JAMAICA INN. Mayflower Pictures, UK, 1939. Paramount, US, 1939. Charles Laughton (also co-prodcuer), Leslie Banks, Maureen O’Hara, Robert Newton, Marie Ney, Horace Hodge. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Director: Alfred Hitchcock.

   I recently had the chance to watch the 75th Anniversary 4K restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn on the Cohen Media Channel. And you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a lovingly crafted, atmospheric thriller that moves along at a steady clip, immerses you in a cinematic landscape of danger, and propels you into a seedy, sweaty, windswept world filled with thieves and cutthroats.

   Adapted to the big screen from Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous 1936 novel, Jamaica Inn hinges on Charles Laughton’s lead performance as Sir Humphrey Pengallan, a dissolute local official who moonlights as the ringleader of a group of marauders.

   Upon his orders, innkeeper Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks) and his gang of lowlifes deliberately wreck ships off the Cornish coast, then looting the goods aboard and murdering any survivors. It’s apparently a lucrative operation for Pengallan, a bloviating drunkard who has built quite a life for himself in the far southwestern corner of England.

   All that changes when Joss’s niece, Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara in her first major screen role), shows up at the Jamaica Inn. She has come from Ireland and has no place to stay apart from with her aunt. It doesn’t take long for the seemingly innocent Mary to realize that something sinister is afoot.

   After accidentally witnessing Joss and his men’s attempt to hang Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) for betraying their gang, she becomes caught up in a whirlwind of deceit and mortal danger. By her side is Treherane, who turns out to be something more than a mere criminal.

   What makes Jamaica Inn so enjoyable to watch is not merely the exceptional performances from the cast – notably Laughton’s scenery chewing villainy – but also the ways in which Hitchcock utilizes the still nascent medium of film to portray a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. Throughout the movie, one gets the sense of how entrapped all of the characters – heroes and villains – alike feel.

   The heroes know that danger is all around them. The criminals know they know they can only outrun the law for so long. Much as in in Notorious (1946), which I reviewed here, Hitchcock places great emphasis on how various objects – a rope designed for hanging, a knife uses to set someone free from captivity, a musket, a lantern – are integral to the plot.

   It is my understanding – and correct me that I am wrong – that Hitchcock himself later on did not think highly of his film and that the critics at the time were not especially keen on it. But no matter. It remains an elegantly crafted film, subdued in tone, without a lot of fanfare. Kudos to the Cohen Film Collection for restoring this classic. I plan to rewatch it again sometime in the years ahead.