Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn would have been better titled The Gangs of Jamaica Inn, since the film is thoroughly concerned with groupings, allegiances, and the ways class standing relates to moral obligation. That’s certainly the sense in the film’s opening scene, as a cargo ship is deliberately taken off course and made to crash into the shore by a band of “thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats,” as heroine Mary (Maureen O’Hara) will eventually call them, so that the shipmates can be murdered and the goods hauled away for profit. Hitchcock frames the sequence cunningly, integrating footage of model ships and several men being beaten down by gallons of water as to make a thoroughly faked shipwreck seem stunningly authentic. Character movement and pacing are key for the film, which largely confines itself to the titular lodgings, though the abode is by no means a destitute place, offering extensive nooks and crannies. Even though there’s only one actual gang in the film, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton) functions as the ultimate kingpin, sauntering in his aristocratic duds and gorging large portions of food in a manner that deliberately recalls his Oscar-winning role several years prior in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton and Hitchcock outwardly play the scene for laughs and winks, but the deep-focus cinematography and carefully layered mise-en-scène suggest an insidiousness to the extravagance, which gains notable contrast with Mary’s perceptive and watchful eye.
Hitchcock frames Mary witnessing the gang of hoodlums stringing up Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) without the director’s subsequent knack for isolating subjectivity, so that her revelations about the ill deeds of the Cornwall residents take place behind the film’s omniscient narrative, which reveals rather early that Pengallan is manning the gang’s operations and profiting greatly from them. In effect, Pengallan is the star of the film in the way that Norman Bates would be in Psycho if one knew 10 minutes in that Norman was his mother. It’s a rather deflating gesture for the film by way of “surprise,” but then a “surprise” is always less complex than suspense, which Hitchcock’s film seems to understand.
In a contemporary era where the spoiler remains king among consumer concerns, Jamaica Inn is an instructive instance where the preference for sudden revelation is subordinated to texture and contemplation, particularly with regard to Pengallan’s standing as a decadent, fascistic figure, who blithely explains to Mary: “To live like a gentlemen, I must have money.” The cost of that money, as it were, is murder and perverse appropriations of culture; Pengallan spouts poetry at dinner as fodder for his amusement, but it’s purely the tool of a psychopathic madman who views entertaining guests and offing sailors simply as necessary components in maintaining a standing and prominence that allow him to remain indulgent and free of introspection. Hitchcock emphasizes these consequences through a violent off-screen death early on, where the last surviving member of a shipwreck can be heard screaming while being stabbed to death. In Pengallan’s subsequent interactions with his butler (Horace Hodges), Hitchcock dares to make Pengallan charming and funny through his abusive behaviors, most notably when he shreds some documents and tosses them into the air exclaiming, “Don’t butcher and bother me!” These various scenes strike disparate tonal measures, but cohere into a complex satirizing of unchecked power through a comedic register that to some degree predicts Charlie Chaplin’s more explicit treatment of patriarchal cowardice in The Great Dictator the following year.
Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison’s script is adapted from the novel by Daphne Du Maurier and though Du Maurier reputedly despised Hitchcock’s film, the novel’s emphasis on absolute power remains, only with Pengallan’s squire as the ringleader rather than the abusive vicar in her novel. If a critique of religion is explicitly deleted from the adaptation, that critique remains intact through the form of Pengallan’s emphasis on beauty and art, as busts adorn his corridors and living spaces. When he says to crony Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), “I’m the only justice in the neighborhood,” it’s a gesture to the indulgences offered by the Catholic Church, where a monolithic organization is the only figurative body sanctioned to absolve one of their sins. By acting as judge, jury, and executioner, Pengallan is the prototypical psychopath for Hitchcock’s long line of self-deluded wronged men, if perhaps a bit distended in a more cartoonish direction, given Laughton’s proclivities for theatrical showmanship.
Much like the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of Foreign Correspondent, Cohen Media Group’s 4K restoration of Jamaica Inn is like seeing the film wholly anew, since previous, butchered DVD or VHS releases were the only options on home video. The cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling appears stark, clear, and fully focused throughout. These qualities are most notable in close-ups of stars Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton, where grain and sharpness are carefully balanced; moreover, there are almost no instances of dirt, scratches, or blips within the frame, making this an incredible and essential rescuing of one of Hitchcock’s least seen and discussed films. Sound, too, is clear and boisterous, especially in chase sequences, although some may wish for an SDH track given the British accents and fast dialogue.
Jeremy Arnold’s audio commentary is an enthusiastic mélange of historical, analytical, and trivia-inclined insights that serve as a weighty explanation of the film’s importance and significance within Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Arnold explains that, while this was Hitchcock’s last film in England before heading to the United States to begin production on Rebecca, it was one the director never wanted to do and only reluctantly agreed following insistence from Laughton. Moreover, Hitchcock hated the initial script and had it rewritten, though he was never fully satisfied by the final product. These production insights position Jamaica Inn as one of the few Hitchcock films where the director didn’t have complete control; Arnold is adamant that he doesn’t find the film suspenseful at all, although he values it and thinks it’s largely "underrated" for reasons more having to do with its production design and cinematography. Arnold esteems O’Hara’s performance and provides a lengthy explanation for both her performance and how she came to star in the film, under the tutelage of Laughton. Otherwise, a video essay by Donald Spoto is less a visually driven examination of the film than an interview-based talk, with Spoto speaking to the camera, supplemented by various stills and clips, the majority of which concerns the film’s production. Finally, the film’s 2014 re-release trailer is included.
Jamaica Inn finally receives a pristine home-video release with Cohen Media Group’s stellar new Blu-ray, featuring a sparkling 4K restoration.