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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Jamaica Inn

Alfred Hitchcock himself would often speak disparagingly in interviews about his 1939 adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn, complaining about the star, Charles Laughton, and about costume films in general (he liked to say that nobody understood how people dressed in that manner went to the bathroom, and indeed, it is a bit of a curiosity if one were in a hurry). Critics, taking his lead, also speak dismissively of the film, but it is actually a very enjoyable effort. Maureen O’Hara, in her first major screen role (one of several where the wind machines are especially favorable to her), plays the orphaned niece of a woman who lives with a smuggler in the titular establishment, an isolated, ramshackle building filled with rooms and nooks, which sits amid the moors on the coast of Cornwall. She comes to the aid of a smuggler who is being hung, played by Robert Newton during a brief but appealing phase of being a dashing heroic lead, and the two must duck the other smugglers and try to prevent them from leading a ship to its doom on the rocky shore. The comically foppish Laughton is the local landowner and de facto law enforcement, which is unhelpful since he is also, as is revealed early in the film, the devious, secret head of the smuggling gang. The film is as full of suspense as any Hitchcock feature, and its dark atmosphere is greatly enhanced by its pre-technological early Nineteenth Century setting. Running 99 minutes, it is a wonderful, evocative thriller, and completely undeserving of the rejection it received by its creator (who quite pointedly did not do one of his cameos in the film).

Having long languished in the public domain, in a theater or on home video, I have never seen a presentation of the movie that looked even half as good as the absolutely gorgeous Cohen Media Group and eOne Entertainment Blu-ray release. The full screen black-and-white image is crisp and spotless, with deep, rich shadows and precisely defined contrasts. The monophonic sound is also relatively clean and strongly delivered. It is entirely possible that viewers treated to this version will find the film a great deal more appealing than those in previous years who have had to look past the speckling and the washed out or overly darkened image to understand the enormous pleasures of the film’s design. There is no captioning. Along with a new trailer, there is a decent 13-minute summary of the film’s history by Donald Spoto, and a more extensive commentary track that covers the same topics with much more detail, by film historian Jeremy Arnold. Arnold goes over the basics of the production, points out its artistry, and discusses the backgrounds of many members of the cast and crew. He also speaks about Du Maurier’s writing, going over the numerous films that were made of her novels. “The majority of her work, including Jamaica Inn, are not love stories, but very dark dramas. The movies tend to be so different from the books, injecting romance where none existed, that they have reshaped Du Maurier’s legacy quite inaccurately.”

As it happens, Acorn Media Group has released a 2014 miniseries version of the Du Maurier tale, also called Jamaica Inn, which Arnold mentions briefly in his commentary. The three 61-minute episodes are fit on a single platter, and there is a ‘Play All’ option. Letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, the color cinematography is gorgeous, even though the show is every bit as dark and shadowy as Hitchcock’s feature. Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew McNulty, Joanne Whalley and Sean Harris star. Having the 3 hours to work with, and free of feature film restrictions (Hitchcock was a great believer in TV for just that reason), the program is a more accurate and thorough adaptation of the Du Maurier novel, but that said, it reinforces what a fine job Hitchcock did in capturing the essence of the story for his film. The miniseries is a much darker work thematically and morally—although Hitchcock’s movie is hardly light, despite its comical touches—and it is the rich complexity with which the ethical conflicts facing the heroine are drawn out, added to the again wonderfully desolate atmosphere that seems to reflect the soul of every character, which makes the story so involving, holding onto the viewer’s curiosity as the fates of the characters seem to descend to a point where, in the best fashion of a well-written story, there appears to be no return.

The stereo sound has a very nice dimensionality and strong tones. There are optional English subtitles, which come in very handy at times, a minute-long montage of publicity photos, 26 minutes of decent cast-and-crew interviews (they never mention the Hitchcock film), and 9 minutes of interesting behind-the-scenes footage.

 

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