Today we talk about Jamaica Inn, one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s lesser-known movies from back in 1939.
The story unfolds along the dangerous English coast of Cornwall, where the sea is most violent and unpredictable.
Moreover, people have little protection from the law throughout the area since the police are practically nonexistent.
The only official authority figure is the corrupt local judge, who, taking advantage of his absolute power position, is in charge of a small criminal gang.
Indeed, with false light signals, they lure ships near the coast, causing them to crash on the rocks, then steal the cargo and mercilessly kill every witness.
Everyone in the gang is constantly staying at the tavern Jamaica Inn, which their leader owns.
He alone is in contact with the judge and knows he actually organizes the shipwrecks, discovering the most valuable ship route details.
One night a new girl arrives in town, the niece of the chief’s wife, seeking shelter after her mother’s tragic death.
However, her permanence at the tavern is relatively brief since she rescues one of the criminals his cronies wanted to hang.
Escaping the gang across the sea, they return to shore and then go to the judge’s house in search of help.
Indeed, the criminal is actually an undercover officer the Navy has sent to investigate those many shipwrecks with no survivors.
So the judge must eliminate any evidence leading to him deceiving both the criminals and the officer so he can flee to France and start a new life.
But before his escape, he convinces his men to carry out one last rich heist by attacking a ship loaded with gold passing near the coast that same night.
Lots of criticism, yet lots of entertainment
According to a widespread opinion, this would supposedly be one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s worst movies.
The director himself admitted several times that the final result never excited him since he had several problems with the flamboyant Charles Laughton, also one of the producers.
However, we are far from the need to throw it in the trash because we have an excellent crime drama with a wonderful horror atmosphere on our hands.
For example, the arrival of young Maureen O’Hara, in her cinematic debut, aboard the horse-drawn carriage whose drivers are terrified is very similar to the beginning of Bram Stoker‘s famous Dracula.
Moreover, for being a 1939 movie, the violence in some scenes was remarkable and bravely defied the strict censorship of the time.
Just think of the cruel shipwreck of the initial ship, where the survivors look hopefully at the men on the beach, who then mercilessly slaughter them.
We don’t see much of Alfred Hitchcock‘s creative imprint, which is why he complained most.
However, the story’s pacing and tension building are always impeccable, flowing smoothly in an editing that wastes no time in unnecessary scenes and hits the mark directly.
Moreover, despite the criticism it received and the director’s skepticism, Jamaica Inn was one of the most successful movies in theaters during 1939.
This adventure still catches on because of its dirty, villainous setting and characters, effective humor, and compelling narrative that escalates to the perfect tragic-comic epilogue.
Outstanding black-and-white cinematography retains its charm to this day, as do so many of that period’s movies, creating a striking black fairy tale atmosphere.
In short, it may be everything you want it to be, yet indeed not a stain on the suspense master’s career.
The tough criminal faces from Cornwall
Another criticism was to make Charles Laughton‘s character a judge when he was a pastor in the original book.
The choice wants to avoid problems with the period’s religious community; nevertheless, the great actor embodies a graceful, evil villain in the best tradition of Alfred Hitchcock movies.
His performance obliterates the rest of the cast, yet his charming madness is undoubtedly the story’s greatest strength.
As mentioned, this is the first time we see the beautiful Maureen O’Hara, who we will find again with Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame the same year.
She is definitely the innocent character in the story but brave enough to fight alone against an entire town full of criminals.
To help her, she will find Robert Newton, who appears as just one of many criminals but later emerges as the hero and main antagonist of the vicious judge.
Among the whole gang of ship looters, the best is the leader, played by Leslie Banks, who is the first to welcome the beautiful girl who arrives at the tavern.
During this adventure, we will positively see his evolution, although he is undoubtedly a negative, dirty and vulgar character.
Likewise, we shall see the evolution of the woman he loves but does not hesitate to mistreat; she has the face of actress Marie Ney bringing tiresome suffering with her performance.
This ambiguous relationship could have been better deepened, although they both participate in a theatrical and romantic scene in the end.
To sum up, Jamaica Inn is a movie that delighted the audience but not the critics in 1939, dividing opinion but certainly giving satisfaction to the producers.
The plot is quite simple, but the entire cast’s solid direction and outstanding talent never disappoint, staying worthy of being in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography.