The Haunted Feminine Part 1

Several years ago, I wrote a series of papers for a horror and sci-fi class at NYU about the trope of what I called the “haunted feminine” in certain horror/suspense films.  In the spirit of the season, I offer my analysis of some seriously scary movies.

“Supposing it is in my imagination: the knocking, the voices, everything.  Every cursed bit of the haunting.  Suppose the haunting is all in my mind […] I could say all three of you are in my imagination.  None of this is real.” –Eleanor (Julie Harris) to Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) in The Haunting (MGM, 1963).

In her essay ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,’ Barbara Creed examines the horror genre’s construction of the feminine as monstrous and abject.  While she focuses on the more violent and blood-oriented past and contemporary horror films, she does not particularly address the quieter aspects of horror.  Another trope of a sub-genre of horror complicates, perhaps even belies, the concept of the monstrous feminine.  It is what I shall call the haunted feminine, a trope most notably present in Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (Fox, 1961).  It consists of the presence of the haunted subject, always a sexually repressed female, through whom the film is primarily focalized.  Eleanor (Julie Harris) in The Haunting is the main target of the ghosts of Hill House, which she interprets as the house ‘wanting’ her.  Only the character of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) in The Innocents actually sees the ghosts she believes possess the two children under her care.  The films do not at all make clear whether the hauntings actually take place in the ‘real’ world.  There are numerous indications that the hauntings may be merely projections of hysterical female minds.

Much horror scholarship rightly addresses the alliance between the feminine and the world of the horrific Other, whether as (complicit) victim or actual monster.  This concept allows for terror to be located in the physical body of the female—whether the monstrous alien mother in Alien (Fox, 1979) and its sequels, the possessed body of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (Warner Bros, 1973), or the powerful, pubescent body of Carrie (Sissy Spacek) in Carrie (United Artists, 1976) (Creed 44-59).  The haunted feminine locates the monstrous in the woman’s mental existence, not her physical one.  She may invent for herself ghosts and haunted houses, constructing narcissistic narratives wherein the house ‘wants’ her (The Haunting), or only she can ‘save the children’ from their ghostly possessors (The Innocents).  The susceptible mind of the woman becomes the site of monstrous apparitions: faces that spring from walls, banging on doors, cold spots, memories of past murders, ghosts walking along dark corridors, etc, etc.  These ‘innocent’ women elucidate their sexual and religious repression in the form of ghosts and possessions; the haunted world quite literally springs from the mind of a woman.

Haunting narratives emphasize female hysteria, connecting them to a sub-genre within film noir, the gothic women’s film, in which a female protagonist suspects her husband/lover of attempting to murder her (Doane 127).  The gothic women’s film narratives are usually focalized through the main female protagonist, establishing viewer identification with the woman’s plight.  The viewer experiences the same fears and doubts of the central protagonist, uncertain about the sanity of the husband and his possible murderous tendencies.  Many of these films show the woman’s terror to be justified.  Secret Beyond the Door (Universal, 1948), Love from a Stranger (United Artists, 1937), Gaslight (MGM, 1944),and Midnight Lace (Universal, 1960) all bring to light a monstrous masculinity.  Other films prove to be nearly hysterical fantasies in which the husband/lover is innocent of murderous impulses: Suspicion (RKO, 1941) and Lured (United Artists, 1947).  The female protagonists are usually active figures who take the initiative to investigate the male psyche, building up evidence for and against their husbands/lovers.  They have an advantage over their haunted counterparts, who face the less tangible possibilities of the supernatural world.  Most of the gothic women’s films come to a defined conclusion in which the mystery of masculine aggression is solved.   (One possible exception is Hitchcock’s Suspicion, depending on how one reads the apparently happy ending).  The wife either exonerates the husband/lover and catches the true murderer, or proves him guilty, to be either destroyed or cured.

The films that examine hauntings are typically more ambiguous and give their protagonists less initiative than their counterparts in gothic women’s films.  The haunting narrative’s emphasis on a woman’s repressed sexuality, and her subsequent Otherness, contributes to the hysterical nature of the narrative.  The main character of Eleanor in The Haunting best represents this repressed, dangerous figure, typing her as Puritanical from the very beginning.  Rejected by her sister, terrified of being left out or left alone, desperate for affection and attention, and finally developing a crush on Dr. Markway, Eleanor poses a perfect hysterical subject.  Her incipient sexuality, at once repressed, Puritanical and seething to escape, finds expression in the events of the haunting.  Freud discusses hysteria in women in Inhibition, Symptom and Fear as a reaction to the sexual act:

In women, direct fear of the sexual function is common.  We class this as a form of hysteria, as we also do in the case of the defensive symptom of disgust (Freud 154).

It is possible to read Eleanor’s persistent experience of the haunting as a manifestation of both her fear and desire for sexuality.  Eleanor violently rejects the coded lesbian Theo (Claire Bloom), who frightens her in virtue of her sexual status as Other, telling her:

“The world is full of inconsistencies, unnatural things.  Nature’s mistakes they’re called.  You, for instance.”

Eleanor’s rejection of Theo is a rejection of Otherness, of ‘unnatural’ sexuality. While the film never fully delineates Theo’s sexuality, her appearance, ambiguous name, jealousy of Eleanor’s relationship to Markway, rejection of the advances of Luke (Russ Tamblyn), as well coded references to her ‘partner’ and lack of marital status, establish her as a lesbian figure, or at least a figure outside established bounds of ‘acceptable’ sexuality.  Eleanor gravitates towards Theo as one who offers an alternative to bound heterosexuality, but turns to Markway as the hero of her dreams.  When Markway turns out to be married, Eleanor shifts sexual allegiance again, expressing a desire to be ‘united’ (read: married or sexually incorporated) with Hill House.  Eleanor’s final descent into madness occurs with the appearance of Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell), whom Eleanor suggests should sleep in the haunted nursery, the ‘cold heart’ of Hill House.  When Grace disappears during one of the film’s most frightening set pieces, the physical existence of the house and the haunting come together with Eleanor’s psychic breakdown.  Eleanor and the house fall apart together.  The haunting reads as a manifestation of Eleanor’s repressed sexuality.

The expressive feminine response to repression that manifests itself in the creation of the monstrous other, whether that other is a physical monster, ghost or a psychic projection induced by hysteria, works both for and against the possibility of claiming these types of films in general, and The Haunting in particular, for feminist or proto-feminist discourse.  Most feminist analysis of the horror film postulates the woman as monster, as sexual aberration, or disturbed victim that must be eradicated.  Linda Williams even goes so far as to claim that

The horror film may be a rare example of a genre that permits the expression of women’s sexual potency and desire […] but it does so in these more recent examples only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be (Williams 32-33).

Williams typifies horror as a genre that permits expression of female desire only to violently quell it in death and blood.  The Haunting and its ilk may fit this discourse to a certain extent: Hill House either kills Eleanor or she commits suicide in order to remain with it.  Eleanor can be read as both the victim of the house, and the cause of the haunting.  She is certainly complicit in her own destruction, as she desires union with the house that at the same time frightens and horrifies her, just as she is repelled and attracted to the sexual act.

The ambiguity of the haunting itself further complicates such analysis.  Director Robert Wise focalizes the majority of the narrative around and through Eleanor, privileging her point of view.  The spectator sees, in certain key scenes, more or less what Eleanor sees, hears and experiences.  The film creates an interior, psychological fear, heard and felt, but rarely visible.  The end leaves the viewer to wonder what was ‘real’ in the world of the film.  Was Eleanor simply a mad woman, projecting her fears and desires onto the surface of an uncanny old house? Or, was the house truly evil, haunted, attempting to keep her there as a wandering victim? Because the film never answers all the questions it posits, and refuses to explain the haunting in full, severe doubts are raised in the viewer’s mind about what is seen and what is not, what has been explained and what has not.  Because of this very ambiguity, the film fails to easily fit into an anti-feminine discourse about monstrosity.  Eleanor is both victim and cause, depending on how one reads the film.  She is sympathetic and unsympathetic—sympathetic if the house is really trying to destroy her, unsympathetic if she has narrated herself into a narcissistic tale of being wanted by the other world.

In the middle of the film, the four main characters crowd around a statue of Hugh Crain and his family.  Each gives their interpretation of the tableau, bending the narrative in one direction, then another.  No narrative construction, however, can fully explain the configuration of the statues.  That which remains unseen, pushed to the peripheries of the frame, becomes difficult to deconstruct and force into a paradigm.  The Haunting may very well be about a narcissistic, repressed young woman descending into suicidal madness.  It may also be about pervasive forces of another world preying on the fears of a susceptible mind. Eleanor is a woman haunted by desire, guilt, fear and loneliness.  Like Irena’s obsession over her village’s curse in Cat People (RKO, 1942), Eleanor becomes obsessed with the conception of the haunting.  The narrative of Hill House as haunted is both a cinematic reality and a projection of her mind.  She wants the haunting to be real because it enables her to belong to something.  Hill House exists in a world where ambiguity reigns, where the trope of the haunted feminine is monstrous and pathetic, the cause and victim of things that go bump in the night.

Creed, Barbara.  ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

Doane, Mary Ann.  The Desire to Desire, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1987.

Freud, Sigmund.  ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin, New York: 2003.

Williams, Linda.  ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.

Clayton, Jack (dir).  The Innocents, Twentieth Century Fox, 1961.

Cukor, George (dir).  Gaslight, MGM, 1944.

De Palma, Brian (dir).  Carrie, United Artists, 1976.

Friedkin, William (dir).  The Exorcist, Warner Brothers, 1973.

Hitchcock, Alfred (dir).  Suspicion, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

Lang, Fritz (dir).  Secret Beyond the Door, Universal Pictures, 1948.

Lee, Rowland V. (dir).  Love from a Stranger, United Artists, 1937.

Miller, David (dir).  Midnight Lace, Universal Pictures, 1960.

Scott, Ridley (dir).  Alien, Twentieth Century Fox, 1979.

Sirk, Douglas (dir).  Lured, United Artists, 1947.

Tourneur, Jacques (dir).  Cat People, RKO, 1942.

Wise, Robert (dir).  The Haunting, MGM, 1963.

*Paper originally written for Horror and Sci-Fi, Prof. Ed Guerrero.  Copyright Lauren Humphries-Brooks 2009

Bloody October: Poltergeist

LAST NIGHT: POLTERGEIST (1982)

You want to know where Paranormal Activity got it? Poltergeist.  With the combined might of Steven Spielberg (before he got too warm and fuzzy) and Tobe Hooper behind it, Poltergeist is one of the first, and best, of the suburban haunted house films.  A nice suburban house nice suburban neighborhood transforms into a portal to hell.  It all starts out innocently enough, with the little girl Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) sleepwalking and talking to the static on the TV.  Then something stacks all the kitchen chairs.  The beginning of the haunting is actually treated with a sort of glee, as the mother Diane (Jobeth Williams) experiments with the moving furniture in the kitchen. Then the “TV people” come and take Carol Anne away through the closet and things get much more serious.

I’ve seen Poltergeist numerous times now and I always forget just how damn good it is.  It’s a commentary on how disrespectful and thoughtless modernity can be.  It calls into question just how safe we are in our planned communities, how little we think of the past and what will burst through at a moment’s notice.  The adults initially treat the haunting as a game, until the most basic fear of every parent – their child being taken – is played upon with brilliant precision.

Poltergeist makes use of all the trappings of suburban life.  The dead come back because they’ve been disturbed when the planned community is  built on top of a cemetery.  It’s the revenge of the ancient on the unthinking, disbelieving modern, and the terrors are as primordial as they come.

There are few viewers who don’t relate to those childish nighttime fears, like your toys are trying to kill you, or the tree outside your window is going to grab you out of bed.  The very fact that the entrance to the other world is in a child’s closet is part of the most basic fears of childhood.  There is something in the closet, and it’s coming for you.

Bloody October: The Cabin In The Woods

Last Night: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

It’s taken me this long to finally see the Joss Whedon penned The Cabin in the Woods.  Oh, how I wish I had not waited.  It’s … epic.  Somewhere in the vein of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil with a smattering of Scream.  Then again, it really does stand in its own category.  Five college kids go to a cabin in the woods and everything begins to go horribly, hilariously wrong.

My one objection is that it is not really scary.  It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s provoking, but there are few scares, mostly because we know at least part of what’s going on from the very beginning.  It helps if you have a working knowledge of quite a few horror franchises, are apprised of the rules of slasher films, and can recognize certain tropes without having them handed to you.  But there’s so little that can be said about The Cabin in the Woods without giving the game away, so I’ll just say that it’s well worth a watch.  And you don’t even have to keep the lights on.

Bloody October: Sleepy Hollow

Right, so as I have limited time but I really want to keep updating this here blog o’mine, I’m going to start posting short musings uponst the scary movies I watch this October. Why? Because the leaves are falling, the skies are going grey, the wind howls through the skeletal trees and it’s time to consume massive amounts of candy and have bad dreams about werewolves, non-sparkly vampires, haunted houses, nasty ghosts and Vincent Price.  Or Peter Cushing, whoever takes your fancy.

LAST NIGHT: SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999).

Ever will I defend Tim Burton, because of movies like this. To launch my October scary-movie-watching, there’s nothing better than Burton’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute to Hammer horror. Johnny Depp plays Ichabod Crane, a pale-faced New York constable headed upstate to the wilds of the Hudson Valley to investigate several beheadings that have been blamed on the local ghost. He finds, natch, a bunch of weird locals, foggy and twisted woods, a few more beheadings and a lovely Burtonian waif in Christina Ricci. Cue gushing blood, heaving bodices, one hell of a carriage chase and a burning windmill.

Burton and Depp were at their best in the 90s. In some ways, Sleepy Hollow is the icing on the cake of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns. References to Hammer films abound, from the outlandish blood, spinning heads and dark backstory, to the presences of Michael Gough and Christopher Lee in bit roles. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but neither does it turn the gothic and  romantic story into a parody. Depp as Crane is a likable but squeamish detective, tortured by the past and not terribly certain about the future. He avoids the caricature that has sadly colored his latest roles; watching it last night, I was struck with the realization that this might be the last time we see Depp the Actor instead of Depp the Star. The cast surrounding him from Ricci on down is uniformly excellent, all of them sinking their teeth into their parts with gusto – especially Christopher Walken in a non-speaking but pivotal role.

The film bears only a passing resemblance to Washington Irving’s folksy horror story, despite an excellent tribute in the middle of the film as the Horseman rides Ichabod down bearing a flaming pumpkin in his hand.  It does trade in folk tales and cinematic references – the burning windmill will please anyone who has seen the original Frankenstein.  The film looks and feels like a New York horror story with an edge of Hammer and Universal. Burton knows his horror. He does his best work when he tries to make a good story first and layers the Burtonian influences on second.

Sleepy Hollow is the way I always start my Halloween. It’s a more adult film than Beetlejuice or The Nightmare Before Christmas, and miles away from disappointments like Alice in Wonderland. I know viewers who don’t like Tim Burton who love this film. But it helps if you like Tim Burton.

The Inessentials: People Will Talk

Few films have such a hold on my affections as this one.  It is a work of supreme humanism, about a doctor whose purpose in life is to ‘make sick people well’.  What’s more, it carries with it overtones about the roles of women, morality, abortion, the death penalty, the communist witch-hunts of the 40s and 50s, and unfettered capitalism, among other things.  The fact that it was made by a major studio in 1951 speaks to the remarkable nature of the film.  So why don’t more people know, and talk, about People Will Talk? 

It is not Cary Grant’s most iconic role, but it very well should be.  Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a doctor who teaches at a university and runs a clinic based on the notion that it is the job of a doctor to cure the sick in whatever way possible, holistically and otherwise.  The first section of the film focuses on Praetorius’s relationship with his friends Shunderson (Finlay Currie, in a role that should have received an Oscar nod) and Professor Barker (Walter Slezak), his rival at the university Professor Elwell (Hume Cronyn, as mean a little wretch as ever committed to film), and his growing relationship with Deborah (Jeanne Crain), a medical student, eventual patient and unwed mother.

The relationship between Praetorius and Deborah occupies most of the first half as the film, as Deborah discovers that she’s pregnant by a former flyboy now dead.  She’s checked into Praetorius’s clinic again after she attempts to kill herself, ashamed and terrified of informing her father, whom she insists it will ‘kill’ to know that his daughter is having a baby out of wedlock.  The film addresses the issue of the pregnancy with beautiful humanity.  There is no moralizing – as far as Praetorius can see there is nothing for Deborah to be ashamed of – and no punishment in store for the young woman.  She is not even really afraid of being rejected by her father; her fears are more founded on his dedication to her and his dependence on her.  Even her suicide attempt is not a serious one.  The pregnancy is treated with an equal amount of frankness and delicacy.  When Praetorius finally proposes marriage, as we knew he would, he does so not because he feels sorry for her or because he wants to “save” her.  He’s fallen in love with her.

Praetorius’s conflict with Professor Elwell takes up the second half of the film.  Elwell has spent much of his early scenes trying to discredit Praetorius as a teacher and a doctor, ultimately lighting on the curious relationship between Praetorius and Shunderson, his friend and helper.  The trial sequence takes place on the night of a concert Praetorius is supposed to be conducting.  As Praetorius deftly turns away each of Elwell’s accusations – that he’s a charlatan, a poor doctor, etc. – he exposes the hypocrisy of the whole process.  Elwell’s accusations are hearsay and implications, all tending to try to discredit Praetorius without necessarily settling on anything that is illegal or actionable.  While I won’t go into details about the final revelations about Shunderson, to whom Praetorius is intensely dedicated throughout the film, the conclusion is lovely and affecting.

People Will Talk raises so many interesting issues with such gentle humanity that it’s difficult to pick on any one element.  The trial sequence at the end is meant to mirror the witch-hunts of the Hollywood blacklist, depending as it does on vague implications but no real crime.  Which brings the whole film back around to its title.  From Deborah’s pregnancy, which is not criminal but somehow morally wrong in the eyes of 1950s society, to Shunderson and Praetorius’s relationship, and finally to Elwell’s insinuations about Praetorius’s capabilities as a doctor, the entire film is structured around what is not spoken, what must be implied in order to condemn a person.  But in each case, it is humanity that triumphs.  Deborah has not committed a crime, she is not punished for it, she’s rather rewarded in the person of a loving husband and devoted father.  Praetorius is an immensely capable doctor, superior to Elwell in his abilities but also in his compassion.  The film celebrates compassion and love over propriety and hypocrisy.  And it does so without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic.

The cast is uniformly superb.  Grant’s biggest challenge in some ways is to keep Praetorius from looking too much like a saint, but he keeps an unearthly man firmly grounded; he’s a boy that plays with trains as well as a kind and dedicated doctor.  He’s a man capable of passion as well as compassion for his future wife.  Grant’s humor keeps him from floating into the stratosphere; Praetorius never ascends to the height of a saint.  Praetorius does not exist, but he really should.

Jeanne Crain likewise gives an excellent, difficult performance, never slipping into sentimentality.  Deborah’s great dilemma is about her unborn child, her relationship with her father and her eventual love for Praetorius, but she is a full, rounded character.  She gives a human account of her relationship with the child’s father, of her reasons for loving him as well as her reasons for falling in love with Praetorius.  She’s believable as both the frightened young mother in a difficult situation, and as the somewhat strong-willed woman who runs away from a clinic in the middle of the night.

I do however give the edge to Finlay Currie as Shunderson.  He’s a large, lumbering man of exceptional gentility, quietly stealing every scene he’s in.  His final story at the trial, when he reveals how he came to know Praetorius, is at once hilarious and moving.  He’s an unknown factor in the film, a lover of animals whose dedication to his friend is equalled only by his absolute love for him.

Filmmakers would do well to take a cue from People Will Talk.  There are few films capable of such humanism, such gentleness and frankness.  There is no preaching, no moralizing, no retribution and no posturing.  Too often films attempt to get their message across by beating you over the head with it.  This film attempts to get its message across by appealing to basic decency and humanity, by giving the viewer the opportunity to recognize that there are ways to live beyond the narrow strictures of proper society.  The point that it makes is that people will talk no matter what; what we need to learn is how to live our lives independent of what they say.  Kindness, love, humanity; these are the things that really matter.  All the rest is just needless gossip.

The Inessentials: The Circus

I firmly believe that if you don’t like Charlie Chaplin you have no soul.  How anyone can sit through City Lights or Modern Times and not fall in love with the Little Tramp is beyond me.  Even if you don’t particularly like silent films, Chaplin must be able to melt your cold, cold heart.

The Circus is one of the lesser known of Chaplin’s feature-length films.  Made in 1928, at the height of his popularity, it’s a short, sweet film about the Tramp joining up with a circus.  It does not have the pathos of City Lights and The Kid or the social commentary of Modern Times.  What it does have, and this in abundance, is comedy.

The plot is simple enough.  Down at the heels as always, the Tramp (Chaplin) blunders into a job with a traveling circus when he accidentally gets more laughs than the clowns.  There’s a girl (Merna Kennedy) being bullied by her ringmaster father (Allan Garcia), which naturally raises the Tramp’s hackles.  Then there’s the competitor for her affections in a tall, dark and handsome tight-rope walker (Harry Crocker).  But the plot is really incidental and largely exists to move the Tramp from one comic situation to another.

Which is largely the point.  More so than any other Chaplin film, The Circus is an expression of pure comedy.  Its very subject matter is comedy.  The Tramp gets his job with the circus when he’s chased by a police officer into the big top.  He’s running for his life and his freedom, but the circus audience laughs harder at the improvised comedy than at the professional clowns.  His next big hit comes when he’s employed as a prop man, chased by an angry donkey and pitches into a barrel.  Then, without intending to, he ruins a magician’s performance by revealing every trick.  As the Tramp dashes around trying to capture the wayward animals that spring the magician’s hats, the audience behind him howls with laughter.  He’s a hit, but he’s oblivious.  When the Tramp attempts to be funny, he fails.  But when he’s actually in danger, or in pain, the audience goes into hysterics.  His real life is a comedy.

For some reason, I’ve never thought of Chaplin as an acrobat.  Most of his films don’t place as much emphasis on high-flying tricks.  In The Circus, his acrobatics give Buster Keaton a run for his money.  One of the most spectacular, hilarious set-pieces takes place on the high-wire, when the Tramp takes over for the missing tight-rope walker.  As the routine falls spectacularly to pieces, the Tramp loses his belay and is chased across the wire by monkeys.  He’s in great physical danger and it’s funnier than hell.

He was also quite a spectacular filmmaker.  He’s the definition of an auteur — wrote, directed, starred in and sometimes even scored his own films.  And his use of the cinematic medium is flawless.  When the Tramp runs into a funhouse hall of mirrors to escape the police, the spectacle of cinema comes into play.  The Tramp begins to lose himself in the myriad reflections, chasing after his hat in the mirrors.  He comes to understand the mirrors, though, and when he’s caught, it is the Tramp that has to show the police officer the way out.  He becomes the manipulator of the image; the filmmaker.

Chaplin often had a tinge of melancholy in his work, and The Circus brings it into very sharp relief.  While we laugh at his antics — and they are very, very funny — there is always a sense of sadness in the Tramp.  He’s poor, he’s destitute, he’s basically a decent man who cannot catch a break.  His comedy comes from poverty and danger.  Even when he becomes a star, the villainous ringmaster keeps him in the dark about his popularity.  He’s treated as a prop man, not a performer, and bullied by everyone.  Even his relationship with the girl is doomed.  He protects her from her father, feeds her when she’s hungry, and treats her decently as no one does.  But she’s not in love with him; she’s in love with the tight-rope walker and looks on the poor Tramp as just a friend.

That does nothing to diminish the comedy in The Circus; it rather enhances it.  Chaplin’s great talent was taking serious subjects — poverty, unemployment, starvation, abuse — and making them funny.  He turns obtaining food into a juggling act, running from the police into a comic chase.  He steals a hot dog from a child, is chased by a donkey and bit by monkeys.  It’s all a funhouse game, an elaborate magic trick.  It’s turning tragedy into comedy.

The Circus is entertaining because it’s funny, but it is a great film because it is melancholy.  Chaplin takes comedy very seriously, and it shows.  He’s more than willing to put himself in danger for laugh — at one point, he climbs into a sleeping lion’s cage and the terror on his face is quite real.  And the subject of The Circus is exactly how far a performer will go for the pleasure of the audience.  The Tramp is not a naif; by the end of the film, he’s aware that he’s been exploited, mistreated and manipulated.  But that’s all right, because he did it all to make the girl (and us) smile.

Chaplin’s films often end with an uncertain future.  In Modern Times, the Tramp and the girl are still destitute, still jobless and still running from the authorities.  The war and the Holocaust have not ended in The Great Dictator.  Even The Gold Rush draws the future happiness of its protagonist into question.  Yet no one would call Chaplin’s work pessimistic.  His great sensibility is that, no matter what, the little Tramp will still carry on.  Strange, quiet, gentle and gentlemanly, he might be poor, he might be starving, but he will still pick himself up and walk onwards, into the sunset.  At the end of The Circus, alone in the circle of the big top, he collects himself and wanders off.  Where he goes is anyone’s guess, but you still have the sense that he’s out there, always ready to help the innocent child, the frightened young woman.  Always ready to make us laugh, even if he feels a bit like crying.

The Inessentials: This Happy Breed

I do enjoy British domestic dramas.  While British post-war films have been duly celebrated, not enough is said about the films made in Britain in the 1930s and 40s, as though British cinema began with the decline and fall of the original studios.  What makes This Happy Breed an interesting product is that it is a war movie without being a war movie.

Which might sound inexpressibly dull, so I’ll point out that this was written by Noel Coward and directed by David Lean (of Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll remember).  I am not a huge Coward fan.  His work typically prizes a spirit of conservatism, even mediocrity, and he’s the last writer in the world I’d expect to speak convincingly about the trials and tribulations of a lower middle class family.  So I was surprised by how affecting This Happy Breed proved to be.

The plot is simple: it follows a working class (ish, they seem to have one servant and lots of leisure time) English family twenty years, from 1919-1939.  The husband Frank (Robert Newton, proving just how good an actor he really was) has returned from the First World War and moves into a new home with his wife Ethel (Celia Johnson) and three children (Kay Walsh, Eileen Erskine and John Blythe).  What follows are the difficulties of post-war life, the problems of raising children, the shifting politics and changing landscape of Britain, seen through the eyes of some very indomitable English people.

The script, originally a stage play, has been accused of being condescending … and to a certain extent, it is.  The Gibbons are a conservative lot, preaching family values and unquestioning of the class system; very much an upper class attitude about the way the lower classes are supposed to behave.  Some of the more difficult sequences involve the son Reg who gets involved in Socialist politics, much to the chagrin of his father.  And the film fails, for the most part, to present the issues at stake with any sort of complexity.  Reg is wrong and his father is right, but aside from a rather heavy-handed speech by Daddy, there’s not much convincing being done.  More complicated is the ‘downfall’ of the daughter Queenie.  She runs off with a married man, rejecting her family’s class status, moralism, and the life they have built, and condemning herself into the bargain.  This is dealt with in much more detail and with more breadth of character, presenting the parents’ differing reactions.  Sexual politics is a complicated issue and the film deals with it in a remarkably nuanced manner.

The film is helped along by the exceptional abilities of David Lean, in his first major assignment as director.  His style is already much in evidence.  For a director who would later be known for the dramatic scope of his productions (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and so forth), Lean does a lot in a very confined space.  Most of the film takes place within the four walls and back garden of the Gibbons’ house.  The camera moves effortlessly through the rooms, making them at once cramped and home-y.  This is a family that lives on top of each other but manages to do so without claustrophobia.  Nearing the end of the film, Ethel remarks that ‘this room looked much bigger with things in it’; and it does.  Lean’s non-intrusive but powerful cinematography gives the viewer the sense of having actually lived with these people, rather than observing them on a stage.  He makes what could have been a very stagey production come alive.

A lot of credit goes to the cast, which reads as a who’s who of British character actors: Robert Newton (yes, I do have a thing for him) and Celia Johnson are the parents, Kay Walsh the discontented daughter, John Mills the boy next door, and Stanley Holloway the war vet and neighbor.  Newton and Johnson are the anchors here, playing Frank and Ethel Gibbons as a quiet, determined couple.  They play off each other admirably; one has the sense that these are two people who have been together for a very long time.  Newton’s Frank is a perfect patriarch, loving, understanding, but uncompromising in his views.  He’s a sensitive figure, breaking into tears and laughter as the situation demands, but never losing his dignity.  He loves his wife and children without being demonstrative.  Few actors could deliver a speech about the nature of the British people (‘they called us a nation of gardeners … what works in other countries won’t work here’) and make it sound both honest and just a little pompous; Newton plays Frank with an edge of humor that takes the wind out of some of his more portentous pronouncements on the state of the nation.  But when called upon to give his son advice, or to put his arm about his wife, Frank becomes one of the most human figures in the entire film.  I never thought I’d get choked up at a man simply putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders, but I did.

Celia Johnson’s Ethel is the other side of the coin.  She seems almost hardened by life, at times unforgiving to her children and a bit of taskmaster to her husband.  But again, Johnson surprises.  In one of the opening sequences, she protests loudly at Frank’s interruption of their house decorating to ‘take a good look at her face’.  While he laughingly praises her (‘it’s not a bad face.  Not as young as when I married you, but all things being equal, I wouldn’t change it.’), she wrestles with him, telling him that ‘this isn’t the time for fooling around’.  But when he kisses her, she responds in a small movement: raising her hands and letting them rest on his side, before they’re interrupted by the arrival of their neighbor.  The gesture is very slight, almost unnoticeable, but it is a good representation of Ethel’s character: hard, no-nonsense on the outside, but with an underlying human sensitivity that would almost go unnoticed.

Johnson has the most difficult role in the film.  Ethel could come off as a hard woman; she’s largely unresponsive to her husband’s sensitivity, and her coldness when her daughter runs away feels unfair, particularly now.  But beneath the hardness is a sensitive character forced by social and cultural circumstances to be tough.  This is a woman who has raised three children while her husband was away at war; who has seen women around her lose their sons, their husbands and their fathers.  Her anger with Queenie feels extreme, but justified.  Queenie has basically rejected her family’s entire system of life and it is the mother, not the father, who recognizes and responds to it.  Johnson’s greatest work is done with her eyes.  Unable to show overt emotions, all of the character’s suffering, happiness and love comes through in her eyes.  It’s a fantastic performance, one difficult to quantify.  Johnson bursts into tears once, but it is a poignant moment, all the more so because she has been so strong and unforgiving .

This Happy Breed was released in 1944, at the height of the war.  Newton, a sailor, had to have a special leave from the mine sweeper he served on in order to make the picture (Incidentally, the film probably saved his life.  The sweeper was attacked during production and a number of the sailors killed).  Allied success was far from assured.  So while the film feels propagandist, it is an excellent piece of propaganda.  The uncertainty of wartime comes through in every frame, but so does the hope.  If Britain was going to win, it would be because of their spirit as much as their martial prowess.  For all its problems, This Happy Breed reminds us of the dangers these people faced, of how brave you had to be in order to live normally.  It’s a celebration of the people, not the government or the battles.  It’s so damn powerful, because nothing was certain, except that you simply could not give in.

The Inessentials: Tommy

GOAL!

There are a number of pre-requisites to the enjoyment of the bizarre Ken Russell/The Who film Tommy.  One is to actually like The Who’s music, because you’re going to be hearing it for nearly two hours.  The other is to be able to handle Ken Russell’s style, which is something like Luis Bunuel on acid.

There is no doubt that the original album Tommy is a thousand times better than the (mostly) covers of the songs that appear in the film.  Oliver Reed, although he’s a great actor (one of my favorites, and a sexy beast at that) cannot sing to save himself.  Ann-Margret, playing Tommy’s mother, can.  As can Tina Turner, Elton John, and Eric Clapton, all of whom contribute their vocals and prodigious musical gifts to the production.  Roger Daltrey is not really an actor, but then again he doesn’t need to be for most the film.  Keith Moon is Keith Moon, which means that you just have to enjoy every second he’s leering and laughing on the screen.

The plot of Tommy, such as it is, is more highly and narratively developed than the free-form of the original album.  Russell overlays a Jesus myth on what is basically a story about the rise and fall of a celebrity.  Tommy (Roger Daltrey), due to childhood trauma (he sees his mother and her new husband accidentally murder his father), loses his sight, his hearing and his speech.  The first half of the film encompasses the family attempting to find a way to give Tommy a normal life, to cope with his disabilities, and includes all kinds of fun stuff, like abuse and prostitution.  Luckily, these are all in the shapes of songs: Eric Clapton performing ‘Eyesight to the Blind’, Keith Moon as Uncle Ernie, Tina Turner singing ‘Acid Queen’.

Then Tommy discovers that, although he can’t see or speak or hear, he can play pinball.  He becomes, if you will, a Pinball Wizard

Do these shoes make my feet look big?

and Elton John sings a song about him.  It’s one of the most famous songs in the film, featuring John on ginormous platform shoes with The Who backing him — it’s also the one most taken out of context.  Tommy is now a celebrity.  But he’s still blind and deaf and silent.  After Tommy’s mother writhes on the floor covered in pudding and baked beans (it all makes perfect sense, trust me), the parents decide to take Tommy to a Doctor (Jack Nicolson?!) who reveals that there’s nothing physically wrong with him.  So he gets shoved through a mirror and regains his sight, his hearing and his voice.  And that voice, ladies and gentlemen, sounds like Roger Daltrey’s, so we’re all very happy that he can now sing.

If all of this sounds odd, that’s because it is.  But amazingly enough, it works.  Russell’s surrealistic style is perfect for The Who’s music.  Although the narrative is fairly straightforward, the images are wild, from John’s massive shoes, to Tina Turner’s trippy prostitute to the almost inexplicable scene with Ann-Margret writhing on the floor covered in baked beans (the reason behind that one is first that it’s a reference to The Who Sell Out, an album that included fake ads for real products, and a definite finger to the commercialization of rock music and celebrity, which The Who themselves engaged in).  Brief appearances by the band members — Entwhistle and Townshend in ‘Eyesight to the Blind’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’, Keith’s more extended performance in ‘Fiddle About’ and later in ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’ — remind us of the geniuses behind the rock.  The singing and music are all top-notch.  What’s more, although Townshend may have been perturbed at Russell turning Tommy’s story into a Christ story, it does work on a narrative level.

Where Tommy fails, unfortunately, is where it should succeed the most.  Once the title character gets his voice back, the film falls apart.  The weirdness that has permeated the scenes, the sinister nature of the characters and Tommy’s escape into his own mind, becomes externalized.  It’s a crying shame, because Daltrey has been silent for so long that it really is a thrill to hear him sing again.  Tommy’s downfall is precipitous and, one feels, unnecessary.  While ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the album feels like a declaration of independence from Tommy’s followers, a sense of liberation from having to ‘follow’ anyone or anything, in the film it becomes needlessly sinister as they murder Tommy’s parents and family, and drive Tommy away.

Finally, in a film of the FIRST rock opera, The Who barely get to perform together.  In fact, the only song that includes all four members of the most energetic rock band in history is ‘Sally Simpson’, but even then you barely get to watch Moon’s brilliant histrionics, or Townshend’s windmill guitar.  I think it would have been far better to allow The Who to be a sort of Greek chorus to the story.  At least one extended performance seems to be in order, for the viewer to be truly satisfied.  Daltrey is the most featured performer, but the dictates of the story force him to be silent for much of the running time.  And unfortunately, Daltrey finally gets to sing just as the film starts falling apart.

Did I mention that I love Keith Moon?

Taken in sections, Tommy is excellent.  Taken as a whole, it is at best problematic, at worst an incoherent text.  Russell doesn’t even seem certain what he’s trying to do with the film, whether it’s a showcase of the music or a Christ story or a tale of the rise and fall of a celebrity.  The film literalizes the lyrics: the smashing of the mirror is somehow a less powerful emblem when you actually see it done.  And the introduction of various symbols — the cross combined with wartime poppies, the cross with pinballs, the vaguely fascist outfits Tommy’s disciples wear, etc, etc, — don’t seem to have much purpose in the film as a whole.  Their significance is lost in a myriad of contradicting symbols.

Russell made better films than Tommy, no doubt.  Women in Love  and The Devils spring to mind.  But then again, he never made another movie with The Who and a whole bevy of 70s rockers.  There’s so much good stuff here.  I have a deep affection for the film because it introduced me to The Who and still energizes me when I’m feeling low.  It’s one of those films that can be watched in pieces, picking and choosing on the DVD, and actually comes out better than if watched from beginning to end.  It isn’t essential, but it is a lot of fun.  And Jack Nicholson sings!

The Inessentials: The Fearless Vampire Killers

Confession time: I totally love Roman Polanski.  I don’t mean that I love the man — I don’t know him and there are certain issues that I’m not exactly sympathetic towards.  What I mean is that I love the director, the public artist.  As far as I’m concerned, there are three great living directors: Polanski, Scorsese and Herzog.  Everyone else is secondary.  I also happen to greatly enjoy Polanski’s screen persona in the few films he actually appeared in, like Innocent Sorcerers, Chinatown, The Tenant and the subject of this article, The Fearless Vampire Killers.  I often wish that he’d actually gone ahead and cast himself as the lead in Knife in the Water, just to have the pleasure of watching him act.

Right, so that’s out of the way.  Now, onto what is perhaps my favorite Polanski film (although not, in my estimation, his ‘best’ work): The Fearless Vampire Killers, or: Pardon Me But Your Teeth are in My Neck.  As the title suggests, this is one of the few unabashed comedies that Polanski has made.  All of his films have some element of absurd or grotesque humor — even the incredibly disturbing and nihilistic Macbeth.  But Vampire Killers is pretty much a horror-comedy.

The plot comes right out of a Hammer film: Professor Ambronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski) arrive in a small Eastern European village in search of vampires.  They find, naturally enough, buxom barmaids, wiley innkeepers, and well-dressed gents with long sharp teeth.  The film floats along with a series of comic mishaps.  Professor Ambronsius is the most useless vampire killer imaginable; he’s far more interested in proving the existence of vampires than he is in actually killing them.  MacGowran gives Ambronsius a wild look, the very picture of an out-to-lunch academic and a far cry from Peter Cushing’s elegant and rational Van Helsing of Hammer Studios.  Alfred, while far more gallant, is quite obviously a coward.  The one opportunity he has to defeat the vampires he blows because he’s incapable of actually driving a stake through anyone’s chest.

The film in many ways is a send-up; the spurting, garish blood and heaving bosoms recall the films of Hammer Studios, as does the extreme costuming of Ferdy Mayne in the role of the Count, complete with rolling eyeballs and massive plastic teeth.  All of the requisites of vampire movies are here: the elegant gentleman vamp, the promiscuous barmaid, the naive and lovely innkeeper’s daughter.  As Shagal (Alfie Bass) states when Abronsius asks him about a castle in the neighborhood:

“A castle? No, no castle.  There’s no more a castle here than there is a windmill.  Are there any windmills in the neighborhood? … You see? No windmills, no castles.”

The Count looks a bit the worse for wear.

But Polanski, never one to be outdone in his social critique, also teases out the ancient notion of Jews as vampires.  The innkeeper Shagal is transformed after the abduction of his daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate, more on her in a minute) by the Count.  And he’s a ridiculous caricature; a vampire who, because he’s a Jew, is not permitted to sleep in the same crypt as the Count and his son; who is not repelled by a crucifix because, as he says, ‘Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!’ The whole subplot involving Shagal is a beautiful send-up of European notions of vampirism: Jews having been accused, in medieval times, of drinking the blood of infants; the use of Jewish caricature in films like Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula.  That the victims of the vampires are primarily Jews and the vampires are all characterized as decaying Old World Teutons makes plain the project underlying this otherwise innocent, comic film: Polanski sends up, with characteristic viciousness, the very basis of the vampire genre.

What is adorable about The Fearless Vampire Killers is how marvelously innocent it is.  And, oddly enough, that innocence comes straight from Roman Polanski himself.  As Alfred, he’s a small, boyish figure, dressed in short pants and a cap that accentuates his youth.  While Tate doesn’t have a great deal to do, her few scenes, imbued with a playful innocence, give the film an extra dimension. The scenes between Alfred and Sarah have a sexual charge, but there is a sweetness to their relationship, making it the kindest, gentlest romantic relationship in any Polanski film.   It’s difficult to watch Vampire Killers without recalling that this the film that the couple met and began dating on.  Anyone aware of Tate’s life and death cannot help but feel a level of sadness watching her on screen, and the two of them together.

The Alfred/Sarah relationship drives the second half of the film, where Sarah is

abducted by the Count.  Alfred and Ambronsius go to great lengths to save her.  Arriving at the castle, they become acquainted with Count von Krolock and his son Herbert (Iain Quarrier).  In a sharp twist on the usual, Hammer-style vampire/damsel relationship, but quite in keeping with the shifting sexuality of vampires, Herbert is overtly gay … and thinks Alfred is pretty cute.  The scene between them recalls films like The Brides of Dracula (Quarrier is a dead ringer for David Peel in that film), only Polanski (not for the last time in his own features) is placed in the position of the damsel in distress.  It’s a weird, uncomfortable, funny scene.

I’ve called this my favorite Polanski film and it is.  But it is far from his best.  It drags quite a bit in the middle, dwelling on the meanderings of Alfred and Ambronsius through the castle as they search for Sarah.  Certainly the most fun are the beginning scenes in the inn, the final scenes during the dance of the vampires (the original title of the film), and the haphazard, slapstick escape.  Alfie Bass should get some serious credit for the characterization of Shagal, a role that could easily have become offensive.  Polanski also removes much of the attractive sexuality of the vampires that is so typical in vampire movies.  They are represented as decaying, decadent creatures, literally falling apart.  They are, after all, the undead, and it certainly shows.

In some ways (and this is odd), The Fearless Vampire Killers is Polanski’s most hopeful, most playful film.  While not shying away from some very trenchant commentary, it mostly delights in its own comedy.  The tenderness of the love story, even with the tinge of sadness attached to it, from a director not exactly known for warm and fuzzy films, is something of a revelation.  Which is not to say that this is not a Polanski film.  It is.  When watching it, there’s no possible way to forget that.

The Inessentials: Jamaica Inn

I watch way too much TCM.  Being without a regular 9-5 job, I have that luxury.  And I’m grateful to TCM, I really am.  They’ve kept me interested in classical films.  But I’m a tad bothered by the nightly show they call The Essentials.  Because watching it the other night, I was struck by the fact that they were showing Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time.  Not that I don’t love Some Like It Hot — I do, it’s hilarious and thoughtful and one of the first films to make it acceptable for a man to marry another man — but rather that there are other films I would consider ‘Essential’.  How about some love for those movies that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of play? The movies that TCM shows at 2:00 a.m. and only the truly die-hard would, say, actively set their VCRs for when they were fifteen years old and madly in love with Basil Rathbone?

So here we go.  I’m going to start posting about films that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of love.  Yes, I’m into classical cinema, but I’m not ruling out contemporary films that I feel have been passed over.

Let’s start with one of my favorites.  Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally (probably a strong word) underrated Jamaica Inn.  

First, a little history.  Jamaica Inn is based (very loosely) on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, and is the first du Maurier adaptation Hitchcock attempted (the other two being Rebecca, and The Birds).  It was also Hitch’s last British film before he departed for America and what many consider to be his glory days of Notorious, Rear Window, and Vertigo.  I may be among the few that am more interested in Hitchcock’s British period than his American one.  While many of the films do not stack up against the sheer brilliance of Psycho or Notorious, they are largely a charming, fascinating set of pictures.  They exhibit Hitchcock’s intimate understanding of Britain and British life.  His secondary characters are better painted and there is a sense of affection and critique that runs through films like The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes.  But back to Jamaica Inn. 

The movie stars Maureen O’Hara (in her first major role), Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Robert Newton.  The plot is fairly basic: O’Hara is Mary, going to Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast to live with her aunt Patience after the death of her parents.  Little does she know that Jamaica Inn is a den of smugglers and wreckers (men who drive ships onto the rocks and then plunder them), run by her uncle Joss (Banks).  In the process, Mary meets the Squire Pengallen (Laughton), who is just all kinds of charming creepiness, and saves the life of Jem Trehearne (Newton, swoon-worthy), one of the smugglers.  All hell breaks loose as Mary attempts to escape the wreckers and help her aunt.

Charles Laughton's eyebrows, with Charles Laughton.

The plot deviates entirely from that of the novel, so we’ll leave the differences aside.  Laughton is the big name here, so he’s the one that takes center stage.  Pengallen, we very quickly learn (so this is not spoiling a damned thing), is the true leader of the wreckers, living off of them to keep himself in the pink as befits landed gentry.  Laughton plays him as a grotesque; a massive, trundling gentleman in overdone 18th century garb, with the most magnificent set of eyebrows ever committed to celluloid.  He’s frightening, fascinating, and just this side of hammy.  His weird obsession with Mary rapidly becomes disturbing, particularly when we reach the denouement.  He’s a grand Hitchcockian villain, equal parts fascinating and repugnant.  What I like most about Laughton’s performance (which some feel is way too over the top to be believable) is how humorous he is, right up to becoming sinister.  It’s easy to laugh at this overweight peacock, with his leering gaze and posh accent, until his more violent, cruel nature comes out.  He’s threatening but, like Mary, we never quite know it until it’s too late.

Maureen O’Hara wins the award for being one of the toughest Hitchcock heroines, and a perfect argument against those who believe that Hitchcock only let women be victims.  She’s one of two women in the entire film.  When she arrives at Jamaica Inn, alone and in the middle of a storm, she is immediately set upon by her uncle Joss.  But Mary, far from being threatened, responds in kind.  She refuses to be cowed, not by Joss, not by Pengallen, nor the nasty smugglers, nor even the charming rogue who ultimately turns out to be not so roguish.  She’s quick spoken and pro-active, and although her and Newton don’t get nearly the amount of charming banter that, say, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have in The Lady Vanishes, she holds her own against Laughton quite nicely.

Robert Newton takes unfair advantage of being passed out.

Which brings me to Robert Newton, whom I personally find incredibly appealing as Jem Trehearne.  He’s a hero that only makes an appearance nearly half an hour into the film, and then in not the most flattering of lights: he’s a member of the gang, appears to be stealing from them and nearly gets himself hung as a result.  Only through Mary’s timely intervention is he saved.  Newton has a swash-buckling air that would serve him well in his elder years when he played Long John Silver; but the difference between the handsome young man here and the swaggering old pirate in Treasure Island is night and day.  He acquits himself well in the developing relationship with Mary, and seems to be positively giddy when he’s in the same room with Laughton (they were friends in real life and it shows).

The secondary characters exhibit Hitchcock’s usual flair for the grotesque.  The wreckers are a band of nasty, amusing cutthroats, all played by excellent British character actors.  Emlyn Williams (there’s no reason you should know him unless you like old British films, but he’s a dandy) is Harry, one of the more charming, swaggering and dangerous of the band.

The problem with Jamaica Inn is mostly due to Charles Laughton, who struts in and takes over just about every scene he appears in.  Jamaica Inn is, at base, a melodrama and Laughton at times seems to be making it into a farce.  It has been argued that much of the tension of the film vanishes when we realize that Pengallen is the head of the wreckers.  However, in its defense, I would argue that Hitchcock deals with this aspect quite well.  By revealing Pengallen as a nasty piece of work almost from the beginning, the viewer is placed in a position of knowing more than the characters, a favorite device of Hitch’s.  This allows the viewer to focus on the development of the adventure, the relationship between Jem and Mary, and the danger they are placed in by not possessing this piece of vital information.   Far from disabling the film, this knowledge expands the tension as we watch the machinations of Pengallen to conceal his identity, as well as his gradual descent into madness.

I would never argue for the inclusion of Jamaica Inn in a best-of Hitchcock list, and it is certainly not his best British feature, or even close to it.  It has great difficulties as a film; some of the scenes feel weirdly short, and the characters at times seem to be talking past each other.  But it is entertaining for what it is, an interesting development of the thematics of Hitchcock’s British work (the wrong man motif, the powerful woman, questioning of authority, etc.), and some excellent performances.  For my money, it’s a better way to spend your afternoon than trying to sit through Under Capricorn, which has received more critical attention and is duller than a dust mop.

*The entirety of Jamaica Inn can be watched here.  Watch out for any DVD versions besides the Kino edition.  The Laserlight one cuts out about 8 minutes of pretty essential exposition.