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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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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady

“You know how in postproduction you are supposed to color-correct the picture so everything is smooth and even? Jean-Luc wants the opposite. He wants the rupture. Color and then black and white, or different intensities of color. Or how in this film, sometimes you see the ratio of the frame change after the image begins. That happens when he records from his TV onto his old DVCAM analog machine, which is so old we can’t even find parts when it needs to be repaired. The TV takes time to recognize and adjust to the format on the DVD or the Blu-ray. Whether it’s 1:33 or 1:85. And one of the TVs he uses is slower than the other. He wants to keep all that. I could correct it, but he doesn’t want me to. See, here’s an image from War and Peace. He did the overlays of color—red, white, and blue—using an old analog video effects machine. That’s why you have the blur. When I tried to redo it in digital, I couldn’t. The edges were too sharp. And why the image jitters—I don’t know how he did that. Playing with the cable maybe. Handmade. He wants to see that. It’s a gift from his old machine.”
~ Fabrice Aragno