Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Scum and villainy flourish at the Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1939)
Starring: Maureen O'Hara, Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks, and Robert Newton
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When young Mary (O'Hara) comes to live with her relatives on the Cornwall coast, she soon discovers that not only is her uncle Joss (Banks) something of a dirty old man, but he's also the head of a gang of murderous cutthroats who are causing ships to run aground during storms, looting the wrecks, and murdering surviving crewmembers. After Mary saves one of the gang (Newton) from being hanged by the rest, the pair flee to the safety of the local Magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). Unfortuantely, Pengallan is a madman who is secretly behind the cutthroats!

"Jamaica Inn" is an excellent thriller set during the late 1700s. It features a great cast, with Maureen O'Hara as the feisty Mary and Leslie Banks as the menacing Joss Merlyn deserving particularly high praise.

The film is tense and moody throughout, and there are some excellent plot and character twists as the film unfolds, but there are couple of elements that keep it from being a truly great movie.

First, there's the bland hero, Trehearn. He's a nice enough fellow, but between the characters of Mary, Joss, and Sir Humphrey, he pretty much fades into nothing.

Second, there's the fact that Sir Humphrey's involvement with the bandits is revealed entirely too early in the film. It may add a bit of tension when Mary convinces Trehearn that they need to go to Sir James for help, but I think revealing the involvement after the pair escape would have been better for the story. (Reportedly, Hitchcock felt this way too; the story only unfolds as it does because Charles Laughton, a big star at the time, wanted his character to be more centrally involved from the outset.) There are still some interesting twists that come out later in the film about Sir Humphrey, but I think they too would have been stronger if not for Laughton's reported ego-trip.

I still think this is an excellent adventure flick, with great camera work, lighting, and sets--the Jamaica Inn set both inside and out is spectacular--and I think it's well-worth seeing if you are a fan of Hitchcock's work.