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Hitchcock's 'Jamaica Inn' Is a Good Film That's Been Sullied by a Bad Print - Until Now

A sparkling new restoration from the British Film Institute, derived from an archival negative, makes the case that Jamaica Inn is much better than its reputation.

Jamaica Inn

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara
Distributor: Cohen Film Collection
Year: 1939
US DVD release date: 2015-05-12

Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn isn't an overlooked masterpiece, but it has been widely and unfairly dismissed for decades for complicated reasons. The film gives a star introduction to Maureen O'Hara (after a couple of minor screen roles) as its young Irish heroine Mary, archetypally beautiful and spunky. O'Hara would embody this persona for the rest of her career.

With great presence of mind and not a little temper, Mary falls among a gang of murderous shipwreckers on the Cornish coast of 1819 when she goes to stay with her put-upon Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) and rascally Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks). When Mary rescues a gang member (Robert Newton) from being hanged, they seek help from the local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton), but they don't know what the viewer knows: Sir Humphrey is the head villain.

The film functions as a series of more or less spectacular setpieces, shot by two great photographers (Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling) amidst Tom Morahan's beautiful sets, and edited by future director Robert Hamer according to Hitchcock's typical precision. Laughton's overripe villainy is splendid and riveting (as usual), and the supporting cast rocks as well, including Emlyn Williams as a particularly vicious cut-throat in would-be natty togs, Horace Hodges as the long-suffering butler, Basil Radford as his patented old-school nitwit, Aubrey Mather as the spooked coachman, and, as the wrecking crew, Wylie Watson, Mervyn Johns, Morland Graham, Edwin Greenwood, and baby-faced Stephen Haggard.

The film differs in many respects from Daphne du Maurier's 1936 novel, and that's why she didn't like it. The alterations were partly necessitated when Paramount said they would refuse to distribute an English movie in the USA if it violated the Production Code by having a clergyman as the villain (as in the book). Other changes were mandated by Laughton, who co-produced with Erich Pommer. Hitchcock felt like a hired hand forced to accept the creative decisions of others, and this didn't endear the project to him. It couldn't have helped his ego that Laughton's instincts proved sound at the box office, but Hitch and du Maurier got their own back with the great success of Hitchcock's next film, Rebecca. He later adapted one more du Maurier story, The Birds.

Hitchcock himself disparaged the film, although he typically considered all his hits "successful" while his flops were "mistakes". In this case, the film's original critical and popular success has been forgotten. The director's fans have tended to dismiss efforts that don't fall into his standard suspense mode (the criminally overlooked Under Capricorn, for example), although one can see many affinities and foreshadowings of other Hitchcock projects here.

The film's bad rap has been aided by having fallen into the public domain, where it has circulated for decades in prints so lousy that this sparkling new version is a physical revelation at least. This restoration played at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Festival, where quite a few viewers must have been pleasantly surprised. To belabor this obvious point, presentation matters in being able to see (and hear) a movie properly, and many a worthwhile film has been obscured by a bad print.

Jeremy Arnold's useful commentary makes the point that Eric Fenby's music (the only film work by this composer associated with Frederick Delius) is heard only at the beginning and the very end, but otherwise the film has no score and we never miss it. He quotes contemporary reviews while observing with surprise how well-received was a film that has been maligned ever since. There's also a brief lecture by Donald Spoto and the 2014 restoration trailer. This 4K restoration is on both Blu-ray and DVD.


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