Saturday, June 27, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock | Jamaica Inn

strutting the stage of his own imagination
by Douglas Messerli

Sidney Gillat and Joan Harrison (screenplay, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, with dialogue and continuity by Sidney Gillat, J. P. Priestley and Alma Reville), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Jamaica Inn / 1939

Alfred Hitchcock’s
Jamaica Inn is a movie that displays a great deal of potential for proving itself an excellent period piece, with plenty of moody Cornish waves lapping upon the shore, ship wrecks, pirates, a haunting inn within which is trapped a poor abused housewife, and a young beauty, Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara) who has innocently stumbled into this brutal landscape. If only the local wealthy landowner, Sir Humphrey Pengallen (Charles Laughton) had been tethered and kept under the director’s lock and key, Hitchcock’s last English-made film might have turned out quite wonderfully—although it’s clear from the start that Hitchcock was not one little bit comfortable with creating such a period piece.

       But Laughton as the greedy, smooth-speaking, and at-any-moment ready-to-go-mad villain simply cannot control himself nor, quite obviously, be controlled by the director. Decked up with one of the most outrageous set of eyebrows, wig, and embroidered costume Hollywood ever created, Laughton lunges through his role, hardly leaving Hitchcock a moment to establish the mysterious mood of the locally hated Jamaica Inn before his central actor suddenly shows up in one of the inn’s backrooms displaying his evil involvement in events we’ve just witnessed, where Cornish pirates intentionally have lured a ship to its wreck upon the coast before killing all aboard and looting the vessel’s contents.
       If only we, the audience, had had a few moments to assimilate the fact that the lovely colleen, Mary, has suddenly been swept up into the activities of this pirate’s gathering place; and if only Hitchcock might have been allowed the opportunity for a bit of purposeful obfuscation so that we might wonder whether or not the gentle Patience’s (Marie Ney) husband, Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks) was as evil as he first appears, we might have been surprised, and accordingly entertained, by the obvious turn of events. But Laughton keeps insisting on showing up, again and again, stumbling through every possible dramatic encounter so that it’s hard for the others to even to keep up. Within a few seconds the pirates, suspecting someone of plundering their own plunder, pick upon the newest member of their group, Jem Traherne (Robert Newton), and, given that they find actual money on his body, determine to hang him on the gallows of the place.

      Laughton as Pengallen is interested only in money—or, to be more accurate, is so primarily interested in displaying his substantial dramatic chops as a villain interested in only money—that he allows the man’s murder with a wave of his disgusted hand. Somehow, sent off to a bedroom above, Mary gets a eagle’s view of all the actions transpiring below, and with a bread knife somehow manages to cut down the hanging Traherne, saving his life.

     By this time, of course, we realize that all those things that Hitchcock does so well—sweeping up his audience in a confusion regarding innocence and evil, the characters’ inevitable being caught up in the events that are larger than they can comprehend—have been rendered inconsequential. When Traherne and Mary Yellen show up on Pengallen’s doorstep demanding justice, we absolutely know their hopes will soon be dashed. Indeed, events have so quickly whipped up that hardly has Traherne presented his credentials to the corrupt local authority, than Mary is forced to speed off once again to Jamaica Inn to warn her aunt (so quickly in my Netflix tape, that the incidence was, let us hope accidently, cut). It’s hardly surprising and thoroughly unexciting that Pengallen pretends to have himself tied up with Traherne by his the landowner’s unwitting cohorts, only to easily break his binds, and speed off (with the beautiful Mary as his potential “princess”) to a new life in France.
     The movie is now so thoroughly discombobulated that both the loyal Butler (Horace Hodges) and Mary herself are ready to spare the life of the evil Sir Humphrey Pengallen because he is totally mad. Like an amateur melodramatist, the actor seems intent on announcing his evil intentions, again and again, that in actually accomplishing anything.  Indeed, Laughton plays the role so over the top that you truly do believe the man is utterly mad, and his final dive from the ship mast to the landing below seems inevitable.

      Oh, I forgot half of the plot! For a while Mary runs away with Traherne, hiding out in a cave, before she proves she can swim (she’s already established that she’s a wonderful horsewoman); she later saves an incoming ship—the last target of this pirate gang—before being bound and gagged by Pengallen. Even then she secretly unlocks her cabin door and makes a final escape. Quite a gal! Too bad she doesn’t have a movie in which she might have displayed her numerous acting talents! But then nobody had a chance with the operatic Laughton strutting the stage of what was clearly his own imagination. Perhaps we should see this as Laughton’s first attempt at directing, a craft in which he would certainly redeem himself in his marvelous later film, The Night of the Hunter. Perhaps we can forgive him, accordingly—along with the clearly missing English director, Alfred Hitchcock—for this misbegotten romanticized adventure tale.

Los Angeles, June 26, 2015

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