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BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May/1939) - Jamaica Inn

(c) BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (May/1939 - Volume 6, Number 65)

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Period melodrama of wrecking, smuggling and murder, set on the Cornish coast, and adapted from the best-seller of the same name by Daphne du Maurier. Joss Merlyn, proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, runs a gang of cut-throats who kill all survivors from the ships they wreck. To Cornwall comes Mary Yellen, orphan niece of Joss's wife Patience. The coach-driver refuses to stop at the Inn on account of its sinister reputation. Mary seeks help. Her beauty appeals to Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the Squire, and he takes her to her aunt. She arrives at a critical moment. The gang is angry at their small share of booty. They become suspicious of Jem, a newcomer, and string him up. Mary cuts him down, and both escape to the Squire's house. The audience by now knows that Sir Humphrey is secretly the leader and organiser of the gang. The irony of the situation is complete when Jem tells him that he is a Government official investigating the cause of numerous wrecks and enlists his help. It is not long before Jem finds out the truth, and it is then a battle of wits between them. Ultimately Mary warns an approaching ship and Joss is shot helping her escape from the wreckers. Sir Humphrey plans to abduct Mary, and kills Patience when she tries to stop him. He gags Mary, and gets her on board a ship at Falmouth. As they are about to sink Jem arrives with the Militia and Sir Humphrey escapes capture by flinging himself to his death from the rigging.

This lurid story of violence and brutality is lavishly staged. Its sinister atmosphere is set in the opening sequence of a wrecking. This is most effectively represented, and the lighting of the night scene is outstandingly good. There are few directorial touches which are characteristically Hitchcock, and on the whole he has sacrificed subtlety to spectacle. The crowd scenes are handled with his usual dexterity. The Jekyll and Hyde role of Squire Pengallan gives Charles Laughton ample scope for a display of virtuosity. His impish humour delights in an exaggeration which comes near caricature. He suggests skilfully the development of an inherent streak of madness in the man's make-up. Sir Humphrey thinks murder of small moment if it supplies him with the money necessary for him to live as a gentleman should. Yet he is kind and considerate to his tenants. The supporting players are nearly all well-known actors and actresses who give of their best. The newcomer, Maureen O'Hara, is charming to look at and has a delightful voice and shows distinct promise as an actress.