projects at UFA had done much to inspire the Hitchcock style), his first American movie looked like it was going to be TITANIC — an ill-omened project for a director who was going to have to sail across the Atlantic to make it. A more promising augury was the name of Pommer’s company: Mayflower.
Hitch blamed JAMAICA INN’s problems on Pommer and Charles Laughton, “two very difficult men,” and upon compromises forced upon the film by censorship. Du Maurier’s novel had to be ammended because the BBFC wouldn’t allow a clergyman to be a villain, which if you think about it points to the kind of insidious class prejudice that has always lurked behind film censorship: it was perfectly OK to have a villainous priest in the novel, which provoked no outrage, but in films, which are seen by those who don’t read books, such a concept was suddenly deemed dangerous.
My viewing experience got off to a shaky start when I belatedly found I didn’t possess a copy of the film — one of the perils that could jeopardise Hitchcock Year at any moment (reminder: we are watching all of Hitchcock’s films, one a week, for a year). Then I found my old VHS, which turns out to be a Rohauer Collection copy which means old Raymond R has been up to his old tricks and spliced a couple of hideous new title cards on front of the print. But apart from that, it seemed to be intact, apart from a disturbing moment when Laughton is bearing down on ingenue Maureen O’Hara and some seriously weird continuity suggests he’s attempted something unspeakable which the censor has frown upon. But they can’t censor the glint in his eye, as he once boasted.
I was kind of dreading this film. Even Charles Barr can’t find much to be enthusiastic about in English Hitchcock, my bible for this part of Hitchcock Year (every Hitch buff needs to acquire a copy). I first saw it with my late friend Lawrie, and we actually thought it was underrated. Then I watched it with Fiona, priming her for something better than its reputation suggests, and we both found it worse than even its reputation suggests. And that was only a year or two ago, so seeing it again seemed like a potential ordeal. On the other had, seeing it again after running every previous extant Hitchcock movie (I’m still annoyed that LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, his sole credit as producer for another filmmaker, is not available, and of course it’s tragic that THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE is lost) seemed like it might offer fresh insights or pleasures.
The movie can be enjoyed on at least one level: as a valediction to British cinema. At the time of THE LADY VANISHES, Hitch knew he wanted to move to America, but had not clinched a deal. By the time of JAMAICA INN, the emigration was virtually certain, and Hitch stuffs the film with actors from his previous work. Barr counts eleven, but with the aid of the IMDb I’m able to make it twelve. Given the patchy credits available for Hitch’s early films (who are the kids playing Nova Pilbeam’s brothers in YOUNG AND INNOCENT? We don’t know) it’s almost certain there are more.
Frederick Piper had been the smutty milkman in THE 39 STEPS, the kindly, smithereened bus conductor in SABOTAGE, and a bit part (unspecified on the IMDb) in YOUNG AND INNOCENT — I’d guess a customer at the greasy spoon cafe.
A. Bromley Davenport was in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, and George Curzon popped up in YOUNG AND INNOCENT and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. William Fazan was a juror in MURDER! and also played a bit in YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Aubrey Mather was the greengrover in SABOTAGE, who suggests that Oscar Homolka has been showing films that are “a little too ‘ot!”
Basil Radford had an avuncular pert in YOUNG AND INNOCENT before achieving immortality as one half of Charters & Caldicott in THE LADY VANISHES. Leslie Banks, a slightly unsuitable hero in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, makes a suitable villain here.
The impression that Hitch is strolling down Memory Lane with his casting here is strengthened by the reappearance of Mr. Memory himself, Wylie Watson from THE 39 STEPS.
Emlyn Williams, intriguing and underused in this film, had contributed as a writer to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a role that hadn’t even gotten him introduced to Hitchcock. Edwin Greenwood was likewise better known as a writer (and director), and had contributed to the scripts for THE MAN WHO and LORD CAMBER’S LADIES.
Marie Ault, uncredited here as a coach passenger, had played major roles in THE LODGER (as the landlady) and THE RAT, an early Ivor Novello film upon which Hitch and Alma worked together.
John Longden had been of service to Hitchcock since BLACKMAIL, in which he’s the leading man. He provided a cameo in ELSTREE CALLING, was one of only two non-Irish players in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, and was a supporting cast member in THE SKIN GAME and YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Here he’s uncredited as the coachman, but he’d continue to play small roles for Michael Powell — it’s his voice you hear at the beginning of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — the greatest thing Longden ever did as an actor. “This is the universe…”
Clare Greet was the fortune teller in THE RING, the mother in THE MANXMAN, a juror in MURDER!, a conspirator-in-bloomers in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and Sylvia Sidney’s cook in SABOTAGE, all colourful roles that enhanced the world of Hitchcock’s films. She’s also in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, but she goes all the way back to NUMBER THIRTEEN, Hitchcock’s first, lost, and probably never-completed short. JAMAICA INN was her last film.
So this really is a sort of compendium of Hitchcockian bit-part players. If he’d managed to cast Gordon Harker it wouldn’ve been perfect: CHAMPAGNE and THE FARMER’S WIFE are two of the few Hitch films not represented above. RICH AND STRANGE, DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE, NUMBER 17, WALTZES FROM VIENNA, SECRET AGENT and the two German productions are the others. Mostly films Hitchcock had problems with, either because he didn’t like them, or they flopped. Throw in Percy Marmont and Hitch himself and nearly every Hitch film could’ve been represented here.
And the valedictory aspect of the film is strengthened by the fact that I don’t think anoy of these actors, to whom Hitch had been quite loyal, ever worked with him again. Of all the people in this movie, ironically it was only Laughton who returned, in THE PARADINE CASE.
The preceeding passages are dedicated to Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, the interweb’s finest resource for bit-part player stories.
A young girl from Ireland (Maureen O’Hara) comes to stay with relatives in Cornwall and uncovers a gang of wreckers, led by the local squire (Charles Laughton).
A digression on the art of wrecking: Interestingly, I once heard that there’s no evidence that wrecking — the deliberate luring of ships onto rocky straits for piratical purposes — ever took place. Since I can’t imagine any crime being conceived without there being somebody loathsome enough to carry it out, I have to assume that wrecking simply isn’t practical. Of course, you could crash a ship that way — my old friend Lawrie was on a boat in WWII and they accidentally lined up, not on the harbour lights as they thought, but on the lights of a moving car. Ended up in the middle of a coastal road. But maybe the problem is getting to the cargo after the ship has foundered. If the ship is sinking, you’re not going to manage it. If the ship isn’t sinking, the crew will likely stay aboard and cause you problems…
Running the movie for the third time, I was really impressed by it. Perhaps you have to notice and be annoyed by all the things that are wrong with it in order to get past that and appreciate its considerable virtues. The things that are wrong with it include ~
An unsuitable leading man. This kind of thing had plagued Hitchcock throughout his British period. The UK talent pool was just not that full of suitably dashing male leads, and actors were often chosen who had succeeded in the theatre, where the requirements are a bit different. Here we get Robert Newton, who would have been fiercely compelling as a vicious wrecker, but is somewhat muted as a dashing secret agent. He’s just too repellent, physically, even though his nose is not yet fully radioactive with booze. In any case, the hero plays third banana to the heroine and the villain in this one, so I guess top stars would not have been attracted to the part.
Implausibilities. These seem more bothersome in a period romp than they would be in a nightmarish contemporary thriller. When conjuring a historical world onscreen, it seems to help if the filmmakers pay attention to niceties, and Hitch certainly damages the credibility of the characters by having Newton foolishly allow his rowing boat to drift away, or by letting O’Hara escape a crowd of bandits just by sneaking off when their backs are turned.
The gratuitous. In a fairly tight film (even if marred by too many escapes and recaptures) it’s a surprise when the film pauses to allow a captured young wrecker throw a fit of hysterics. “I’m too young to hang!” He’s a character we haven’t even noticed before. What’s he doing here? One can only assume he was somebody’s boyfriend.
Declining tension. In a complex plot of cross and double-cross, the most satisfying ending is the one which, like the famous climax of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, wraps things up neatly. But JAMAICA INN spends an unconscionable amount of time in the third act having the heroes repeatedly win — first the menacing Leslie Banks (I admired his ability to hurl trunks upstairs) is converted to the cause of good, and then killed. Then the wreckers are rounded up. Now all that’s left is to catch Charles Laughton, who has conveniently gone mad. He’s abducted Maureen, and intends to whisk her to the continent, but that won’t do, you see — a climax depends upon imminent peril, not longterm possible jeopardy. Consider: supposing Laughton succeeds and takes Maureen away with him. What then? At some point in the future, she may escape. Our palms remain dry.
Trapped aboard ship by the military, Laughton aims his flintlock at O’Hara. This is more like it. But he soon abandons this plan and climbs the rigging. Now O’Hara calls for the men not to shoot, because Laughton is insane and not responsible. Are we supposed to be rooting for Laughton at this point? The big chap leaps to his death and —
–t he other great observation Charles Barr makes is about the ending of this film, comparing Barbara Harris’s wink at the end of FAMILY PLOT, the final Hitchcock movie, with the last gesture of JAMAICA INN — Horace Hodges, as Laughton’s butler, stares at his fallen master and shakes his head sadly. Both gestures are intended more for the audience’s benefit than for anyone else in the movie, and so if we take Hodges’ shake as Hitchcock’s comment on his British period, or at least this movie, it becomes an amusing and cynical put-down by the departing master.
But, weighed against the above weaknesses are many notable strengths, from the Germanic design (the Inn seems to be melting in the rain) to O’Hara’s perf, for which the word “feisty” would be all too inadequate (she barely flinches when Emlyn Williams tears open her top [Emlyn Williams? Are you sure?]) and of course Laughton himself.
Although ~ the great man’s makeup never really stopped annoying me. Both he and Banks sport thick dirty eyebrows which aren’t where they ought to be, and Laughton’s strange plastic forehead meets his owl’s beak nose in a big wrinkle which creases up in moments of high emotion and then stays like that when he relaxes. It’s a film of queer makeups. Emlyn Williams’s five O’clock shadow just looks like somebody’s turned the brightness down on his chin.
But the actual acting from Charles defies his ludicrous appearance, and dialogue wiz Sidney Gilliat (in sadly his only job for Hitch apart from the sublime LADY VANISHES) provides “Sir Humphrey Pengallon” with some fine fruity speeches. When Banks tells him of the sailors who were butchered to facilitate the theft of some plush fabric, he retorts, “Well what have they to live for, poor scum, you were right to put them out of their misery. Look at this exquisite stuff, worth the miserable lives of a thousand rum-rotten sailors, perfection of its own kind. That’s all that matters, Merlyn, whatever is perfect of its kind. I’d transport all the riff-raff in Bristol to Botany Bay to save one beautiful woman a single headache. Something you don’t understand, never will. Because you’re neither a philosopher nor a gentleman.” Laughton’s phrasing is magnificent, running sentences together, as I’ve tried to suggest in my transcription. Also, he makes the speech while sauntering around the room, caressing the fabric and then holding his arms aloft as if to either flex his biceps like a bodybuilder or dance the tarantella. It’s arresting.
Along with the things that are right and the things that are wrong with the film (and the bad things are mainly in the last third, which explains why people tend to remember the film with such slight affection), there are the things which are not wrong with it. Hitchcock was concerned that revealing Laughton to be the villain would surprise nobody, and he’s right. But he solves the problem nicely — Sir Humph is practically introduced as villain, a debauched nobleman calling for his “figurine” (not sure I can explain that one — you just have to see it). Hitch then plays the dramatic irony for all its worth, as O’Hara and Newton put their faith in Sir H and he stabs them in the back at his leisure.
The rich supporting cast also offers many pleasures. Marie Ney gets the most emotional scenes, as Banks’s put-upon wife. Intriguingly, the absuive relationship is neatly mirrored by Laughton’s interactions with his long-suffering butler. The wreckers are a fabulous assortment of swine and psychopaths, with Salvation Watkins (Wylie Watson), the religious zealot and career criminal, getting many of the best lines, and Mervyn Johns and Morland Graham also effectively grotesque. Emlyn Williams is really striking, even with the strange dark-glowing designer stubble and an accent that fluctuates from the Welsh valleys to Cornwall by way of Bow Street.
JAMAICA INN, I’ve come to realise, is no disgrace. Through Maureen O’Hara (by far the toughest Hitchcock heroine), we could write about Hitchcock getting in touch with his Irish roots again, and through Laughton we could examine issues of class in Hitchcock. Laughton is also the first major character in a Hitchcock film who looks somewhat like Hitch, and possibly something could be made of that. But I’m content to remark that the film has a lot more on its side than I had previously thought.