JAMAICA INN was Hitchcock’s last film in England and his first of three films based on a Daphne DuMaurier story. His next film would also be from a DuMaurier novel - REBECCA - which would win the Oscar for Best Picture. In doing some research for this entry, I read an article that said REBECCA almost didn’t happen due to JAMAICA INN. It seems DuMaurier - kind of the J.K. Rowling of her time - had seen JAMAICA INN and *hated* it, and was making waves about Hitchcock directing REBECCA.
And she had good reason to hate this film - it took me several viewings to make it all of the way through. It’s a Gothic Melodrama - which probably ends up being the second most common type of Hitchcock movie after Man On The Run Thrillers. That seems odd when you think about it, but so many of Hitchcock’s films end up in that genre: from MARNIE (sort of) UNDER CAPRICORN to SUSPICION to REBECCA. This films are usually about innocent women who come under the spell of men with dark secrets and suspense and drama ensues. On the paperback aisle these books have covers that show a woman in a nightgown running away from a castle or mansion that has the silhouette of a stern looking man in the window. Though these stories can be filled with suspense and intrigue like REBECCA, they can also be over-the-top melodrama like UNDER CAPRICORN. JAMAICA INN fits somewhere between the two, and the film’s major flaw seems not so much Hitchcock’s direction or even the subject matter... but the star.
Nutshell: In 1800 England, young Mary (a hot 18 year old Maureen O’Hara in her very first role) is an orphan sent to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss in a costal village in Cornwall, where Uncle owns a scummy tavern called Jamaica Inn. This place is so rough the stage coach won’t even stop *near* there and dumps Mary and her baggage in front of the Governor’s Mansion. Governor Sir Humphrey (Charles Laughton) offers to escort Mary to Jamaica Inn - a place so dangerous Sir Humphrey’s groom tries to talk him out of it. They ride to the Inn, and Sir Humphrey gets the hell out of there. Mary meets her Uncle (Leslie Banks) and Aunt (Marie Ney) and is shown to her room. Downstairs in the bar, a criminal gang - lead by her Uncle - are arguing over the loot from a bit of piracy. Seems these fellows have an inside man who tells them when ships are passing the rugged coast, and they cover the lighthouse light so that the ships crash into the shore, then steal the cargo and Uncle Joss takes it to his fence. Mary discovers all of this, saves a gang member Trehearne (Robert Newton) from death, Trehearne kidnaps her, she goes to Sir Humphrey for help, and gets kidnaped a couple more times before the film is over. Along the way, she meets a nice guy and some romance blossoms... the end.
We’ll look at the plot details in a few minutes.
Experiment: This is a case of “Be careful what you wish for”. Hitchcock had worked his way up from drawing title cards to directing films, and had managed to direct a string of hits that sold tickets not only in England, but in the world. His 39 STEPS and LADY VANISHES were massive international successes... but both were genre films and looked down upon by some critics. Hitch wasn’t working with top tier stars, he was often working with B level actors in the U.K. Hey, everyone knows who Nova Pilbeam is, right? She’s the *star* of YOUNG AND INNOCENT, the film he made just between LADY VANISHES and SABOTAGE. As soon as someone like Robert Donat became a star, he quit doing genre films (and moved to the America to do dramas like GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS). Hitchcock’s films were successes despite not having big name stars in the leads.
But just as LADY VANISHES resulted in a contract from GONE WITH THE WIND producer David O. Selznick and a ticket to America, it also attracted the attention of Oscar winning movie star Charles Laughton. Finally - a movie star who wanted to work with Hitchcock! Laughton was born in England, had become a star there, and then moved to America where the real money was. In America he was the star of prestige films like MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and LES MISERABLES. Having him in a Hitchcock film guaranteed both box office and critical success - and a chance for Hitchcock to be seen as more than just a genre filmmaker.
But everything has a price, and Laughton was the 300 lb gorilla - instead of JAMAICA INN being a Hitchcock movie, it ended up a Charles Laughton movie... and instead of the story being about an innocent girl sent to live in a den of scum and villainy... it became the story of Sir Humphrey the Governor of the district and his descent into madness (and over acting). I’m sure the reason why DuMaurier hated the film was that it was no longer about the lead character, but about a side character from her book who had now taken center stage. But let’s face it - the lead character of Mary was played by an actress who had never done a film before, and Sir Humphrey was played by an Oscar winner. Who do you think should get more screen time?
In the Hitchcock/Truffaut Book, Hitch has little good to say about Laughton, telling a story about how Laughton refused to be shot from the waist down until he figured out how his character would walk. Other weird elements are Laughton’s *eye brows* which have been shaved and replaced by crazy melodramatic eyebrows about halfway up his forehead. But the biggest problem are all of the endless scenes that feature Laughton but have little to do with the story - there is an additional writer credited and I wonder if Laughton brought in his own pet scribe to beef up his role. The character is supposed to be the villain (oops, spoiler!) but there are a bunch of scenes that show him descending into madness - which allow Laughton to chew through a whole studio full of scenery - so that by the end, instead of being the bad guy... he has a big end scene where we are supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s crazy. Even Mary, who he has tried to kill several times in the story, yells that the police should leave him alone because he doesn’t know what he is doing. They try to make the villain into the victim - and that manages to undermine the whole damned film! But it’s easy to image the Oscar winner Laughton insisting on the rewrite that turns him from bad guy into poor victim... even if it kills the film. Though I am no fan of the auteur theory and believe the *producer* should be in charge (though, maybe not if that producer is Selznick), I think actors are the last people who should be in charge. Most of them are vain and more interested in how many lines they have in the script than what the script is about. And this is a case where that prestigious star who could have turned a Hitchcock film into something critics may have respected ended up killing the film. It’s a great (over) acting showcase for Charles Laughton, but not a great movie. Watchable (it’s not drek like UNDER CAPRICORN) but coming between LADY VANISHES and REBECCA it’s kind of a disappointment. Hitchcock did not leave England on a bang, but on a whimper.
Hitch Appearance: I’ve seen the film several times now, and can not tell you where he is... but he claims he is in there!
Bird Appearance: Seagulls flying over the crashed ship as it is being looted at the beginning, also the woman with the duck on the stage coach.
Hitchcock Stock Company: Basil Radford from LADY VANISHES is one of Laughton’s cronies. Leslie Banks (Joss) was the husband in the original MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (freakin’ great actor... he was also Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). One of the other cronies, George Curzon, is also in MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.
Screenwriting Lessons: Even though this is not a great film, it *does* provide some great lessons. Part of the film’s problem is that it gets so much right that when it goes wrong it ruins everything - like a cigarette put out in a fried egg in a big British breakfast. The film has a great “experiment” in using “bumpers” between scenes, is a model of how to start a screenplay (first ten pages), shows us how to individualize supporting characters, and is a good example of the basic three act structure... and has some nice little suspense scenes.
Opening Scenes: Edgar Allan Poe said, "If the writer's initial sentence isn't effective, then he has failed in his first step," and the same is true with the opening scene of your screenplay. You want your script to hit the ground running and pull the reader, and later the viewer, into the story. JAMAICA INN has a great opening scene. And a great first image...
After the opening credit roll and a brief legend telling us about the treacherous coast of Cornwall, a wave crashes and *washes away the words*. Though this is direction rather than screenwriting, something like this might actually be in the screenplay. After you write the legend (similar to the one that begins STAR WARS) you could write that a wave crashes against the letters and washes them away. That would help illustrate that this is a savage place of action rather than words.
You want your opening pages to set the tone and mood and establish the world of your story in a way that is exciting and involving for the reader (and later viewer). My first experience at the American Film Market was at a screening where all of the buyers in the audience left after the first ten minutes... and every other film I saw at AFM had buyers splitting at about the ten minute mark. By that point they knew if they were going to buy the film (and it would be seen) or not buy it (and it would never hit a screen or video player or TV station). That was decided by the first ten minutes of the film. So if your script takes a while to get started, find a way to get the ball rolling earlier. Often the problem is just starting the story too soon - before anything happens. Start when the story starts.
JAMAICA INN goes from that crashing surf to the Inn itself - a strange German expressionistic building - at night, as a man scurries down the stairs, mounts a horse and rides to the beacon on the coast. The ride is done with a series of quick wipes, like in STAR WARS. Hey, transitions are not our job as screenwriters, but this gives you an idea of how *little* time was spent on the page for his ride. It’s not about riding to the beacon, it’s about what happens next...
Off the coast is a ship, using the beacon to navigate around the treacherous rocks on the coast. There is a great combination of models and real shots here - we see a model ship pitching in the rough waters, and cut to a real ship set where the captain and crew struggle to keep the ship on course. This looks real - it’s difficult at first to tell that models were used. Hitchcock has great model work in his films, and we’ll talk more about that in the YOUNG AND INNOCENT entry. But what the model and real life set combination does here is create some amazing spectacle in the first minute or two of the film. This is not some little story set in a house, this is a huge event!
The rider looks away from the ship, and takes a black cloth and completely covers the beacon! Now there is no way for the ship to navigate around the rocky coast! This is a great moment because it’s not at all what you would expect, and that *intrigues* us. On the page that’s a WTF? moment where you *must* read on to find out why someone would do such a thing. The most important thing to do in your first ten pages is *involve* the reader - all of the car chases and actions scenes and spectacle stuff in the world is meaningless if the reader isn’t pulled into the story. You want them to need to know what happens next.
Back on the ship, they have lost sight of the beacon and believe they are heading *away* from the rocky coast... Then the ship hits the rocks along the coast again and again - smashing and crashing! The mast breaks and comes down! The ship rolls to its side and crashes into the rocky shore. This is *huge* spectacle, and is impressive even today. Again, that combo of model and real ship with real actors allows Hitchcock to show the whole ship slam into the rocks and turn on its side... then cut to *real people* on a *real ship’s deck* (a set) react. Water washes over the damaged ship, and the crew jumps into the water and swims to shore. We are still wondering why that rider would black out the beacon, when...
The crew members make it to shore... and are attacked by armed men. WTF? Now we *really* want to know what is going on. The leader yells for the armed men to make sure there are no survivors. Soon the sea is filled with the floating bodies of dead sailors. Okay - why run a ship into the rocks just to kill the crew? Then we get the answer when the leader, Joss, yells at his gang to get the cargo before the ship is destroyed, and the armed men jump onto the ship and start passing down the cargo, which ends up on a horse drawn wagon. As they are ready to leave, a ship crew member staggers out of the water and Joss has one of his men murder him.
Usually a script will begin with either the protagonist or the antagonist, or the physical conflict. In this case we begin with the antagonist, Joss and his gang of thieves - pirates without a ship.
From here we cut to our protagonist, young Mary, on a stage coach rambling through the darkness of the countryside. She tells the people across from her - a man and a woman with a duck - that she is headed to Jamaica Inn and asks if they know of it. Both are evasive... This shows us that she is a stranger in these parts and naive. Each line of dialogue or action in this scene serves a purpose - it is all establishing her character, but also giving us information about Jamaica Inn. A two-fer! When the coach gets close to Jamaica Inn it *increases speed* and passes the point where Mary should have been dropped off! She yells at the driver that she wanted to get off there - and this shows that she is not a weak woman. She stands up for herself. Even if she is not worldly, she is also not a wimp. The coach stops in front of the Governor’s Mansion and they throw her trunk down and then roar away, leaving her in the darkness.
Creepy Dudes: Part of the Gothic Melodrama genre is the innocent girl in a world of creepy dudes. Mary is an orphan - her father is dead - and she is given two father figures in the story: Sir Humphrey and her Uncle Joss.
When Sir Humphrey is called away from dinner with his cronies by his butler because there is a young woman at the door, he waddles in to meet Mary... and goes into perv mode. He does everything he can to charm and flatter her, and asks for her to remove her coat so that he can get a good look at her. Um, total perv moment. When Mary says she is on her way to Jamaica Inn, he offers to put her up in his mansion. More prevy stuff. She doesn’t seem to notice - not worldly in the ways of men at all. Sir Humphrey insists on going with her to Jamaica Inn. When they arrive, he carefully lowers her trunk and then rides off... leaving her in the darkness in front of the spooky looking building.
She knocks on the door and it’s yanked open by Joss. Now, at this time we only know Joss as the leader of the gang that killed all of the sailors. Since he’s not dressed well, she believes him to be a servant or doorman and orders him to get her Aunt or her Uncle - the owner of the Inn. She has no idea how dangerous this man is. No idea that he is a cold blooded killer. This is a *good* example of audience superiority suspense - we fear for Mary because we know this guy is a killer and she just thinks that he’s a doorman or something, and is ordering him around. Then we get a good twist - he’s not a doorman, he is her Uncle Joss. Her Uncle is the leader of the gang of killers!
Now Uncle Joss shows what a great guy he is by trying to give her a big old incestuous mouth kiss... but Aunt Patience comes downstairs and Joss quickly moves away from Mary and puts his arm around his wife, trying to look innocent and failing miserably. Joss then orders his wife to grab the girl’s trunk or he’ll punch her... see what a nice guy he is! Once Patience is guiding Mary up to her room, Joss goes into the tavern where the gang waits...
Talk about creepy guys! The gang has seen Mary and are discussing who gets to rape her first. They are fighting about their place in the gangbang line when Joss enters the room and tells them to knock it off. The second in command, Harry, always trying to turn the others against Joss; asks why he wants her all to himself when there’s enough for everyone. After a bit more discussion Joss explains that she’s his niece... and one of the gang asks why he didn’t say that in the first place. It’s obvious that Mary is not safe here... there isn’t a single nice guy for miles!
The other pervs in the room are Alfred Hitchcock and *us*. Nudity and the hint of nudity have been part of cinema since the very beginning - and JAMAICA INN has the beautiful 18 year old Maureen O’Hara and isn’t above a bit of titillation. In a scene were Mary must escape the villainous gang she is forced to strip down to her slip and dive into the ocean... and later we get a wet slip clinging to her curves when she comes out of the water. This scene is completely innocent by today’s standards, but I’m sure back in 1939 it was completely pervy.
Bumpers: One of the interesting things done in the film (and probably the screenplay) is the use of a “bumper” between scenes instead of a fade out and fade back in. When we come to the end of a “chapter” instead of a traditional fade out we get a shot of the wooden sign for the Inn blowing in the wind. This is not only a unique way to marry scenes that may not connect to each other, it keeps the story moving forward. Every FADE OUT basically kills the pacing - putting on the brakes and bringing the film to a complete stop for a moment. By using the sign as a “bumper” we do not stop the story at all, we just move to the sign for a moment between chapters and then get back to the story. Because it is *always* the Jamaica Inn sign, we understand that it is an “end chapter” device and not just some random shot of the sign. If you do something like this, find a “bumper” that you can use throughout the screenplay.
Three Act Structure: Though the first screenwriting book was written in 1913 (and my Vintage Screenwriting #1 is from 1920), many folks think the three act structure is some fiendish device invented by Syd Field to sell books and shackle creativity. But the Three Act Structure predates movies by many years, being over 2,400 years old and the observation of that Aristotle dude. It’s kind of a story basic - a tool used to make sure you actually have a story. You can use the tool consciously or subconsciously - as long as in the end your story works. Let’s hear what 6 time Oscar winning screenwriter Billy Wilder (who made his last film years before Syd Field’s book came out) has to say about the three act structure...
Act 1: Introduce the conflict - get the cat up a tree.
Act 2: Escalate the conflict - throw rocks at the cat.
Act 3: Resolve the conflict - get the cat down from the tree.
It’s just that simple. No page numbers, no crazy rules. You have a person with a problem., the problem gets worse, the person solves the problem (or in a tragedy - the problem solves the person... Hamlet dies). Basic stuff.
JAMAICA INN was made when Syd Field was still a teenager, so he obviously had nothing to do with its three act structure, it’s most likely that Aristotle dude again. Whether the writers consciously used the three act structure or just wrote the screenplays and it ends up there subconsciously doesn’t really matter. It’s there, plain as day.
Act One has Mary coming to Jamaica Inn, surrounded by danger. No shortage of creepy guys who want to rape and murder her (in whatever order works) and because the Inn is in a remote area there is no place to run. Though she is not *locked in to the conflict* yet, she is surrounded by it. The conflict has been there from the very first scene.
When the gang in the tavern begins rumbling about not getting much from their haul, Trehearne (Robert Newton - who will also play a pirate later in his career) suggests that maybe the fence isn’t giving them good value. Maybe someone isn’t good at math. This forces Joss to defend his secret boss, and we see just how volatile this group is - several members think *they* should be running it, not Joss... especially second in command Harry (Emlyn Williams) who whistles his contempt for Joss.
But Joss shows why he is the leader in a scene that shows a clever way to introduce each of the gang members. He asks each how long they have been looting with him, and each has a unique way of answering. “Salvation”, the religious member of the gang, “We’ve been lost souls together for two years and seven months.” Dandy, the tattooed member, remembers the woman he was sleeping with, finds the heart tattoo with her name on his chest (filled with heart tattoos with women’s names) and answers “Four years.” Each member has a character related way of answering the question, so we not only get all of the information, but we learn who each character is. Finally it comes to Trehearne, and Joss answers for him: “Mr. Trehearne has been with us the *enormous* time of two months. Eight weeks. Fifty-six days. How’s that for arithmetic?”
The gang focuses on the new guy Trehearne, grabs him, searches his pockets, and finds some coins - proving that he is the thief among thieves. They decide to hang him right there in the tavern!
Mary’s room is above the tavern, and she has heard all of this - now she knows just how much danger she is in. Through a gap in the boards she watches as they grab a rope, make a noose, slip it around Trehearne’s neck... and hang him! One of the basic elements in a thriller is characters who spy on others, whether it’s Jimmy Stewart looking through binoculars in REAR WINDOW or Kyle MacLachlan looking through the slatted closet door in BLUE VELVET. Mary can’t just watch a man die, so she grabs the knife from her dinner plate (when they introduced the knife, you just thought it was for the meal) and pries off a board and cuts the rope - saving Trehearne’s life. But also ending Act One, because now the gang is after *her* as well as Trehearne! This is at the 30 minute point in the film.
Act Two has Mary escaping as the gang scrambles to find her. Outside the Inn (in the darkness) she tries to find a place to hide... can’t... and can hear the gang getting closer. When an arm descends from the roof, grabs her, and hauls her up... just as the gang storms out of the Inn. Trehearne has saved her life (just as she saved his) and they are on the run together. She has gone from being someone on the fringe of danger to the target for danger - and that’s why we are in Act Two. Now Mary is *locked into the conflict*. There are a handful of nice little suspense scenes were Mary and Trehearne must be quiet on the roof while the gang is right below them, one where they hide behind a boulder with the gang on the other side, and then Mary wakes up in a sea cave with Trehearne’s arm around her. Creepy dude alert! She tries to escape, finds a boat tethered outside the cave and unties it... when Trehearne pops up behind her. He drags her back into the cave, tells her she isn’t safe out there... but she thinks she isn’t safe in here with him and goes back out to the boat... which has now floated away. And on the cliffs above, one of the gang members sees the boat and yells for the others!
This is where we get the strip-to-your-slip scene so they can swim away (hiding behind a rock while gang members row past in a boat). Act Two is filled with conflict-conflict-conflict. They go to the Sir Humphrey for help (running from one father figure into the arms of another... and Humphrey is really creepy when she shows up in just a wet slip). And Trehearne and Sir Humphrey go back to Jamaica Inn to capture the gang... but end up captured themselves and tied to chairs where they await their deaths! Mary ends up captured by Joss, who takes her away to loot another ship. This brings us to Act Three, and it’s 100 minutes into the film.
Act Three has Mary grow a pair. She has been running for most of Act Two and now she is going to turn and fight. We get a replay of the opening scene - a gang member blacks out the beacon while the rest wait on the shore to kill the sailors and loot the ship. But this time, Mary is in the wagon. While the gang gets their weapons ready, Mary escapes and races up the cliff, fights the gang member at the beacon and *throws him off a cliff!* Then pulls off the cover so that the ship can see the beacon and steer away.
At the same time, Trehearne escapes and goes to the authorities about the gang. The gang is arrested, but the mastermind has escaped... and Trehearne and Mary team up to go after him... (even though Mary *does* managed to get kidnaped one more time - she is the most kidnaped person in the world!) This leads them to a ship in the harbor that the mastermind plans to escape on. From a production standpoint this is great, because I’m sure it is the exact same ship set they used in the opening scene. They corner the mastermind and we get a conclusion that resolves the problem. Act Three is all about resolving the conflict - and Mary becomes a kick ass heroine instead of the innocent woman surrounded by creepy guys. She and Trehearne are a couple... the end.
See how that works? Introduce the conflict. Escalate the conflict. Resolve the conflict. No page numbers, no formula, just kind of the basic way a story works.
Early Reveals: One of the issues with the film that can probably be traced back to Laughton is the early reveal that he is the villain. Instead of a twist later in the story, the reveal happens at the 23:30 minute mark. It’s a great scene where Uncle Joss goes upstairs to talk to his fence/boss and we do not see the mastermind’s face for a moment... just a roll of fine silk that is being pulled out by someone off screen... who asks for a pair of scissors so that he can cut off his share. That is obviously Laughton’s voice, and he is then revealed. Though this allows Laughton more screen time in Act Two (because we know he is the villain) it also wastes a twist at the end of Act Two when Laughton is revealed to Mary and Trehearne and everyone else as the villain. Though this may create some suspense from “audience superiority” when Mary and Trehearne go to Laughton for help, that is only a couple of scenes before his reveal, which means there isn’t much room for any suspense generated by the “audience superiority” to work. Instead, it kind of makes Mary and Trehearne look stupid.
Hitchcock does the same thing in VERTIGO when he reveals that Judy is actually Madeline - and that is controversial. People (including me) think by revealing the information instead of holding it for a twist, instead of creating impact on the audience it just makes us feel quesy and weird that Jimmy Stewart is making Judy over into Madeline. It’s off-putting. And I think that’s what happens in JAMAICA INN as well - instead of a great twist (which was probably in the novel) we get an entire Act Two where Charles Laughton gets to over-act and we think our leads are morons. When you reveal the information is an artistic choice, and there are times when an early reveal might intensify the suspense... but here it doesn’t serve much purpose at all. You have to weigh the decision and figure out whether your story is better served by and early reveal (and suspense) or a later reveal (and a twist).
Compare this to the later reveal that Trehearne is a policeman - something that really works. For most of Act Two Mary believes that Trehearne is a *criminal* and that she is in danger every moment that she is with him. Though he rescues her (and she rescued him), and protects her from the other cut-throats, he is still *one of them* and she doesn’t believe that she is safe. She spends much of Act Two trying to escape him, and it is only close to the *end* of Act Two when they go to Sir Humphrey’s mansion for help that he reveals himself to be an undercover police officer. At that point she believes that she is safe - and that would be a fine time to have revealed that Sir Humphrey is the villain. But throughout most of Act Two Mary is threatened both by Uncle Joss’s gang *and* by Trehearne who has kidnaped her. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. If Trehearne had been revealed as an undercover cop at the beginning of Act Two, it would have removed the conflict from them being together. She would have been between a rock and a comfy chair. Um, I pick the comfy chair.
Sound Track: Nice big adventurous score by Eric Fenby that fits the scope of the film.
JAMAICA INN isn’t a bad film, but Charles Laughton’s character and performance overshadow everything else making it a movie about a Governor going crazy instead of a movie about an innocent young woman in a world full of criminal cut throats. Laughton just knocks the whole thing out of balance, and you can’t stop looking at those crazy obviously fake eyebrows and wonder what the hell he was thinking. Laughton would later direct his own thriller, one of the best films ever made. But that’s for some other blog called One Friday With Laughton.
The other Fridays With Hitchcock.
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