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Connoisseurs of ripe acting may enjoy this one. Laughton outdoes Laughton as Sir Humphrey Pengallan
on 19 June 2007
If sinking your teeth into over-ripe fruit is one of your pleasures, then Jamaica Inn should be your dish. It features one of the ripest and most ludicrous performances I've ever seen from Charles Laughton as Sir Humphrey Pengallan, and that covers a lot of territory. As the squire who is the full-figured mastermind behind a gang of murderous wreckers on the Cornish coast, Laughton sports the latest dandyish fashions, a false nose, false eyebrows which almost have lives of their own, a carefully coifed comb-over, a piggish over-bite and line readings that would make Bette Davis at her most mannered envious. Close behind in the ripe playing sweepstakes is Robert Newton as Jem Trehearne, law officer and hero, who roles his eyes almost as much as Laughton, and Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn, the leader of the gang and the owner of Jamaica Inn. The only person who manages reasonably well is Maureen O'Hara who plays Mary, the plucky and beautiful niece of Merlyn's wife. Even she is largely confined to earnestly crying out for decency and screaming.
Don't get me wrong. Jamaica Inn is so over-the-top it's a delight to watch, especially when Laughton is chewing the scenery. Hitchcock, making his last movie in England before leaving for the United States, supposedly became so bored during filming that he didn't care what the actors did. The story is a bodice-ripper by Daphne de Maurier; in fact, Maureen O'Hara's bodice gets ripped not once but twice. The time is about 1800. The place is Cornwall on the rocky coast. Jamaica Inn is a stone hulk of a building close by the warning light that shows ships where to avoid the rocks in the stormy seas. Someone with advance knowledge of ships with rich cargos has been blocking the warning light. When the ships founder, wreckers work their way to the ships, slaughter all the sailors and take the cargo. Merlyn and his gang are the heavies, but who is the mastermind? Then young Mary, whose parents have died, shows up late one night at Jamaica Inn's doorstep to be taken in my her aunt, Merlyn's wife. At the same time we learn that the gang has a ringer in its midst, an officer of the law determined to bring justice to Cornwall and identify the mastermind. We also learn (this is no spoiler; we find out very early in the movie) that the mastermind is the effete, mannered Sir Humphrey. It all comes together with madness and murder on the wind, switching from Jamaica Inn and the rain-swept coast to Sir Henry's elegant mansion and his imperious demands. "Listen Merlyn," Sir Humphrey says, "I want money. I know what to do with money when I have it which is why I must have it. Do you understand? I must have it!"
The movie looks great. There are crashing seas, stormy nights and coaches drawn by galloping horses. Jamaica Inn itself has that detailed, threatening look that Hitchcock achieved with the wind mill in Foreign Correspondent. Stone stairways go up and down, nothing fits well, shutters rattle in the wind. The scenery chewing isn't confined to the leads, either. The gang members get their moments, too, especially Emlyn Williams as Harry, an invariably cheery and dirty young man with a knife. The movie rises or falls, however, not on Hitchcock but on Laughton...and Laughton is so ripe he's spellbinding. You have to see him to appreciate his way with these words, spoken to a bound and gagged Mary, "We may be going a long way, you know. Nearer the sun, of course...the Isles of Greece. You're thinking that'll cost money, but I have enough. One must have enough. I always knew that to live like a gentleman, spaciously and with elegance, one must have money...and a few beautiful possessions, of course, like you, my deah." Sir Humphrey's last words bring the movie to a satisfyingly ornate ending: "Make way for Pengallan!"
The movie is in the public domain and there is no good DVD transfer. In addition, some editions have an 8-minute scene missing about 50 minutes into the movie. Look for a run time of approximately 98 minutes.