Jamaica Inn: Review
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 thriller set amongst the activities of a small group of British pirates around 1800 is responsible for two very important events: it introduced audiences to Maureen O’Hara and brought the master of suspense to the attention of cinema impresario David O. Selznick who was instrumental in bringing the droll British director to American movie screens.
Everyone knows Hitchcock mostly for his films with Hollywood’s biggest stars from the 1950s, among them Dial M for Murder with Grace Kelly, Rear Window with Jimmy Stewart, and North by Northwest with Hitch’s favorite leading man, Cary Grant. What most people don’t realize is that the man famous for his impressive silhouette was already a well-established filmmaker long before he ever left the UK. In fact, Jamaica Inn was Hitchcock’s twenty-ninth film, and the last one he produced before signing up with Selznick Studios where he immediately took up the reigns on his first American smash hit, Rebecca which went on to garner much acclaim and received the Best Picture Oscar of 1940. Not a bad start for someone whom the general American movie-going audience had never heard of before.
O’Hara likewise would become one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood history due to her connection with Hitchcock and her co-star, Charles Laughton. O’Hara began performing in her native country of Ireland while still very young, and by age fourteen she was accepted to the prestigious Abbey Theater where she pursued her dream of classical theater and operatic singing. This course was altered when Laughton saw a screen test of O’Hara and became mesmerized by her beauty, insisting she be cast as his niece in the Hitchcock thriller, and again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Before Jamaica Inn O’Hara had only minor roles in two other films, both virtually unknown today.
The tale itself plays out like an old ghost story opening with a stormy night when a young lady travels by a drawn coach to the Jamaica Inn, which is the home of an aunt she has never met before. The inn is an isolated tavern set atop a seaside cliff located in a desolate part of England full of sketchy characters with mischief on their minds, a place avoided by most travelers. There are a lot of ships carrying valuable cargo that sail along the coast, and oddly enough many of them end up crashing on the rocks below the inn, leaving the remains to be pillaged by highwaymen. O’Hara is the niece who discovers that her uncle is in league with the gang of criminals who have arranged the shipwrecks, and Laughton is the rich nobleman who commands them. The most handsome of the brood (English matinee idol Robert Newton) turns out to be an undercover government agent who joins forces with O’Hara to expose the racketeers.
From the opening moment the film is brimming with intrigue, mystery, adventure and suspense, all the qualities that would become synonymous with Hitchcock. Although he had previous films with the same elements (most notably The 39 Steps), Jamaica Inn and its superb cast, inspired direction, and exceptional production and costume design was the one that would catch the eye of Hollywood and audiences alike, resulting in the launch of two unforgettable careers – one in front of the lens and one behind it.
Though he was nominated 5 times as Best Director by the Academy, 6 times by the Director’s Guild of America, and received 3 nominations from the Cannes Film Festival, Hitchcock never received an award in any competitive category. This is an odd fact that surprises fans and film critics to this day. Watching this (nearly) early example of the master’s work makes you wonder why the hell not?