Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide: Jamaica Inn (1939)

Production

  • All at sea: before sailing to the states, the Master turned to piracy for his last British film
  • Adapted Daphne du Maurier’s torrid tale of intrigue, romance, treachery and murder
  • There have been scores of adaptations over the years but the Master’s was one of the first
  • But it was a troubled production and is frequently analysed for telltale signs in the end result
  • It may be a clash of two styles, director and star, but many are apt to take it far too seriously
  • It’s a dark-hearted, rollicking good boy’s own – or girl’s own – adventure yarn for all ages
  • Gripping tale centres on a band of dastardly wreckers facing off against their most determined adversary yet: a teenage girl

Note: this is one of 100-odd Hitchcock articles coming over the next few months. 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: Production | Part 2: Home video releases | Part 3: Joan Harrison and remakes

Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) US poster

US poster


Contents


Novel

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

US lobby card

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, down at the local flea pit.

Jamaica Inn , set in the early 19th century, is based on Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous 1936 novel, her fourth, and first best-seller. It was inspired by two stays she had in 1930 and 1931 at the real-life Jamaica Inn and the tales she heard of it being a meeting place for smugglers in days of yore, as mentioned in the novel’s foreword:

Jamaica Inn stands today, hospitable and kindly, a temperance house on the twenty-mile road between Bodmin and Launceston.
In the following story of adventure I have pictured it as it might have been over a hundred and twenty years ago; and although existing place-names figure in the pages, the characters and events described are entirely imaginary.

Daphne du Maurier
Boddinick-by-Fowey
October 1935

Well, Jamaica Inn has now served alcohol for many years, following the decline of the temperance movement in the 1930s. Likewise, it no longer sits on the route from Bodmin to Launceston, having long since been sidelined by the juggernaut-friendly A30 motorway. Nor was it ever used as a location for Hitch’s film nor any of the three screen adaptations since. In fact, its only connection to those or any other versions was in originally helping spark du Maurier’s imagination. The most recent new incarnation of her tale came in 2004, when Salisbury Playhouse staged a theatrical dramatisation commissioned from Lisa Evans, since performed at numerous other venues.

The film’s screenplay was written by Sidney Gilliat following his inspired work on The Lady Vanishes, in conjunction with Joan Harrison, with Alma Reville responsible for continuity. Lastly, noted literary all-rounder J. B. Priestley was brought in by his friend, the film’s producer and ostensible star, Charles Laughton (1899–1962), to provide additional dialogue for his character. Seven years earlier, Laughton had starred in The Old Dark House, based on Priestley’s novel Beknighted.

As is usual for Hitch’s adaptations, Jamaica Inn deviates considerably from its source: most of the major characters are comprehensively changed, merged, wholly invented or even disappeared altogether. The novel’s timeline is compressed from several months to two days and perhaps most notably its big reveal is placed at the beginning, rather than saving it for the final act. Further, to accommodate Laughton’s new character of Sir Humphrey Pengallan being placed front and centre, O’Hara, as Mary Yellen, is relegated almost to a support role. Thus, she becomes something of a side player in her own story, for Jamaica Inn the novel is, like Rebecca, both film and novel, really a coming-of-age tale. Both primarily concern orphaned young women thrust headlong into the world of adults and their devious ways, who must then learn to navigate its stormy waters.

All this chopping and changing of the source text, for once much of it against Hitch’s wishes, did little to endear the final product to its author. “Don’t go and see it, it is a wretched affair”, wrote du Maurier to her publisher Victor Gollancz. This in turn led to her being against the idea of Hitch directing the adaptation of her latest bestseller for his first American film. However, in that case, apart from the somewhat compromised ending due to censorship, she loved it. Of course, Rebecca’s blockbuster critical and commercial success, being nominated for 11 Oscars and winning two of them, may have helped… cynical, moi? But Hitch eventually slid back into du Maurier’s bad books more than two decades later when she was less than taken with The Birds, adapted from her 1952 short story.


Production

Robert Newton, Marie Ney, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara and Alfred Hitchcock pose for Lord Baldwin's Fund for Refugees on the set of Jamaica Inn

Robert Newton, Marie Ney, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Alfred Hitchcock break from filming to pose for the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees. The national drive was extremely successful and made a substantial contribution to the Kindertransport, which rescued almost 10,000 mainly Jewish children from 1938-1939.

It’s widely believed that Hitch signed up for this picture to fill time before emigrating to the States, as well as signalling his intent to film Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It was financed by Laughton’s own Mayflower Pictures, created to produce personal star vehicles, and he started asserting control over Hitch from the beginning. Apparently, Laughton only really wanted the famous director in order to get his name on the poster and bums on seats. The production was a famously fraught one for the Master but after they initially clashed numerous times, Hitch quietly decided to just let Laughton have his own way.

This was the third Mayflower Pictures film but despite other announced projects, the company subsequently folded and made no more. Their first was Vessel of Wrath (1938) aka The Beachcomber (US), which is unavailable (apart from US bootleggers Reel Vault’s poor quality DVD-R) but its negative and other nitrate materials, including the original trailer, are safely tucked away in the BFI National Archive, so we may see it released one day. It’s often confused with the 1954 remake, especially since both versions star Robert Newton, who also had a lead role in Jamaica Inn. The remake has just one official release to date, a UK VHS (VCI, 1996), but again there are bootlegs, including a DVD (Firecake Ent) and various home-made DVD-Rs, and on Amazon Prime Video.

Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton in St. Martin's Lane (1938)

Leigh and Laughton, in the Lane

The second Mayflower was St. Martin’s Lane (1938) aka Sidewalks of London (US), written by Clemence Dane who co-authored the novel on which Hitch’s Murder! and Mary are based. It co-starred Rex Harrison and notably Vivien Leigh displaying her dancing talents just prior to hitting the heights in Gone with the Wind. Laughton reprised his role of a kindly busker in a February 12, 1940 episode of Lux Radio Theatre opposite his wife Elsa Lanchester.

The film has expectedly been widely bootlegged, with lo-res DVDs from the US (ArtiflixMedusa), UK (Cornerstone, FilmRise), France (Aventi, reissue), Brazil (Cult Classic), Korea (M&M), and others. Naturally, they pale next to the official releases, all of which bar the first two US DVDs feature an exquisite 2014 digital restoration from the original negative:

Leigh dancing clip

Returning to Jamaica Inn, Charles Laughton, never knowingly understated, devours the scenery with typical gusto and with good reason: his character has to be the most prolific murderer in all Hitchcockdom! As well as having the strangest, most OTT eyebrows; a regular Laughton film trait that I’m not alone in finding very distracting. The film resulting from Laughton and Hitch’s differing methods is a tense blending of styles that perhaps would have worked best had we the opportunity to watch two separate versions based on each man’s vision. But preferably without those Pengallan eyebrows in either, please. The two evidently patched up their differences though, as Laughton later co-starred for Hitch as another dirty old lecher in The Paradine Case, though this time with Hitch firmly in the driving seat. Laughton certainly proved his own directing mettle years later, on famous flop The Night of the Hunter (1955) another film enjoying a late-life renaissance and reappraisal.

Criterion: Three Reasons, Guillermo del Toro Presents | Trailers from Hell: Joe Dante | Modern trailer NYT Critics’ Picks | Charles Laughton Reads11 HD clips

If you’re after Hunter on DVD, avoid all except those listed below which feature UCLA’s stellar restoration and are in widescreen. All previous pre-restoration discs, from MGM, have incorrect 1.33:1 open matte transfers. The BDs and streaming versions are all fine too, though Wild Side in France performed additional improvements on the restoration, making their transfer definitive. But their discs have forced French subtitles so unless you only speak French, a rip and reburn san sous-titres is in order. Just ensure you avoid the bootlegs: a Spanish Llamentol BD-R and any non-MGM DVDs.

Caps-a-holic: BD vs De DVD comparison | DVDClassik review demonstrating superiority of French transfer

Those redundant MGM DVDs are all barebones, bar the trailer, but the restored discs come laden with extras. Chief among them is the 160-minute “Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter” documentary culled by preservationist Robert Gitt from over 80,000 feet (15 hours) of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage donated in 1974 by Lanchester, by then Laughton’s widow. It’s an incredible, near-unparalleled insight into the making of the film and Laughton’s working methods, which were very similar to that other consummate auteur, namesake Charlie Chaplin. Needless to say, it’s absolutely essential and is on the US, UK, French and Japanese releases.

The film’s based on Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, which subsequently spawned a 1991 TV movie starring heart-throb Richard Chamberlain. That version – only released on UK, 20n1 and Dutch DVDs – isn’t half as bad as its reputation suggests but can’t hold a candle to the original.


Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Positively glowing: Maureen O’Hara is resplendent in her first major role

BFI video: Designing for Hitchcock

But Laughton did make at least one fortuitous decision for Jamaica Inn: despite her testing poorly for an earlier film, he recommended 18-year-old, Irish-born Maureen O’Hara for the lead female part of Mary Yellan. Her character’s backstory was altered slightly to accommodate her Irish accent. Prior to that, her only cinematic outings were a bit part and support in a couple of films the previous year, under her real name Maureen FitzSimons. In an interview before the picture opened, Charles Laughton commented, “I told them [other cast members] we must all get behind Maureen and help. If we all tried, we could get her through it some way. Two days later, we were fighting for our scenes. That child was stealing the whole picture from us.” As quoted in Alfred Hitchcock: The Complete Films (2019, 688pp) edited by Paul Duncan, a comprehensive and lavishly illustrated tribute to the Master available in four languages.

Notre-Dame de Paris aka Der Glöckner von Notre Dame (1956) German poster

German poster

Trailers from Hell: Guillermo del Toro

Of course, Laughton was very pleased with his new protégé and immediately whisked O’Hara off to Hollywood to appear opposite him in all-time classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). It was one of the standout releases in Hollywood’s fabled “Greatest Year” and she was now on the way to starring in a string of American classics. By strange coincidence, O’Hara’s strongly rumoured future love interest Anthony Quinn, with whom she made no fewer than six films spanning 1942–1991, starred in the epic 1956 French-Italian remake, Notre-Dame de Paris. A luminous Gina Lollobrigida co-stars and prolific composer Georges Auric provided a vastly underrated score. It was made in French with an alternate English-dubbed version that has one reshot scene and loses a couple of others totalling 10 minutes, to avoid offending delicate American religious sensibilities. Worth noting is that the English dub is largely rewritten from the original French version, rather than being a more or less direct translation. While the basic framework of the story remains, it’s a very different and certainly much less earthy film overall.

There are more bootlegs than kosher discs of this title, including those from Italy (A&R Productions), Germany (Crest, Laser Paradise) Spain (Regia/reissueSuevia) and various eastern Asian efforts. These official releases, along with their subtitle and extra dub options, are the only ones worth your time.

The English version has only been officially  released on a so-so, non-anamorphic US DVD with the theatrical trailer, and on some streaming sites.

Likewise, the original French version has only one English-friendly French DVD that’s barebones but anamorphic. There are two other anamorphic French and German DVDs with extras including a half hour making-of featurette and trailer – but neither are English-friendly.

  • Germany: Studiocanal DVD (2013) – German subs and dub
  • France: Studiocanal DVD (2002) – English, Arabic, French, German subs and A, G dubs

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) Italian poster by Anselmo Ballester

1948 Italian post-war release poster by Anselmo Ballester, creditably styled after late medieval paintings. Original studio publicity materials obscured Quasimodo’s face to build anticipation for the film’s big reveal, as per Lon Chaney’s makeup for The Phantom of the Opera (1925). However, a few belated European poster artists attempted to imagine it without having seen the film, as happened here, but they all got it wrong. Disfigured he may have been but he was definitely not demonic.

Thankfully, it’s a much happier situation with Laughton’s even more magnificent 1939 version: it’s been released on various fine-looking DVDs but avoid slipshod bootlegs from the US (Triad), Italy (DNADynitMikomaro), Spain (ClassicMediaLaCasaDelCineParaTodosVértice Cine), Korea, etc.

However, the beautifully restored transfer is the way to go, as borne out by Caps-a-holic’s BD vs De DVD comparison. It can be had streaming in HD and on Warner’s region 0 BD, identically released in four countries:

More clips1952 re-release trailerUS DVD featuretteTCM intro, #2 | Trailers from Hell: Guillermo del Toro


Leslie Banks and Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Creepy: Joss meets Mary and takes a more than avuncular interest in her

After playing the doting dad who risks everything to save his daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Leslie Banks goes from hero to zero as Joss Merlyn, the brutal leader of Jamaica Inn’s cut-throat band of murderous shipwreckers. When he was in his mid-20s, the left side of his face was left scarred and permanently paralysed from active service in World War I. Ever after, for roles that required him to be a dashing lead, he was mostly filmed from the right; for monstrous characters from the left. In films such as his first credited appearance, The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – the best B movie ever! – it was even alternated to show the duality of his charming yet psychopathic nature. No prizes for guessing which is highlighted in Jamaica Inn. Though already a fairly well-built six-footer, here, as with Laughton, he was amply clad in voluminous padding to make him appear even larger and more menacing. Banks was a brilliant and versatile actor who died relatively young at 61 with so much more to give. Why has no one written his biography yet?

Banks’s injuries also left him with pronounced strabismus; of course, the film’s star, O’Hara, had it naturally occurring to a slight degree. It’s hardly noticeable unless pointed out but is, like fellow redheads Norma Shearer, Deborah Kerr and many other actors before and since, one of the subtleties that makes her looks not just appealing but interesting. Flawed to perfection. The cast also included a whole host of well known British character actors, at least eleven of whom had worked with Hitch before, many on multiple occasions. These included Clare Greet, who went all the way back to his first uncompleted film Number 13 (1922) and beyond, appearing in at least ten that Hitch worked on, more than any other actor.

Jamaica Inn was shot in September and October 1938 at Elstree Studios, London, and on location in Cornwall. The first previews took place in May 1939, with a general theatrical roll-out commencing in October the same year. Although a strong commercial success on its initial release, artistic expectations were so high in the wake of Hitch’s winning streak that critics, though generally positive, had unanimous reservations. The consensus was that while an admittedly good night out, overall it made for a second-tier Hitchcock but a first-tier Laughton film.

Robert Newton and Maureen O'Hara in Jamaica Inn (1939, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Lucky man: following this film, Robert Newton came to be known as the quintessential onscreen buccaneer, playing Long John Silver twice (1950, 1954) and starring in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952). But this time, he’s on the side of the angels.

As I said, Jamaica Inn receives frequent criticism for supposedly being a “lesser Hitchcock”, yet a so-called lesser film from the Master is still better than the very best most directors are capable of. Were this the product of just about any other British filmmaker of the time, it would be hailed as a minor classic – and a jolly (roger) good adventure yarn to boot. On the other hand though, if that was the case it’s extremely unlikely it would have received as many official releases (or bootlegs!) as it has, or an expensive restoration. So enjoy the film on its own terms and appreciate the fact we can now see it looking and sounding far better than at any time since its original release.

Jamaica Inn Part 1: Production | Part 2: Home video releases | Part 3: Joan Harrison and 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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