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Jamaica Inn (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Jamaica Inn (1939)
35mm, 105 min, black & white
DirectorAlfred Hitchcock
Production CompanyMayflower Pictures
ProducerErich Pommer
CinematographyHarry Stradling
ScreenplaySidney Gilliat
 Joan Harrison
From the novel byDaphne Du Maurier

Cast: Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan); Maureen O'Hara (Mary Yellen); Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn); Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn); Robert Newton (James 'Jem' Trehearne); Horace Hodges (Chadwick)

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A young Irish girl arrives in a Cornish coastal village, and finds herself caught up in a wreckers' plot.

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Since 1936, Alfred Hitchcock had been talking about making a film with the legendary German producer Erich Pommer and actor Charles Laughton. With Hitchcock in discussions with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick about an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca (eventually filmed in 1940), Pommer and Laughton snapped up the rights to du Maurier's earlier Jamaica Inn, and persuaded Hitchcock to come on board. Sidney Gilliat, co-writer with Frank Launder of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1937), was enlisted to adapt the novel.

Du Maurier's novel is a lusty tale of pirates on the Cornish coast, with plenty of Gothic atmosphere, and opportunities for grand set pieces - including two shipwrecks. But the making of Jamaica Inn was not a happy experience for Hitchcock. He was unexcited by the subject of the novel, and was in any case preoccupied with his impending departure for America. Most of all, he found working with Laughton impossible.

Laughton was by then a huge international star - thanks to his success in Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Rembrandt (1936) and in a number of Hollywood films, including Mutiny on the Bounty (US, d. Frank Lloyd, 1935) - and he had an ego to match his status. His obsessive approach to performance had already contributed to the abandonment of two major projects for Alexander Korda's London Films.

Some impression of Laughton's approach can be gained from this story, told by Hitchcock to Fran├žois Truffaut:

When we started the picture, he asked me to show him only in close shots because he hadn't yet figured out the manner of his walk. Ten days later he came in and said, "I've found it." It turned out that his step had been inspired by the beat of a little German waltz.

Laughton's typically larger-than-life performance is spellbinding, but rather overbalances the film, leaving little space for the other players, including an 18 year-old Maureen O'Hara - who would follow Laughton to Hollywood and play Esmerelda to his Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, Willhelm Dieterle, 1939).

Du Maurier hated Hitchcock's film, and considered withholding the rights to Rebecca (which, in the end, she loved). Years later, Hitchcock directed a third du Maurier adaptation, The Birds (US, 1963).

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Arrival (1:54)
2. The conspirators (3:09)
3. Captured (2:01)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)
Hamer, Robert (1911-63)
Hitchcock, Alfred (1899-1980)
Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)
Radford, Basil (1897-1952)
Watson, Wylie (1889-1966)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
Costume Drama
English Hitchcock