Wednesday, August 10, 2005

No Room at the Inn

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.

7 comments:

Exiled in NJ said...

Wonderful essay, well-worth the wait! Sometimes when I see Laughton in a larger than life role, God forgive me, I am reminded of another round face comic actor who would take over every scene, Zero M. With Mostel I think it was the ham in him; with Laughton I believe he had so much technique to burn that it was a pity if he did not use it. I would love to hear your ideas on Henry VIII. Despite the awful print I have, I love that film.

Your thoughts on adaptations at that time are so true. I have a very hard time accepting what Selznick & Hitch did to duMaurier's Rebecca, making Mrs. Danvers something out of Disney's Snow White. duMaurier was quite specific in the scene where Max, Favell and Colonel Julyan examine Rebecca's appointment book in front of Danvers. The latter is amazed to learn R kept secrets from her....this sublety helps explain why the fire at Manderley was not an auto de fe in the book. But witches in 1940 had to perish in flames on film.

Campaspe said...

Technique to burn -- perfect phrase for Laughton. I love the Korda film, too. Such a range Laughton shows in that movie, from broad farce to the agony he suffers when he executes Catherine Howard. Have you seen his repeat cameo as Henry VIII, in Young Bess? He walks away with his scenes, of course.

I think the Hayes office forced a lot of changes to novels that even the producers didn't want.

SPOILER ALERT, FOR "REBECCA" Selznick fought the censors over having to change the end of Rebecca. He fumed that "The whole story of Rebecca is the story of a man who has murdered his wife, and now it becomes the story of a man who buries a wife who was killed accidentally."

END SPOILER

Hitchcock had less respect for source material than Selznick, writing memos about whether they should make the nameless heroine more "attractive and amusing," and by the way, how about showing Rebecca to the audience? Selznick nixed both ideas. Du Maurier, not surprisingly, HATED Jamaica Inn but I assume she was much more satisfied with Rebecca.

Lance Mannion said...

Robert Newton played the good guy? Long John Silver and Bill Sikes as the hero? I've got to see this movie just for that.

Thing is, C., you've made me want to read the book more.

Campaspe said...

I think he was a better villain. That was a bit of a spoiler, I should have thought before I wrote it, though I think most moviegoers will realize Newton's a good guy early on. My apologies!

Exiled in NJ said...

Thanks for the information on Selznick. I should not have slammed him, though in another matter, he had an amazing blind spot for the comedic talent of his Jennifer, lending her out for "Cluny Brown" and later "Beat the Devil".

Included in this link is a lengthy piece I wrote on duMaurier's Rebecca for on online Mystery Newsletter. It is pretty windy, but I think it demonstrates what the film misses [besides the murder angle]
http://mem.writing.com/main/books/entry_id/258303/action/view

Campaspe said...

Oh no problem, dump on Selznick all you want! LOL! I read his first wife's autobiography (A Private View, Irene Mayer Selznick) and you couldn't possibly dump any more than she did. He was some character.

I will definitely read this link.

Karen said...

Well, Siren, I have finally seen this film, and I cannot BELIEVE you didn't mention Laughton's EYEBROWS. Dear lord in heaven. I'm reminded of an interview with the Sopranos cast, in which Little Steven says that, for Silvie, "The wig does all the acting."

Oh my lord, those eyebrows!!!

THe film is absolutely unwatchable, I thought; completely incoherent. I remembered that you had written about this film but didn't come back to read it until after I finished watching it. I just couldn't believe it was a Hitchcock film, and felt that he must have had no interest in the story--it was gratifying to have that suspicion confirmed.