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Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

8 Jun, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$29.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks.

Nobody much, it seems, liked or likes the big-screen version of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn very much: not the author herself; nor Alfred Hitchcock, whose last pre-Hollywood outing this was; nor critics of the day nor even revisionists. It’s probably only fair, though, to mention one exception: the picture was a huge box office hit (Paramount picked it up for U.S. release, presumably influenced by the stupendous reception afforded the previous year’s The Lady Vanishes).

Within clearly stated limitations, I think the movie’s a lot more fun to watch than its reputation would indicate — even in the cruddy prints that have been around for most of my conscious moviegoing life, and certainly in this new 4K restoration that’s pleasing to watch just on general principles, thank you. One’s appreciation depends not a little on some heavy tolerance for Charles Laughton flaming, which admittedly is something I’ve had since seeing him play Nero in De Mille’s The Sign of the Cross on the late show around the time I entered my teens. There’s about as much facial makeup putty on Chuck’s face in Inn, by the way.

Laughton is cast as the squire/justice of the peace in a wave-happy Cornish coastal village — this because the censors wouldn’t permit showing the source novel’s clergyman equivalent doing anything crooked. (Some great minds were operating in those days; in my home-state Ohio, James Cagney’s 1950 Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye didn’t open until years later because state statute wouldn’t permit any screen cop to be on the take.) Squire Laughton is supposed to be the local force battling local cutthroats who lead ships to their doom on the rocks before plundering their cargo. But, in fact he is — and if you think this a spoiler, you haven’t seen many movies — the smoothie ringleader, a fact slow to dawn on the populace. A much faster learner than the rest is a visiting niece (Maureen O’Hara), whose aunt is married to one of the more obvious perpetrators (Leslie Banks, whose face would strike you as dishonest even if you hadn’t seen him as Count Zaroff the in the famed 1932 version of The Most Dangerous Game).

Captivated in real life by a screen test featuring O’Hara, Laughton signed the stage-experienced teen to an exclusive contract and (as Inn’s co-producer) included her in a package deal for his services to Hitchcock. Her youthful beauty (not that she ever lost much of it) was such that it might have carried her performance all by itself, but the actress also registered a forceful screen personality from the get-go. Immediately thereafter, Laughton took her to Hollywood to play Esmeralda opposite his Quasimodo in the William Dieterle/RKO version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — which, in an odd coincidence, is out this week in its own new Blu-ray from Warner Entertainment.

An element that doesn’t work too well here is the casting of Robert Newton (later Disney’s Long John Silver) as O’Hara’s romantic interest — a pairing tough to imagine even on a desert island, though there’s nothing particularly wrong about his performance in isolation, even if one can hardly call it magnetic. The rest of the supporting cast is made of seasoned pros who specialized in instantly recognizable unwashed types — though as much or more of the amusement here comes from physical trappings: enclosed spaces (caves included), low ceilings, brutal storms, crashing waves and (this is important) fairly clippity-clop pacing. Certainly paling next to Hitchcock’s takes on Du Maurier’s Rebecca and The Birds — to say nothing of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now — it’s not necessarily inferior to Mitchell Leisen’s budget-busting Frenchman’s Creek (whose major league Technicolor I savor) and not horrifically inferior to My Cousin Rachel, on which a seemingly miscast Henry Koster did a very respectable job. Extras here include a commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold (a major contributor to Turner Classic Movies intros) and an overview by Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto that’s kind of a model of its featurette kind.

This almost had-to-be-handsome 4K snack is distributed by Cohen Media, a company I really like not only for the visual quality of its library but for the eclecticism of its programming. Bunuel’s Tristana, Charlie Barnet in Syncopation, The Bronte Sisters, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Never Die — you just never know. If they ended up bringing out the entire Ed Wood oeuvre in 4K, I’d raise an eyebrow but wouldn’t be staggered enough to fall on my behind.

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