At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

JAMAICA INN (E1 & The Cohen Collection)

By • Jul 10th, 2015 •

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A crudely colorful band of ship-wreckers in Cornwall, England, infest an establishment called Jamaica Inn, rejoicing and bitching after each one of their successful, murderous plunders. Beautiful, righteous Mary (Maureen O’Hara) has been sent to live there with her aunt and uncle but, as in the first act of DRACULA, the coachman is afraid to stop, and she has to make her way back with her luggage courtesy of the gallant, imbalanced Squire Pengallan (Charles Laughton), who is instantly taken with her, never anticipating that she will cause him catastrophic problems.

This is one of the best art-directed films I’ve seen, and it sits on my top 50 list alongside DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, KWAIDON, ONE FROM THE HEART, BLADE RUNNER, GWTW, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE SCARLET EMPRESS, the 1924 THIEF OF BAGDAD, INTOLERANCE, THE DEVILS, FELLINI SATYRICON, METROPOLIS, DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, SNOWPIERCER, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, BLACK NARCISSUS, DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, CITIZEN KANE, SUNSET BOULEVARD, FUNNY FACE, WEST SIDE STORY, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, CAMELOT, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967), OLIVER, THE GODFATHER PART II, ALIEN, BRAZIL, CHILDREN OF THE LOST CITY, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, HOWARD’S END, DICK TRACY, STREET TRASH, etc. And I don’t just accord it such praise for the dreamily unreal look of the Jamaica Inn set and matte paintings, but for the fact that it has been designed and structured so that the Caligari-ish angles and sloping, fairy-tale roofs integrally serve the many twists in the plot.

The difficult thing to deal with in this swift-moving tale is Charles Laughton’s boisterous performance. As one of the producers, he had free reign – meaning director Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t rein him in. His tight wardrobe collars puff up his double chin, he’s got make-up on his nose more distracting than anything Orson Welles ever applied to his snout, he comes across as a preening, egotistical ass, and I mean the actor now, not the role. However, there are times – and sometimes even entire scenes – when his demented characterization actually works, and we get involved in the strange inner and outer world of this grotesque persona.

Laughton mentored Maureen O’Hara, insisting she co-star in the film with him. He was so on the money. This is her premiere starring role, and she’s powerfully beautiful and confident, making an impression that lingers long after the film is done. Laughton made sure she co-starred with him in his next vehicle – as Esmeralda in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

We remember Robert Newton as Long John Silver, unkempt and unattractive. But here, oddly and inescapably, he’s practically a spitting image of Roman Polanski. In particular when he’s nattily dressed in clothes from Squire Pengallan’s wardrobe, he resembles Polanski in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, decked out in similarly formal duds. It’s downright distracting.

Donald Spoto, who I knew from The New School in Manhattan when I was teaching a film history class under his chairmanship, presides over a 13-minute filmed interview about Hitchcock and JAMAICA INN, and he’s good, though he regularly glances down at his notes. Spoto wrote a revealing book about Hitchcock’s dark side, which quietly steered film scholarship in a new direction.

Film critic Jeremy Arnold, supplying the commentary track, is well–prepared but a bit boring. Commentaries are harder to do than you might think. Take it from me, who’s done a few.

The 4K restoration is marvelous. Fallen out of copyright, the film had been duped into an oblivion of degraded images and terrible sound. The Cohen Collection’s treatment restores both sound and image, and forces one to rethink one’s original dire pronouncements about the film’s value. This is one of the important BluRay releases of the year.

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