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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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas