Smugglers and Madmen in Cornwall’s “Jamaica Inn” (1939) by Alfred Hitchcock

Jamaica Inn is well-known as Hitchcock’s last British work, for soon after he moved to Hollywood. Also, this film is generally considered the least well directed film by the Master of Suspence – as also stated by Hitchcock himself. But would Hitchcock have succeeded in his following film Rebecca, made in USA, if he had not previously worked onJamaica Inn? And does this film really deserve to be considered Hitchcock’s least representative work?

I got the chance to watch Jamaica Inn thanks to the monthly offer of “Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fuori Sala”, a platform made in Bologna to supply the lack of cinema – especially of “good” cinema – of this pandemic year. As usual, the film is opened by a short introduction, which in this case is made by Paolo Meneghetti. Here we understand already that there are some very interesting facts and aspects surrounding Jamaica Inn: first, the long-lived friendship and professional understanding between Hitchcock and the main star of the film, Charles Laughton; then, the film is coproduced precisely by Laughton and by German Eric Pommer; finally, this might not be a gem compared to other Hitchcockian works but, for instance, it testifies of the director’s skilfulness with the camera.

Scene of the film. . The smugglers find out where the fugitives are hidden

As for my experience, the interest of this film starts with its setting and with the peculiar use that Hitchcock does of the landscape: The Jamaica Inn is set along the cliffs of Cornwall (“Jamaica” and “Cornwall” resulting almost in a sort of geographical oxymoron), which is the main destination of many important oversea and local shipments. The area is also well-known for violent storms, that ship achieve to avoid only if a lighthouse guides them.

As we learn at the beginning of the film, a group of smugglers regularly assaults some of these shipments with a very sophisticated strategy, doable only at nights: by hiding the light of the main lighthouse up on the cliff, they lead the shipments to shipwreck, wait until the crew members reach the shore, then kill them all, and steal everything from the ships, undisturbed and covered by the darkness and the sound of the ocean. A large part of the action of the film takes place precisely along the cliffs and the seaside, to the point that the landscape seems to be a dynamic actor itself: the same sea and cliffs that cause the misfortune of the shipments, in fact, is used by the smugglers for their thefts and, at the same time, also gain the positive connotation of protection and hiding place.

It must be said that the setting of Cornwall does not come entirely from Hitchcock. Jamaica Inn, in fact, is the first of three Hitchcockian films set in that same location and adapted from the same writer, English novelist Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (1940), first USA-Project of Hitchcock, for which he specifically had to look for a shooting place similar to Cornwall in the USA; and The Birds (1963), more than 20 years later, which testifies of his affection for the Cornwallian novels by Maurier.

In a list of the Guardian of 2015, Rebecca is mentioned in the top 10. But the Gothic atmosphere of Jamaica Inn is not least effective, and maybe Hitchcock would not have been able to convey it so well, if he hadn’t got acquainted with it in his previous work. The movements of the camera and of the setting are, indeed, the highlights of the film.

Scene of film. Mary finally captured by Sir. Humphrey.

The main argument advanced by the critics of Jamaica Inn is that Laughton was too independent to be directed by Hitchcock and, despite their will to work together, the result was not good, for Laughton had his personal view of his character, and was not willing, or not able, to change it. On the other side, Hitchcock could not express himself totally also, but not only, because of the imminent moving to the USA. Personally, I did not find Laughton’s performance deceiving: he calibrates his degree of madness very accurately, for one suspect it from the very beginning, and is able to follow his path towards perdition in a very captivating way. The most fascinating message he achieves to deliver is that madness can be contained – it does not have to explode nor to exceed to be such. Nevertheless, there is one scene where, indeed, the lack of directing is tangible. When it is finally revealed who is responsible for all the assaults, this is barely stressed, to the point that we doubt if the truth was indeed revealed or not. This might be in line with the “content” I just mentioned, but still, one misses the surprise. After cumulating such suspense, one would indeed expect more satisfaction from “the moment of the truth”.

Still, Jamaica Inn, with its communicative landscapes, introspective deepness and twists, is hard to be labelled as un unsuccess. Between smugglers, which remind of those of Die Dreigroschenoper by Pabst, the “gentleman” and eccentric main character, which seems to pre-echo Orson Welles’ performances, and the main strong female character of Mary, interpreted by Maureen O’Hara and extremely expressive in her close-ups, Jamaica Inn is full of interesting insights. A very pleasant discovery that leaves you with a strange sense of melancholy.

After all, as stated by Sir. Humphrey, “The age of chivalry is gone”.

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