Hello, Persephoneers! Today’s classic movie pick is a period suspense film directed by the master of suspense films itself. Care to guess? It’s Jamaica Inn, made in 1939 and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It’s based on the novel of the same title by Daphne du Maurier and stars Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, and Robert Newton.
The film opens on the Cornish coast, where a ship is following a beacon to shore. The beacon isn’t the good sign it seems to be, though: A group of smugglers, headquartered at Jamaica Inn, have used a false beacon to lure the ship to its doom on the rocky beach. Once the ship has wrecked, the smugglers kill the crew and take what spoils they can.
On that same night, young Mary Yellen (O’Hara) is on her way to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother’s recent death. The driver refuses to drop her off there, since it’s no place for a young lady, and instead of dropping her off at Jamaica Inn, he drops her off at the house of the local squire. Sir Humphrey Pengellan (Laughton) is extremely wealthy and lives a life of luxury. He is enchanted by Mary, and he offers to conduct her safely to Jamaica Inn himself. When they reach Jamaica Inn, Mary’s uncle Joss Merlyn, one of the lead smugglers, answers the door. He tries to make a pass at Mary, but Mary’s aunt Patience arrives just in time to interrupt his advances. Patience and Joss decide to allow Mary to live at Jamaica Inn.
Joss is amazed that Pengellan himself conducted Mary to the inn, and he confronts the squire — who is also the leader of the smugglers — about it. There is also the matter of the newest member, Traherne (Newton), whom the smugglers suspect of pilfering some of the goods for himself. Even though he protests his innocence, the smugglers decide to hang him. Mary sees him hanging and cuts him down, saving his life. Joss and the gang pursue Mary and Traherne to the beach, where the two hide in a cavern until the next morning. At Mary’s insistence, they go to Pengellan for his assistance. When Traherne reveals to Pengellan that he is an undercover officer assigned to infiltrate the band of smugglers, Pengellan carefully plays both ends against the middle, trying to conceal from both Mary and Traherne that he is the leader of the smugglers and living on their ill-gotten gains. A game of wits and cat-and-mouse ensues to a thrilling — and unexpected — conclusion.
Perhaps the most significant thing about this film is that it was Maureen O’Hara’s debut. O’Hara, who was a protegee of Charles Laughton’s, would later go on to star in such films as How Green Was My Valley and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as films such as McClintock!, The Quiet Man, and The Parent Trap, in which she plays a feisty, stubborn redhead. Mary Yellen is from Ireland in this film, instead of Hereford as she is in the novel, and this allows for O’Hara to portray a strong-willed and determined, if not naïve, heroine. While the writers of the film changed the heroine’s origins to fit O’Hara’s own, it’s also clear that the film was being used as a vehicle to start her career as an actress who played certain types of roles. Those who are fans of her work from the 1950s onward should watch this film, as they’ll see how this set the path for the roles she played later in her career.
It’s also interesting to note that Robert Newton would go on from playing an undercover officer infiltrating a smuggling ring in this film to playing Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island.
Jamaica Inn is available through Netflix’s DVD service.