This film is even more disgusting than Psycho. Disgust. Fear. Anxiety. Moral ambiguity.
This is what made Hitchcock great. Like Dostoyevsky, Hitchcock brought to life those personages who were between good and evil.
In the words of Henry Miller, “They were alive and they spoke to me.”
Authors. Real authors. Blood and guts authors. Authors who left everything on the page. Every shred of emotion.
Samuel Fuller would have been proud of such authors.
We must remember Fuller’s cameo from Pierrot le Fou. His words are instructive:
“Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . . emotion.”
And though Hitchcock was perhaps the greatest film auteur to ever live, we must not neglect the source material.
Though auteur theory would argue otherwise, it was indeed Daphne du Maurier who concocted this perfect story.
And, as another affront to the politique des auteurs, we must acknowledge that this film would be far less powerful were it not for the all-world talents of actors Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.
For those wishing a parallel to Ian Fleming’s Dr. No (set in Jamaica), this film has absolutely nothing to do with Jamaica.
Jamaica Inn is merely the name of the roadside lodging in this period piece set in 1819 Cornwall.
But like a good James Bond film, a believable villain makes all the difference in sustaining the dramatic tension.
Laughton is just that villain.
Though Jamaica Inn is not as powerful and iconic as Hitchcock’s The Birds, it is (in my opinion) a strong competitor against his film Rebecca. And why focus on these three films exclusively? Because they were all from du Maurier stories.
What is more, I would argue that Jamaica Inn is every bit as good as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Why that comparison? Because it featured the same duo (in the same year): Laughton and O’Hara.
As for O’Hara, this was for all practical purposes her true film debut (in a starring role while assuming the screen name with which she would become famous). For all of my effusive praising of Saoirse Ronan, it should be noted that Maureen O’Hara was a sort of Irish prototype for the panache Ronan would bring to the screen these many years later.
But nothing tops Laughton here. Hitchcock was still honing his skills towards a mature style. Laughton creates a character both laughable and hideous. It is not the visceral aversion of the Hunchback, but rather an elite, condescending, corrupt local squire (and justice of the peace). Laughton is the law. He relishes his position as he savors his victuals.
Life and simulation. In real life, Laughton fought for O’Hara…insisting she be given the lead role (and her first, as noted earlier).
It should be noted that past critics have eviscerated this film. Let it be noted that their pretensions are largely unfounded.