Where was I? Oh, yes, Charles Laughton.
The Siren suspects a lot of people buy this DVD thinking "Great! a Hitchcock I've never seen!" But Jamaica Inn (1939) is far more Laughton's movie, featuring a performance that makes the other characters shrink toward the edge of the frame whenever he's around. Like diners who know the waiter sees them, but despair of luring him back to their table, actors make vague gestures in Laughton's direction but don't seem to have any real hope of engaging him. Since the cliche about acting being reacting is quite true, I can't label this a great Laughton performance. I do recommend the movie, though, because flawed as it and Laughton are, Jamaica Inn has its good points.
I have read the Daphne DuMaurier novel the film is taken from, and like most adaptations of the period the book has been hacked to pieces. Novel and movie concern a band of wreckers on the Cornwall coast. The gang lures ships with false guiding lights, and when the ships founder, they loot the cargo and kill all survivors. The movie opens with just such a scene, and it offers one of the few moments of real fright in the film. (I especially like playwright/actor Emlyn Williams as the most heartless wrecker in this bad lot.) Maureen O'Hara says the opening and a later shipwreck scene were the only parts Alfred Hitchcock seemed to enjoy shooting. Otherwise, he was phoning it in, waiting to finish the thing and go to America to make his fortune (this was his last movie in Britain).
O'Hara plays Mary Yellan, whose parents have died and who is being sent to live with her aunt. The aunt is married to the sinister proprietor of the titular inn. When we first see Mary, she is in a coach headed for the inn, and this is where the film itself starts to lurch. The coachman, terrified at the mere mention of Jamaica Inn, whips his horses so they race past, tossing Mary around the carriage and delivering her several miles beyond her destination. Fatally, this is played for slapstick laughs, and the mood built up so nicely in the earlier scene shrivels and dies. From here on, very little of DuMaurier's atmosphere and sense of danger is retained.
Mary fetches up instead at Sir Humphrey Pengallan's place. This squire (we learn rapidly) actually leads the wreckers, running this criminal enterprise to maintain his life of luxury. In the novel, the leader is an albino vicar, which reads a lot scarier than it sounds. But it was 1939, there was censorship in Britain as well as the U.S., and an evil mass-murdering clergyman would never make it past the Pecksniffs. So Laughton, who O'Hara says was all for playing an albino vicar, was stuck playing a sinister squire. And play it he did, for all it was worth, apparently working even the redoubtable Hitchcock into a state of "Fine, Charles, do it your way."
Laughton's way creates a monster of the English gentry, convinced that his privilege is divine will, and that his appreciation of the finest objects and food justifies anything he may do to keep up a steady supply. One of the best things about Jamaica Inn is watching Sir Humphrey enjoy his private jokes at others' expense. They're nothing to him, just ants; the squire is another Harry Lime, moved back some generations and up a few rungs on the social ladder. Like Welles, Laughton had a face perfect for conveying sensuous depravity, with that overlarge lower lip doing half the work for him. When Maureen O'Hara walks in, you believe he wants her, but not in bed. O'Hara's beauty makes her another object to be acquired and handled, protected from the peons who won't appreciate her properly.
One reason Laughton overwhelms Jamaica Inn is that the actors he shares the screen with, including Robert Newton as the good guy, can't hold their own. Maybe they didn't have the chops, maybe Laughton's vision of his character never gave them the chance. Despite the fun to be had in watching Laughton, you wish his director had taken enough interest to rein him in a little and build the sense of menace. The suspense doesn't build again until a second shipwreck scene, far later in the movie, and by then it's too late. And Sir Humphrey's last, desperate maneuvers are fantastically over-the-top.
Definitely one for the Laughton fans. Look for his best work in something like Hobson's Choice or Witness for the Prosecution. Think of Jamaica Inn as what might have happened if Captain Bligh had directed Mutiny on the Bounty.