Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Jamaica Inn (1939)

by Brent Reid
  • All at sea: before sailing to the states, the Master turned to piracy for his last British film
  • He directed Daphne du Maurier’s torrid tale of intrigue, romance, treachery and murder
  • But star Charles Laughton often took hold of the reins, making it as much his own film
  • Still an underrated adventure yarn that’s hugely enjoyable if you ignore the Hitchcock snobs
  • Naysayers’ opinions are mostly based on the multitude of poor quality, incomplete bootlegs
  • They’ve unfairly sullied its reputation; the same is true of many great British Hitchcocks

Note: this is part of an ongoing series of 150-odd Hitchcock articles; any dead links are to those not yet published. Subscribe to the email list to be notified when new ones appear.

Jamaica Inn Part 1: Overview | 2: Production | 3: Production continued4: Home video releases | 5: Remakes

Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US lobby card

US lobby card



Time for a showdown: Charles Laughton and a terrified Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Time for a showdown: psychopathic Charles Laughton and a terrified Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn – Life, Jan 27, 1939

Well, here’s one to divide the fans, as this is the classic example of a Hitchcock they seem to either love or… much less than love. But I don’t get the curmudgeonly naysayers who are wont to deride Jamaica Inn and its ilk as “lesser” Hitchcocks, as if the Master somehow let them down or deliberately had an off day. Not everything he did has to be a multilayered pseudo-psychological treatise like Vertigo or Psycho, capable of providing fuel for a thousand academic papers. Do we describe every painting of Michelangelo’s that isn’t the Sistine Chapel ceiling as a “lesser” work?

This film has many merits, including a pitch-black, rip-roaring story and a young, radiant Maureen O’Hara acquitting herself very well at the outset of her career. Plus, anything with Leslie Banks, who earlier starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much, gets my vote. I came to much of Hitch’s oeuvre regrettably late in life, and some in particular I dearly wish I had known since a lot younger. The 39 Steps, for instance; definitely Jamaica Inn for another. It’s perfect boys’ (and girls’) own Saturday matinée fare but with more bite than most and the eight-year-old me would have lapped it up at the local flea pit.

For years, Jamaica Inn was only available in poor quality edited versions but that changed with Kino Lorber’s 1997 US LaserDisc, the first complete and fully authorised edition available anywhere. Here’s its exclusive sleeve essay:

Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn received mixed critical notices when first released in 1939, but the public loved it. It was a box office hit, revived theatrically several times. As is often the case, the public was right. With Kino on Video’s release of the film on LaserDisc, today’s audiences can finally judge for themselves the worth of Hitchcock’s last prewar picture in England, made shortly before his departure for Hollywood, underrated, neglected and unavailable until now, except in grainy editions.

The [Jamaica Inn] project originated as a vehicle for one of the screen’s greatest actors, Charles Laughton, a brilliant performer with an astonishing range. His versatility has bequeathed us a legacy of indelible screen portrayals; the mad emperor of Nero in Cecil B. De Mille’s The Sign of the Cross, the lusty Henry VIII in the film for which he received Best Actor Oscar, the title role of Ruggles of Red Gap, a delicate balance of comedy and seriousness, the autocratic Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), the touching figure of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and his two magnificent performances for Hitchcock—as the villainous squire in Jamaica Inn, and a few years later, the lecherous judge in The Paradine Case.

Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US 1949 re-release lobby card

US 1949 re-release lobby card

In Jamaica Inn, a great director was working with a great actor. No motion picture director has been more highly praised or considered more influential than Hitchcock, the word “genius” keeps pepping up in descriptions of Laughton’s work. In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester quotes Hitchcock as saying, “Charles was always an artist and a genius.” Dirk Bogarde, commenting on his work in I, Claudius, noted: “Laughton here proves that he was kissed with genius.”

Director and star had known each other since the 1920s and had often talked of making a movie together, but it never jelled until Laughton’s production company bought the rights to Daphne Du Maurier’s best selling novel and brought in Hitchcock to helm it.

Jamaica Inn was ideal material for Hitchcock. Du Maurier’s book is suspenseful melodrama with the salty flavor of England’s Cornish coast, set around 1820, a lawless era. The action centers on a gang of murderous land pirates who lure ships to their ruin on the reefs for the sake of plunder. A young Irish orphan girl arrives to stay of the inn with her aunt and discovers that is the headquarters of the pirate band. The role was played by Maureen O’Hara, a discovery of Laughton’s, just turned eighteen and fresh from Dublin, a gorgeous and spirited Colleen. They would be reteamed in Hollywood on their next picture, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and O’Hara would go on to Technicolor stardom in America, playing the lead in many John Ford pictures, often opposite John Wayne.

More than one commentator has found it likely that Hitchcock was drawn to Jamaica Inn by an identification between himself and Squire Pengallen, the character played by Laughton, a man whose romanticism is trapped within a heavy and unattractive frame, and pointed out affinities between director and star. In Hitch: The Life And Times of Alfred Hitchcock, John Russell Taylor notes “They were much of an age, they had their Catholicism, their English middle-class background and their girth in common, and both reportedly shared a passionate taste for classical music.”

In Raymond Durgnat’s book on Hitchcock, the author considers the possibility that the director did indeed project himself onto Laughton’s character in Jamaica Inn. He remarks: “It is tempting to see Sir Humphrey, in his girth as in his quality of director of operations, as an incarnation of the black side of the Hitchcock spirit, unleashed.” And Simon Callow, in his recent authoritative Laughton biography, observes: “Laughton and Hitchcock’s superficial similarities are very striking: two portly sons of Jesuit colleges, not quite gentlemen, sexually complex, and closely involved in their work, with the darker impulses of humanity.”

Indeed, that sexual complexity may be a key to Hitch’s interest in Laughton. The director was heterosexual and apparently monogamous, faithful to his wife during all the years of their marriage, but he was clearly fascinated by the subject of homosexuality. There’s a surprisingly large quantity of gay characters, or characters coded as gay, in his films. Laughton was married to the actress Elsa Lanchester, but basically homosexual. He carried on a number of love affairs with men, with his wife’s knowledge, but not without a good deal of guilt feelings and self laceration. Hitch’s stock in trade in countless films was kinkiness and sexual repression—Laughton’s situation was manifestly one that would pique his curiosity.

Jamaica Inn aka La Taverne de la Jamaïque (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) Belgian poster

Belgian poster

Laughton’s work in Hitchcock’s film has been highly lauded by serious critics. Callow describes it vividly, “Laughton’s performance is fun, and it is quite enterprising. From behind his false nose and false brow, he attempts on eighteenth century feeling, like something out of Fielding, an elegant grossness, gallant and sardonic, and underneath it all, quite mad. There is a flicker of something very nasty in the scene where he attempts to tie up Maureen O’Hara, and when he is cornered there’s a certain grandeur to his defiance. It’s an original and in its strutting, sneering, self-satisfaction, a memorable performance.”

In their book on Hitchcock, the noted French director/critics Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, are also unsparing in their praise of the actor. They state: “The protagonist is admirably played by the innately and inventively prodigious Charles Laughton, in a role actors dream about.”

But in addition to Laughton, there’s much else to admire in the film. The opening shipwreck scenes, quite violent for the period, contain some extraordinary miniatures and special effects. When he had to, Hitch could rival DeMille. The first-rate settings (they’re by the top English art director Tom Morahan who would later design The Paradine Case and Under Capricorn) are influenced by German expressionism, particularly the decor of the inn which starkly conveys the sense of a murky and deranged world. In Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, the author singles out the “look” of the film for high praise, “the design of Jamaica Inn is remarkably inventive, drawing on all the resources of contemporary stagecraft, there are trap doors, winding staircases, oddly beamed rooms and low, swooping ceilings contrasting with the studied elegance, shining marble and wide foyers of Pengallen’s house, but both are locales of moral decay, and the production consistently links them.”

The film contains distinctly Hitchcockian elements, the cat and mouse chase and the motif of the hero (Robert Newton) disguised in order to discover the identity of the villain who turns out to be someone everyone had considered to be a respectable member of the community. Chabrol and Rohmer declare of Jamaica Inn, “This baroque and highly embellished film anticipates Hitch’s later masterpiece Under Capricorn.”

In conclusion, it would be noted that a new generation of critics now seems aware of the film’s excellence. In his recent rave review in Time Out of Kino on Video’s [VHS] release of the film, Eric Myers writes, “Jamaica Inn is a highly effective period suspense melodrama, highly atmospheric. Hitchcock carries it off with vigor, aplomb and breakneck pacing.” – Elliott Stein, US Kino LD (1997) Lddb

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

The Sign of the Cross (1932) US souvenir program rear

US souvenir program rear

A Cecil B. DeMille classic, this struggle between Christian and pagan in ancient Rome thrills on a grand scale. The half-mad Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) delights in burning the city and blaming the fire on the Christians so he can slaughter them. In the midst of this, Rome’s Prefect (Fredric March) has the misfortune to fall in love with a Christian maiden (Elissa Landi) and to be desired by Nero’s powerful Empress (Claudette Colbert), whom he spurns. The stage is thus set for a spectacular enactment of some of the most chilling events of all time. Outstanding are the Emperor, lapping up the agonies of the arena, and the Empress, bathing in asses’ milk. DeMille misses no opportunity for sensationalism. “There was much to give the censor pause.. but DeMille refused to alter a single shot, the publicity department exploited the film’s erotic elements to the hilt, and the public flocked to see the film.” (Cecil B. DeMille, 1973, by Charles Higham) His “bang-them-on-the-head-with-wild-orgies-and-imperiled-virginity style is at its ripest; the film is irresistible.” (Pauline Kael, The New Yorker) – US MCA/Universal VHS (1995)

Ancient Rome comes to life on a grand scale in the epic spectacular The Sign of the Cross from legendary director Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments). In the year 64 AD, the corrupt and maniacal Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) torches the city so he can blame the ensuing destruction on the unsuspecting Christians. Meanwhile, Roman Prefect Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) falls for an innocent and beautiful Christian maiden, Mercia (Elissa Landi). When the seductive and wicked Empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) learns that she has a romantic rival for Marcus’s attentions, she conspires with Nero to send all Christians to a chilling death. Filled with some of the most outrageous and breathtaking scenes ever filmed, including the infamous “milk bath’: this pre-code classic is a dynamic testament to Cecil B. DeMille’s visionary style.
The theatrical re-release in 1944 was heavily edited due to the strict Production Code that had been enforced since 1934. – US Universal DVD

The Pre-code era re-release had cuts to sex and sadism scenes, was newly prefaced by a contemporary, WWII-themed, nine-minute prologue and ran for 118 minutes. All changes were reverted for the complete1994 restoration, which runs for 125 minutes. Here are all official releases:

Caps-a-holic. Bootlegs: Italy (A&R Productions), Spain (LaCasaDelCineParaTodos).

1944 re-release trailer

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) US poster

US poster

Charles Laughton stars in this hilarious tale of Marmaduke Ruggles, a stuffy British butler, traded in a poker game from an English Duke (Roland Young) to a wealthy and rowdy American, Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles). Ruggles’ new home is Red Gap, Washington, where he is introduced by Egbert as “Colonel” Ruggles. The town ladies are quite taken by the sophisticated servant in disguise as he enamors them with fictitious stories of battles gone by. Ruggles proves his newfound patriotism in one of the best scenes of the film, his recitation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the Silver Dollar Saloon. The dream of freedom leads him to open his own restaurant, where one of his first customers is the Duke who has come to reclaim his former servant. Supporting performances by ZaSu Pitts and Mary Boland add to the popularity of this charming, light-hearted classic. – US MCA/Universal LD (1992) LDDb

Bootlegs: US (Nostalgia), Italy (Sinister Film), Spain: (Feel Films), Taiwan (Buddha).

TrailerTCM introsPeter Bogdanovich

Jamaica Inn Part 1: Overview | 2: Production | 3: Production continued4: Home video releases | 5: Remakes

For more detailed specifications of official releases mentioned, check out the ever-useful DVDCompare. This article is regularly updated, so please leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions.

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