Blu-ray Review: Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (75th Anniversary Edition)

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Cohen Film Collection and the British Film Institute have achieved truly astonishing results with their restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s oft-overlooked 1939 film Jamaica Inn. Hitchcock fans familiar with this film only as a bargain basement release (i.e. LaserLight,etc) now have the opportunity to see a rock-steady image with correct contrast levels, no scratches or debris, and remarkable overall clarity. While Jamaica Inn is generally considered “lesser” Hitchcock (film critic Michael Medved included this in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time), when it comes to the Master of Suspense there will always be people who want everything. Three-quarters of a century melt away, leaving a presentation that could probably only be rivaled by travelling back to 1939 to screen an original release print.

As for the film itself, I happen to love Jamaica Inn. It’s a fascinating oddball of an effort, certainly one of the least typically Hitchcockian films in the Master’s grand filmography. There are plenty of stories about Hitchcock’s own displeasure with the film and the control wielded by star and co-producer Charles Laughton (detailed in this edition’s special features). It was the last British production helmed by Hitchcock before going Hollywood the following year with the Best Picture-winning Rebecca. Both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are based on novels by Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca has the far better reputation, but Jamaica is arguably the more flat-out entertaining film.

In the dramatic opening, we’re introduced to an absolutely savage gang of marauders who hole up in the titular inn off the coast of Cornwall. They snuff out lighthouse beacons so approaching ships crash on the rocky coast, then they proceed to loot the ships and murder the remaining crew. The nasty group is led by the outwardly upstanding Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). The operation is thrown into disarray by the unexpected arrival of young Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara; very young and new to the film industry). Mary’s mother has died and she’s come to Jamaica Inn to stay with her aunt Patience (Marie Ney) and rather lecherous uncle Joss (Leslie Banks). Everyone has warned her against visiting the inn, but Mary insists.

When Jem Traherne (Robert Newton) is accused by his fellow gang members as being a dishonorable thief, his rather harsh penalty is death by hanging. An intriguing chain of events is set off as Mary manages to rescue him from the rope before it chokes the life out of him. They’re unaware of Pengallan’s true motives, believing him to be an upstanding town official, and trust him with vital information. While O’Hara isn’t given much of a character to play, Laughton digs in with fork-and-knife to chew every bit of scenery available. It’s an outsize performance, one with which Hitchcock was apparently extremely displeased. But Laughton’s flamboyance is fun to watch and provides a nearly campy kick to Jamaica Inn.

There seems to be something of a disconnect in tone as the story progresses, from the near-impressionistic horror overtones of the opening act, to the vaguely comic touches added by Laughton’s hamminess, to snatches of recognizable Hitchcockian suspense elements. Maybe it’s a bit of a hash, but it’s never less than entertaining and the story holds some neat surprises.

In addition to the gorgeous 4K restoration, Cohen Film Collection’s 75th anniversary edition Blu-ray boasts a fully restored LPCM mono soundtrack. Film historian Jeremy Arnold contributes an audio commentary, while Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto hosts a new 13-minute video essay, “Shipwrecked in a Studio.” There’s also a newly produced re-release trailer for the restored Jamaica Inn.

Jamaica Inn Cover (268x380).jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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