Set in Cornwall where a young orphan, Mary, is sent to live with Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss who are the landlords of the Jamaica Inn. Mary soon realizes that her uncle's inn is the base of a gang of ship wreckers who lure ships to their doom on the rocky coast. The girl starts fearing for her life. Written by
Claudio Sandrini <email@example.com>
Not really "Jamaica Inn"... We're in The Charles Laughton Picture Show here!
(Spoilers possibly inherent)
I had no idea this film would prove such a curio and nigh-on almighty hoot to watch. I settled back on a familiar settee, late one night - after a meal at the finest Indian restaurant I know, Ocean Rd., South Shields, and after watching the heartening second "Office Christmas Special" - to play this film on DVD, a Christmas present from a good friend. Ironies are even in that; I bought him a DVD of the 1962 Robert Mulligan-directed "To Kill A Mockingbird": both that Harper Lee novel and Daphne Du Maurier's "Jamaica Inn" were texts we studied at school in our English lessons. They were by far the most enjoyable of the texts we studied in those five years - though I admit a partiality for "Cider With Rosie" and "Jane Eyre".
It was all for the better that I knew little of what this film was like; I knew only that it was directed by Mr Hitchcock, and differed quite a lot from the book. Oh, and how it does differ!
Quite frankly, Hitchcock's "Jamaica Inn" is a different thing altogether to that utterly splendid, barnstorming tale of smuggling. This misses the uncanny, eerie quality of Du Maurier's plotting and characterisation. Here, Joss Merlyn is only a slight reprobate; he is softened and thoroughly reduced in size and dimensions compared to Du Maurier's conception of him in her novel. There Joss was a towering, bullish, walking-talking threat of a man. Leslie Banks sadly fails to capture any of the preposterous, swaggering bravado of the Joss Merlyn forever etched into my mind.
That is really the biggest failing in writing, casting or such like. The more general approach too fails to ignite; the conceptualisation of a desolate Cornish coast is reasonable but unspectacular. there's never quite enough misty, frightening (or frightened) atmosphere; one does not get enough sense of things being at stake as they were in the novel: life and death, hell for leather. A further bone to pick is certainly the strangely wimpy portrayals of the crew of cutthroats and local degenerates; another failure of conception.
Maureen O'Hara... well, the damsel is feisty to an effective degree and acquits herself well, though is oddly over-mannered at times. It is an odd performance, that is half very effective, and half ineffectual. Now, Robert Newton; that wonderfully hammy actor of renown is excellent here as the dashing Jem Merlyn figure. He is one of the few performers to seem as if he is on anything like the same wavelength as Charles Laughton.
Charles Laughton? Well, he absolutely strides away with this film, and that is no understatement. This is so, to such an extent that his own vision overwhelms whatever there may have been of Hitchcock's, or indeed Du Maurier's. He plays Sir Humphrey Penhalligon - standing in effectively for the novel's eerie albino vicar, Francis Davey - a thoroughly sneaky, grandiose aristocrat, who is quite wonderfully playing the people of his county for outright fools. He doesn't so much as administer justice as pick and choose allies and inevitably seek to further his own ends. Sir Humphrey's condescending, subtle contempt for those around him sublimely passes the other characters by, while the audience is in on it. One feels entirely complicit in the seemingly jovial fellow's gleeful tricks and crimes; Laughton almost tangibly winks at the audience with his every sideways glance and jocund intonation. What Victorian Melodrama villainy is in the man here; implicitly sending up the limitations of all that is around him by claiming the centre of attention and having so much comedic fun from his privileged position. It completely unbalances any chance of us finding the wrecking *that* serious, as he is an obvious villain from the start, and unlike the otherworldly Francis Davey, Penhalligon is someone we can relate to. His intentions are selfish, but born of a paternalistic High Toryism; the character is manifestly a cultural and social elitist. He does not want to destroy the existing world, but to be happy in it. Only of course, his methods and complete disregard for others are 'not the way to go about it', tut-tut!
The ending simply lives up to what has become a Laughton picture; the narrative of the novel has been almost wholly jettisoned by this juncture, and our - or mine, anyway - interest in solely in hoping that the wicked Sir Humphrey will get away with his arrant, errant audacity. Suffice to say, Mary Yellan is not in our minds in the final frames, which are beautifully melodramatic and distinctly odd.
I can only conclude by saying just how much I enjoyed watching this film, late that night, recently... It was glorious fun, entirely due to the magnificent Charles Laughton. It is awful overall, if one is looking for a "Jamaica Inn" close to Du Maurier's great original; but one actor manages to steal the fairly creaky show and catapult it off onto a higher stage. Oh, there's no internal consistency here, but that's part of the delight! A part-marvellous fudge of a film; at least never dull, due to Laughton.
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