In honour of the new BBC adaptation, which many saw but few heard, I turned to the film version. This was the first of Alfred Hitchcock's three adaptations of Daphne du Maurier novels: the second being one of my favourite films, Rebecca, and the third being The Birds.
Whilst the BBC version seems to have gone for a Thomas Hardy aesthetic (you think it's grim up north, well that's nothing compared to the grimness here), Hitchcock goes for a Emily Brontë style. The moors out-wuthering Wuthering Heights and that sea is mighty stormy. Everything is very much done to excess in this production; nominally a Hitchcock film but the film's star, Charles Laughton, produced it. Consequently the film lacks that Hitchcockian suspense. Not that it's unsuspenseful but suspenseful in the way that a soapy melodrama is. No blondes or cameos here.
As is the setting for all du Maurier novels, we're in Cornwall- more specifically, Bodmin Moor, where Jamaica Inn is. Poor Irish orphan Mary Yellan (Maureen O'Hara) comes here to stay with her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) but as she gets into Cornwall she soon realises that all the locals are afeared of the Inn. That's 'cause the landlord, creepy Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) runs a smuggling ring. But luckily there's a jolly old aristocrat Sir Humphrey (Charles Laughton), who is raving mad. He won't turn out to be bad, will he? Sorry, he's the head of the murderous pirate gang, though he seems to be running the whole thing just for a bit of a laugh.
A bit of a laugh we certainly get in how the heroine and undercover lawman Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) are completely unsuspiscious of Sir Humphrey's moustache-twirling villainy. Mary seems to be unaware that he's a lechy old goat as well, even when he removes her coat so he can eye her up. Actually all the men are a bit predatory, even her uncle. There's a whole host of vibes going on under there though; looks like Patience should be watching her back. It doesn't really help that in the romantic hero role they cast Newton. Well, the closest thing there is to one here. Casting a matinee idol might have given the film a bit of a boost, turning it into the Gothic romance that the original source seems to be rather than a family fun film about piratey larks. Saying that though, the pirate gang are fun and one of the pirates is very trendy.
O'Hara is nice enough in the heroine role, although she appears to be playing it as a young girl whereas in the BBC version you have a young woman (I don't know the source material so couldn't say which one is most accurate). She's very passive but then it was her first film and it was very hard for anyone in the film to compete with the ridiculous performance of Laughton. It's nice to have a bit of humour but it doesn't really need comic relief, seeing as it's melodramatic fun rather than the grim introspection of the BBC's version. Laughton for some strange reason saw fit to play his role as if he were in a pantomime. His grotesque lechery (particularly in one scene where he binds and gags the heroine) is entertaining but I would have liked them to play off the gothic atmosphere a bit more. Things look very Gothic but you don't get the pay-off, or indeed the romantic pay-off of a bit of swashbuckling.
Nevertheless I liked the film, if only for the reason that it's actually an interesting portrayal of Cornwall. With the land of inbred stereotypes in Straw Dogs, the moving brochure for your retirement resort of choice in Ladies in Lavender or the pseudo-Australian surfer haven in that television classic Echo Beach, it's refreshing to have a portrayal that brings out the mystery and legend of the area. I didn't know that my hometown was 'the lawless corner of England' but it sounds terribly wild and exciting