d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 98 mins.
I think you can break down Alfred Hitchcock's films into six varieties:
1) Cinematic masterpieces everyone sees once and often returns to time and time again (The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Notorious, Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train);
2) Masterpieces or near-masterpieces that deserve the same attention at the first category but perpetually seem stuck behind his more famous productions (Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt);
3) Hugely popular audience successes that have mixed legacies (The Birds);
4) Entertaining but often inaccessible films, perhaps only admired and seen by those in Hitchcock circles (The Wrong Man, Rope, Marnie);
5) Films of low entertainment but innovation, watched only by aficionados interested in the director's complete works (Rich and Strange); and
6) Absolutely dreadful films that are near impossible for even devotees to watch.
Granted, there aren't many in that fifth and final category, but Jamaica Inn – a foundering period piece that ended his formal era of British filmmaking – is certainly one of those. I've commented before on how Hitchcock was one of cinema's most transparent directors. Among his early films, the best ones happen to be the films we know through biographical details that he had the most interest in. This is why, when he took control of his image and career in Hollywood, he seemed to produce so many masterpieces; his interest in Vertigo is palpable through the entire film and it translates well onto the screen.
But when Hitchcock found himself directing a film for which he lacked interest, or because he had nothing else lined up and needed a project to work on, his own distaste with the material drips at twenty-four frames per second. Clearly, Jamaica Inn emits the rushed aura of a man who couldn't wait to finish the movie and move on to America, where David O. Selznick had hired him based on the strengths of such espionage thrillers. Hitchcock was interested in working with material by Daphne du Maurier; he'd been reading the galleys of her newest novel, Rebecca, but balked at paying the optioning price without a producer. Charles Laughton, who had partnered with Erich Pommer to create Mayflower Films, had his hands on another du Maurier work, and somewhere along the way Hitchcock, whose contract with Gaumont had expired and whose dealings with Selznick had yet to be finalized, agreed to direct Jamaica Inn. (Biographer Patrick McGilligan writes: "Hitchcock didn't care a fig about Jamaica Inn; he had agreed to direct it largely out of desperation.")
The results are unpleasing. Nearly all of Hitchcock's forays into the Victorian past proved disastrous (he was much better suited to produce films that had a contemporary feel). As far as period pieces go, however, Jamaica Inn makes Hitchcock's Under Capricorn look like Gone With The Wind. This is not just a bad movie for Hitchcock, but a bad movie all around. Maureen O'Hara (actually quite good here, regardless of her poor surrounding environment) stars in her debut role as a young woman gone to live with her relatives, who are the caretakers of a seaside inn where pirates and thieves cycle through. Of course, our young heroine is captivated by the thievery and ignores her aunt and uncle's pleas to stay out of the way of the criminals. Laughton oozes buffoonry as a local justice of the peace whose role in the goings-on may not be as honest and straightforward as the audience assumes. (His notoriously large ego led him to ram horns with Hitchcock, who reportedly thought fondly of Laughton before they worked together.)
It's a nearly impossible film to get through, even for a Hitchcock completist. Daphne du Maurier also hated it, so much that she briefly considered pulling back on the permission for Hitchcock to film Rebecca. Fortunately for her (and us), he never made another film this bad.
12 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 98 mins.