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.
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.
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.